In Southeastern Sicily, Old World Architecture Meets Stunning Beaches and incredible food
The Val di Noto region — which includes the towns of Ragusa, Modica and Noto — is bustling anew.
Given the distances to be traveled and the imperfect roads, conventional wisdom stipulates that even ambitious short-term visitors to Sicily stick to either side of the island. There’s no wrong choice, though it’s the eastern coast that’s home to the majestic Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano. That was also the side favored by the Greeks, who colonized Sicily between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. (before the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans and the Bourbons all took their turn), making a bustling capital out of Syracuse. In more recent times, the hilltop town of Taormina has been the popular eastern-facing destination — it was even the site of the 2017 Group of 7 summit. As its cobblestone streets have become ever more crowded, though, the Val di Noto region — which is a two-hour drive south and includes the towns of Ragusa, Modica and Noto — and the nearby city of Syracuse are finding new life.
Following the 1693 Sicily earthquake, locals rebuilt this cluster of towns in the late Baroque style of the day, with central piazzas anchored by stone churches with carved griffins and tiers of Corinthian columns. Thanks to funding from the European Commission, many of the towns’ buildings were restored in the early 2000s, which spurred entrepreneurs to open small, jewel-like hotels and restaurants. Noto, especially, contains many pre-eminent examples of Sicilian Baroque — it was built anew six miles from the original city, the still half-standing Noto Antica — as well as other attractions, from antique shops to a nature reserve filled with grazing flamingos.
And yet, Val di Noto still feels fully alive. The steps of Noto Cathedral are routinely used as seating for junior-school performances, while women sell fresh blood oranges at the daily market on Syracuse’s island offshoot of Ortygia. This exquisite port town is a good place to begin a tour of the region, having been continuously inhabited for 3,000 years, with beauty left over from multiple points of the area’s varied history. Next door to the white-stone Duomo is another church that houses a late masterpiece by Caravaggio, who arrived in Sicily in 1608 after escaping from prison in nearby Malta.
Immersed in this incredible beauty, all that remains is to let yourself be conquered by the best that Noto has to offer. Here is a list of the must-see food places in the Sicilian Baroque capital.
A block over from Nicolaci Palace, in what used to be the prince’s wine cellar, is one of Noto’s best trattorias, its barrel-vaulted rooms now filled with Bertoia chairs, starburst pendants and mounted maiolica. The dishes, too, are a satisfying mix of classic and contemporary — try the linguine with seared red prawns or the tagliatelle with duck Bolognese. As in its former life, the space also carries an impressive array of Sicilian wines, from the peppery Nero d’Avola to the desert like Malvasia delle Lipari. mannanoto.it
Over the course of 127 years, this corner cafe in downtown Noto has built a reputation as Sicily’s (and some say the world’s) best spot for gelato, perhaps because, like his parents and grandparents before him, Corrado Assenza, one of its owners, makes expert use of local nuts and citrus — don’t miss the Montezuma flavor, a heady mix of chocolate, cinnamon and orange- and lemon-candy peel. A glass case holds equally delicious pastries, but the real star may be the granita: Patrons linger over creamy almond-scented bowls of it at the parasol-covered tables out front. caffesicilia.it
In Noto, it’s not uncommon to see people making impromptu picnics out of sfincione (focaccia pizza) and pane di casa from the family bakery Panificio Maidda. On the other end of the spectrum is the elegant Crocifisso, with white tablecloths, polished black floorboards and dim lighting. The sommelier Gianmarco Iannello’s European-centric list stretches to Greece and Slovenia and features a number of orange wines (made with the grapes’ skins intact). The 60-euro five-course tasting menu features artichokes with licorice and mussel-topped cacio e pepe, while the à la carte options include such Sicilian classics as fava-bean soup with ricotta and spaghetti alla chitarra with sardines, sultanas and fennel. ristorantecrocifisso.it