Sicily: Spicy, Soulful and Stunning

Giovanna Chiti, Founder and President of Discover my Italy, has been sharing her passion for all things wonderfully, authentically Italian in small group and custom tours since 2010.

Recently, Giovanna chatted with our local guide to Sicily, Rosa Rizza, about some of her favorite reasons for living there. Born in Sicily, Rosa grew up in the U.S., returned to Sicily after high school, and has never left. “This is home,” she says.

Marika & Rosa

GC: What do you love most about Sicily?

RR: We have four seasons here, each with wonderful food. We tend to be very seasonal with our food. In most parts of the world, that’s not possible, you have to eat what comes from elsewhere. And, I don’t shovel snow!

I am still moved by the sights: the sun hitting the temples, the color of the stones… There are days when the sky is an intense blue, I can’t even explain it. And then in front of it, the cathedral with the white stone. It’s…Wow.

Sicily is a land where history and the present live together. Take the city of Siracusa, on the island of Ortigia. You have the Temple of Artemisia, and next to it is an electric car park! We can’t forget the past here, because we live on it, with it, around it.

GC: What are some other highlights for new travelers to Sicily?

RR: The volcano, Mt. Etna. We have an active volcano here—we refer to her as a she. Greeks named her the mother of mountains. I think that is exciting for everybody.

GC: I have heard people refer to Mt. Etna as “Mamma Etna”.

RR: Yes, because she gives us everything. She is always present. You can see her from all around the island.Every section of the volcano grows something specific, and every season brings something for us.

Palermo deserves to be seen too—the Valley of the Temples. It’s stunning. Five temples in a row. We have as many temples here as in Athens. People say, where are we?

GC: Sicily has a fascinating mix of cultures. The Arabic influences, the Normans, the Spanish… can you still sense these influences?

RR: Yes. Every side of the island is different, depending on who dominated it. It’s still vivid and still in our DNA. For example, the dialect spoken in the home on the western side is basically Arabic. Our cuisine is very influenced by past civilizations, and today, even though Palermo, on the west side of the island is very modern, it’s typical to make cous cous instead of spaghetti. On the eastern side of the island, we don’t know how to make cous cous, we go to the Western side for that. We’re all different, the island is not that big, but it’s also not that small.

GC: It’s true. Our Discover my Italy Sicily tour is nine nights, and we don’t see it all! People think that because Sicily is an island, they can see it all in 3 days. Maybe if you have a free day on a tour, you could pick one city and go there. But you can’t see the entire island. I say that to give a sense of how big the island is, and how much there is to see.

GC: What are your favorite places to eat?

RR: We have beautiful outdoor markets: Il Capo in Palermo and in Catania, the oldest of them all. In Catania, there are restaurants in the market. You just point to the fish you want and say, I want that! And they’ll cook it for you.

In Palermo, the Arabs built hundreds of tuna factories. Through them we learn the proper way of fishing swordfish and tuna. It’s all in the catch. If you do it wrong, no matter how you cook it, it’ll be hard and dry. Where those factories were, today they are restaurants and they’re fantastic.

GC: What are Sicily’s signature dishes or delicacies?

RR: Wherever you go, you’ll find caponata, which the French copied and called “ratatouille”. There are over 150 recipes (the authentic one is topped off with pure bitter chocolate).

In Roman times, one of the most important ingredients for preserving food was salt. But the Arabs used, honey, also. Because honey does not spoil, they used it to preserve fish, vegetables, and meat. Then they cut it with vinegar, so that’s the origin of sweet and sour; it comes from the Arabs.  

Arancini, the famous rice balls, are everywhere. The Arabs brought rice to Sicily, so that’s why we have arancini. It’s a very ancient recipe.

GC: I thought you might mention a certain pastry?

RR: Cannolo originates in Palermo. They’re the kings. A real cannolo must be made from ricotta cheese from sheep. If you want a full-fledged Sicilian cannolo that’s how it works.GC: What are some outstanding Sicilian wines?  RR: Nero D’Avola is the indigenous grape of the island. The Greeks found it and planted it on Mt. Etna. It exploded! Nero D’Avola means black grapes from the city of Avola. It’s at sea level, very hot. So, the plants cover the grapes with their leaves! We also have Cabernet Sauvignon now, that we’ve brought up on the volcano. The wines are phenomenal.

GC: What white wine should travelers try?

RR: Grillo. The good Grillo comes from the Northwestern side of the island.GC: After sightseeing, eating, and drinking, what else is there to do?

RR: The hiking trails on the volcano are spectacular. And in winter, you can ski there. You can start at the top where it’s cold, make your way down and go swimming. In Palermo is the Teatro Massimo, one of the top five opera houses in Italy. Also, you can see the Greek tragedies in the original theaters. That is amazing. And of course, you can hear jazz and contemporary music in Palermo.

GC: Describe your quintessential day in Sicily.

I would go to Segesta, see the view from the ancient Theatre, see the Greek Temples, and then to the Salt Pans. They’re pink, with flamingos walking around in it. And I would eat an Arabic dish, I would eat cous cous.

Italy travel expert dedicated to opening the real doors to my native country, so that you may have a truly authentic experience… and fall in love with Italy as your own. In every corner of my Italy, I’ve sought out the beauty and the pleasures of its landscapes, cities, villages and people. Many are famous or popular, but many others remain undiscovered or rarely experienced. I know them all well though, and I’m eager to share my knowledge with you.

Contact me for more information about booking a spectacular and affordable small group tour or designing an affordable custom tour of your dream trip to Italy.

With love and gratitude,
Giovanna Chiti

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