From cannoli and cassata to almond granita and pistachio gelato, I ate my way through Palermo, Bronte and Modica on a dessert road trip across the island of Sicily.
I can’t quite point out the moment I fell in love with Sicily. Perhaps it was the first time I ordered gelato for breakfast – and no one batted an eye. Or maybe it was when I went back for my third iris fritta – in a row – and nobody cared. In Sicily, dessert is a way of life, calories don’t count and a sweet tooth like mine feels right at home.
With its rugged mountains that tumble into a blue sea, Sicily looks like home too. Its warm Mediterranean ocean has over centuries brought with it wave after wave of conquerors. Each new conquering nation – and there have been many – left traces of their cuisine, language and culture which vary quite drastically as you travel from town to town.
I watched the rocky seaside gradually turn into intricate Arabic architecture through the window of my rental car as I drove from Palermo airport into the capital city. Sicily is the perfect road trip destination – it takes just 4 hours to drive from one side to the other side of the island. While most people head straight for Palermo’s markets and street food, this was not that kind of road trip – and I had a cannoli craving to satisfy!
Cannoli are found all over Sicily, but I think the ones from Palermo are the best. The crispy blistered shell is thanks to the addition of the nearby Marsala wine and has a bitterness which perfectly counteracts the smooth, sweetened ricotta filling made from sheep’s milk.
(Side note: if you want to make your own, I’ve got a killer recipe here)
There’s a pretty easy way to know which ones are worth the calories: a really great cannolo is always filled to order so the shell stays crisp and crunchy. You’ll also find modern riffs on the classic with interesting flavour variations but my favourite, from Gelato & Cioccolato, is stuffed with scoops of ricotta and pistachio gelato.
Next on my list was what has been described by Sicily’s most famous pastry chef Corrado Assenza as ‘the most elegant expression of Sicilian culture’, the cassata. Layer by layer, the cassata symbolizes over a thousand years of Sicilian history. The sugar cane, the almond, the lemons and oranges were brought here by 9th-century Arab invaders. The pan di spagna (sponge cake) is from the Spanish, the white fondente icing from the French. The marzipan is dyed green in homage to the days when bakers could afford to use pistachio paste, from those famous nut trees that flourish in the nearby village of Bronte.
I choose a cassatine (the miniature version) from the pastry counter of Pasticceria Capello. I find a bench overlooking the Piazza Ruggiero Settimo and tuck into my pretty little cake with a plastic fork. As cathedral bells clang, I marvel at the ornate Arabic influence of Palermo’s skyline and how that design is echoed in the beautiful piping on the dessert I’m devouring. Licking my fork clean, I’m already thinking about my next treat.
I leave Palermo in my rearview mirror and head to Alta Villa Millacia. September is the month of Madonna in Sicily and throughout the month you’ll find small towns celebrating the saint with spectacular processions, street food, nut roasting, sweet making and festivities.
The scent of vanilla and caramel on the hot summer air lured me from my itinerary to explore the festivities. The closed street was lined with pastry chefs armed with giant swords and marble slabs – each lifting and moulding the hot sugar and almond mixture into perfect bricks of torrone.
I wound my way along the shimmering Sicilian coastline with the rocks tumbling into the sea and the thick heat miraging on the horizon. It was gelato time. A short 20-minute drive from Alta Villa Millacia along a marina with docked fishing boats is Gelateria Cicciuzzu.
The legend of Francesco Amoroso is a famous one and I read the story of the gelateria owner from a newspaper clipping pinned to the wall while licking my chocolate cherry gelato. In 1955 he set up a small boat and sailed along the coast of Termini Imerese selling ice cream to those swimming in the warm sea. I wish I could’ve been one of those bathers!
If the gigantic pistachio I passed along the way didn’t give me a clue that I had arrived in Bronte, I would never have known that the tangled mass of trees I passed along the way, were, in fact, of the pistachio kind. I pulled over to the first cafe I could find – Bar Collina Verde, and had the best pistachio granite of my life while waiting for Nicolo Pace.
At 22 years old, he’s the younger generation of pistachio farmers in Bronte who are inheriting plantations from their fathers. He tells me that he is studying Food Science and Technology in order to improve innovation in pistachio farming in this area. “Bronte pistachios are the finest and most expensive in the world because we only harvest every 2 years. It takes patience but the quality is the most important thing to us. Real Bronte pistachios have PDOP (Product Designation of Origin) – they are bigger, saltier and have darker skin than any other pistachios.”
As I fire a million questions at him on what are called ‘emeralds’ around these parts we whizz along an alarmingly bumpy, steep road in Nicolo’s car before arriving at his modest family farm.
A quint little house on a floor of lava rocks (we’re in Mount Etna land, after all) is surrounded by the same tangled mass of trees sprouting straight out of the hard black stones.
We trek across the hot rocks (‘mind the vipers, he tosses casually over his shoulder’!) until he excitedly points to a branch laden with bright red drupes.
As the drupe (fruit) ripens, it splits open to reveal the seed (not nut) inside. The drupes have to be hand collected and dried in the sun before the pistachios can be sold.
Harvesting is hard work and Nicolo rewards me with a lunch of ice cold prickly pears. I leave with a bag full of Bronte’s finest green gold – the best kind of padkos!
PITSTOP: Pasticceria Dolce Bacio
What to order: The arancini (not arancine as they are known in Parlermo) which are shaped like the nearby Mount Etna.
I had a 2-hour drive along the Eastern coastline of Sicily to reach the World Unesco Heritage Site of Modica. It was also the amount of time I had to think about what to ask a 6th generation chocolate maker. Pierpaolo Ruta is as intense as the chocolate he makes at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, the oldest chocolate and pastry shop in Sicily. Described as ‘a different kind of chocolate’ Pierpaolo and his family were the creators of the granular chocolate that has made Modica famous worldwide.
So why is chocolate so famous in a city without cocoa trees? It’s all thanks to the Spanish who left behind their language, baroque architecture and their obsession with chocolate. “Until 1960, my grandfather made Modica chocolate from cocoa mass using a stone metate by hand. The sugar crystals remain intact inside the chocolate giving it a very special granular structure and texture.”
Pierpaolo and his family have always had an open-door policy when it comes to showing how their unique chocolate is made and you can take a tour of their chocolate lab on the hour (which I did). It’s because of this that Modica is now filled with copycat artisans claiming they make the ‘original Modica chocolate’. But Pierpaolo humbly shrugs it off and excitedly tells me his plans for a new factory next door that will make them a full bean to bar chocolate brand.
‘Making our chocolate from scratch is a controversial step because technically Modica chocolate is known to be made from pre-made cocoa mass. But I want to make sure we keep innovating. I want to leave a legacy to my son just like my father and his father did for me.’ I leave with a small satin bag filled with Pierpaolo’s latest invention; jasmine-infused Modica chocolate drops, and a box of the pastry shop’s Mpanatigghi and Nucatoli biscuits ( a speciality of Modica).
I reach Dolceria Donna Elvira flustered, and out of breath. As probably the most well-known Modica chocolate brand in the world, Google maps still got me terribly lost.
But all is forgotten as I’m ushered through the door by Elvira Roccasalva (THE ‘donna’). She plies me with her favourite 100% chocolate bar. ‘This will make you feel better,’ she says. It’s an intense savoury block with a rough texture. I can feel the cocoa high kicking in.
When Elvira started the dolceria back in 1999 she admits she had no experience in desserts or making chocolate. ‘I learnt with practice and research, visiting cocoa farms in Peru and tasting a lot of cocoa beans. It was always my dream to make our bars from scratch’ she tells me as we walk through her factory where logs of homemade marzipan are being rolled by hand. That came true 3 years ago when Donna Elvira became a full bean to bar Modica chocolate brand – the first in Sicily.
‘As a woman in a male-dominated small town industry like Modica, it wasn’t easy. In the beginning, nobody took me seriously but I focused on sourcing incredibly rare cocoa beans and making sure that Donna Elvira became synonymous with Modica chocolate.’ Countless awards later and I’d say Elvira has succeeded.
PITSTOP: Gelateria Fiore
The best gelato in town is scooped over at Gelateria Fiore where they only churn seasonal flavours. My broken Italian helped score me tasters of everything – from prickly pear to watermelon and peach. I went back the next morning for an espresso granita topped with whipped cream – a quintessential summer Italian breakfast – before hitting the road again.
What to order: any of their seasonal gelato flavours served in a brioche bun. When asked if you want ‘crema?’ the answer should always be ‘si!’.
My sweet tooth is taking a beating so when I whizz past the salt flats in Trapani with mountains of flakes raked up on the side of the road, I breathe in the salty air and feel a renewed sense of excitement at my next stop. And Vita Alotta is a worthy pitstop.
A quaint little shop hidden in the maze of central Trapani, Vito has quietly been making Sicily’s very first craft chocolate, not too far from Modica. ‘It’s been difficult for locals to understand what makes my chocolate so special. They only understand Modica chocolate or the imported stuff. The craft chocolate movement is very well known in the rest of Europe and in America, but not here in Sicily. I think I am probably the first,’ he tells me.
Vito’s chocolate bars all hero single origin cocoa beans and feature ingredients so famous in this region; Trapani salt and Sicilian saffron.
SAN VITO LO CAPO
Most travellers head to San Vito Lo Capo to lie on the breathtaking beach and enjoy its aqua water but since this was my last stop on what was a 7-day dessert eating spree, I was pretty sure fitting into my bikini was not going to happen. So I drowned my sorrows at Laboratori Dolci Siciliani (Pasticceria Peralta).
Their almond granite is made from hand-ground almonds from a farm nearby and is so good I have 3 in a row. But I secretly go back to swoon at their window display of impeccable Frutta Martorana – Sicily’s most famous sweet. Fruits are realistically moulded from almond paste by hand to show off the skills of the pastry chef.
Vito, the owner, tells me that they were invented in the 12th century by the nuns of La Martorana, a church in Palermo. As the story goes, the nuns originally decided to sculpt fruits from marzipan and hang them from their empty trees to impress the visiting archbishop. He was so impressed they kept making them. It’s a fading art which won’t die under my watch! I leave with an entire box.
As I walked on the beach of San Vito Lo Capo, with the warm sea lapping my feet, licking what was to be my final gelato of fragole and limone, I thought about the talented people I’d met along the way. Sicilians are most famously known for the mafia and Godfather movies, but what they should be famous for, is their warmth and hospitality. In a land known for its history and tradition, I experienced a growing innovation. And a younger generation craving to preserve traditions but at the same time create their own. I couldn’t wait to taste that on my next trip, but first I needed to hit the gym!