Golden Day Forty-Five: Experience the Soul of Sicily in Noto
One of my favorite memories of Italy 2010 was spending time with Renée Restivo in the beautiful baroque town of Noto. Renée is Sicilian-American, and I loved hearing her stories of Sunday dinners at her Aunt Sadie’s in Astoria, Queens–which is where her passion for Sicilian cuisine was born. She went on to work as an assistant at top culinary schools in New York and Italy. Then, while visiting her Sicilian cousins, she became enchanted with Noto and decided to create her own company, Soul of Sicily, here.
Last October, I showed up in Noto and got the chance to sample Soul of Sicily’s cooking classes (delicious and lots of fun) AND pal around with Renée. The locals have taken her in like family, so it was a joy to be by this passionate expert’s side to get an insider’s experience of this magical place.
One of our Golden Days began at Caffe Sicilia (Via Vittorio Emanuele 125). It’s a deceptively simple place, that’s been run by the same family since it opened in 1892. You’ll realize how extraordinary it is once you have a taste of chef Corrado Assenza’s granite (crushed ice drinks), gelato, or pastries. Assenza has been awarded and praised as The International Guru of Pastry, for expertly blending tradition and his own modern genius to create burst-in-your-mouth flavors.
Renée ordered the perfect Noto breakfast for us: almond granita and brioche. AND as Caffe Sicilia is perfectly situated on Noto’s main drag, it’s great for people watching. “It’s one of the most international places in the whole area,” she told me. “There are always visiting journalists or celebrities popping up at Caffe Sicilia.”
It’s lovely to wander around the grand historic center in the morning–slowing down to admire the fanciful baroque buildings. Some of Renée’s favorites include the balconies of the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata, (Via Nicolaci) and the San Domenico church, which art historians say represents the purest expression of the Sicilian baroque style. “The San Domenico is hardly ever open,” she says, “but it’s still amazing to look at from the outside. All the churches have different opening hours–usually you’ll be able to get inside them in the mornings.”
A truly memorable lunch can be had with Enza Terranova, a local signora who rents apartments and also is an excellent home cook. Renée introduced me to Enza’s Holiday In Noto apartments, and I stayed in one of the charming studios for the week. It’s a great location–just off the main grid, in a neighborhood of zig-zaggy-little-vias where the farmers who served the noble families used to live. A real treat was getting invited to Enza’s kitchen to watch her make impanatas–delicious calzone-like treats–stuffed with such combinations as sausage and cauliflower or tomatoes and anchovies–and then to eat lunch in her cozy kitchen, with her son Cesare joining us. Enza’s husband Silio may come home from work for lunch and join in too. What lucky men–to have Enza cook for them EVERY day!
A wonderful afternoon adventure is taking a 15-minute ride outside of town to the Villa Romana del Tellaro. This is a 4th century AD Roman villa that was officially discovered under a farmhouse in 1970. After many years of restoration it opened to the public in 2008. The villa’s major attractions are colorful mosaics that depict scenes from myths, banquets, and hunting parties.
Back in Noto as the sun sets, you may want to go on a sightseeing tour with Corradino, a Noto native who has a tricked-out Ape (little farmer’s truck, that resembles an American golf cart) that he keeps parked in front of the Civic Museum. Corradino doesn’t speak English, but you’ll still get a kick out of him showing you his town, winding his Ape down narrow cobblestoned alleys, and pointing out his friends along the way. By the way, as Renée will tell you, Corradino was the Best Man at Enza’s wedding many years ago! (45 minute tours are 30euros a couple, 328-9731647)
For an apertivo or gelato, head to Corrado Costanzo (Via Silvio Spaventa 9)–a caffe beloved by the locals, that’s deservedly famous for its gelato and granite, and a great place for the classic Sicilian arancini (stuffed rice balls).
For dinner, the Crocifisso (Via Principe Umberto 48, 0931 571151, closed Wed) is an excellent choice for Sicilian specialties in sophisticated surroundings–I am still dreaming about the raviolo with tomato/pork ragu I had there. It’s a family run place, which also has extensive offerings of Sicilian wines that the staff will help you match to your meal.
As far as places to stay, there are the Holiday In Noto apartments previously mentioned, and lots of choices for B&Bs.
The most luxurious is the recently opened Villadorata, a 7-room property, elegantly styled, attached to the Palazzo Nicolaci.
If you want to stay just outside Noto and have a countryside experience, Renee recommends the Soul of Sicily villa, a Liberty-style hillside oasis surrounded by olive trees, with beautiful views of the sea, where rooms can be rented when her cooking program isn’t in session. Or there’s Terra di Pace, an agriturismo where you can experience excellent traditional meals in simple, rustic surroundings.
Grazie, Renée–for pulling back the curtain so we can experience the authentic, beautiful soul of Noto!
(For Spring and Fall cooking vacations, or one day programs, check out Soul of Sicily)