May just might be the perfect month for Sicily. Swallows are out in force, while tourists are still relatively thin on the ground. This is the time to visit and eat in the Baroque pearls of the Sicilian southeast, which will start to get hot and crowded in June as the Leviathans of mass tourism disgorge stunned and grumpy passengers from their holds. Patti and I were recently able to spend the better part of a day in splendid isolation in the lovely hill town of Ragusa Ibla. If there are any MagoGuide readers out there who do not quite grasp the superiority of slow travel over mass tourism this post with its review of Ristorante Cenobio should settle the issue.
We began our day in Rugusa Superiore, the modern town located above Ibla where most of the locals live and work. We spent two hours in the Museo Archeologico (on Via Natalelli, under the Ponte Nuovo), which is much maligned in the guidebooks as well as wrongly attributed with a four Euro entry fee (it’s actually free). It is a great old school Sicilian museum, overstaffed, under-visited, and sporting a significant amount of informative (if less than grammatically correct) English signage. We had the place all to ourselves as we perused exhibits covering southeastern Sicily from the Paleolithic age through late antiquity.
Note from the MagoGuide photographer: No photos were allowed in the museum. Too bad.
The museum proved to be the perfect jumping off point, both intellectually and geographically, for Ragusa Ibla. The town was founded by the Sicels (from whom the name of the island derives) in the early first millennium BC. Known as Hybla Heraea in antiquity, Ibla endured a typical Sicilian history of sequential conquest punctuated by a devastating earthquake. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, European Union money has produced a Faustian makeover resulting in a charming venue that is no longer really Sicilian.
Draconian parking regulations have transformed the town into one large ped-zone composed of clean cobbled streets that meander past a Baroque church or palazzo every two hundred meters or so. Non-architectural interstices are filled with boutiques, galleries, gourmet food shops, wine bars, and decent restaurants. The downside to all this, however, is that Ibla can get downright themeparky with Commissario Montalbano groupies in search of locations where the popular TV series was filmed interspersed amongst the chaotic flotsam and jetsam of Italian school outings.
It is best to wander around Ibla between ten AM and noon when the groups are thronging the interiors of the churches and other public structures. An aspect of the Sicilian Baroque not shared with Byzantine or Renaissance architecture is that ninety percent of the interesting stuff is on the outside. Around noon, the tourists are released by their guides for an hour of “free time”, while teachers take their charges to pizza joints for lunch and then to parks so that the little bastards can blow off some steam.
The trick is to stay ahead of this wave and arrive at Piazza del Duomo, one of the prettiest squares in Sicily, in time to nab a seat for an aperitivo di gelato. Patti and I chose Gelati Divini (20 Piazza Duomo, www.gelatidivini.it) just as the hordes were stumbling out of the cathedral blinking in the intense Mediterranean sunlight. We sampled their regular chocolate as well as the version with pepperoncino, coffee, and cinnamon flavors. All were good, but the chocolate with hot pepper and the coffee were excellent. For those who can forego the more traditional flavors there are exotic concoctions like olive oil and jasmine. Gelati Divini also has a very good selection of decently priced wines.
Around one PM the larger tour groups are herded into pre-selected eateries, while the smaller agglomerations preserve their consensual hallucination of independence by choosing among the various tratorie strategically deployed on the streets branching off of the piazza. Soon the streets are free of homotouristicus once again and it is a perfect time to head for Giardini Iblei to wile away an hour until two PM when Sicilians have lunch.
Situated on the eastern end of the escarpment upon which Ibla has clung precariously for over three thousand years, this park offers beautiful views through clouds of swallows over the San Leonardo, Irminio, and Santa Domenica vallies. The pretty grounds contain palm trees, cedars, cypresses, and Judas trees as well as the remains of four churches predating the massive 1693 earthquake that devastated the town. For the historically obsessed there is also a small archaeological site and a memorial to the town’s dead in the Great War.
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Rostra rating: 4
The jewel in the giardino, however, is the restored 17th century Capuchin monastery and convent perched on the very eastern tip of the Ibla spur. This religious complex or cenobio (cenoby) is home to the Nosco School of Mediterranean Cuisine and Wine and includes both a teaching restaurant and a hotel, all of which have miraculously escaped mention in English language guidebooks. Under the direction of Chef Peppe Barone, Nosco is dedicated to reviving the ancient traditions of Mediterranean gastronomy within the modern chilometro zero (dirt-to-table) approach to local and organic proteins and produce. In fact, the school and restaurant practice a “metro zero” approach utilizing the convent garden for many of their dishes.
Ristorante Cenobio can accommodate seventy diners inside and in the cloister garden, but Patti and I spent a sublime two and a half hours as the only guests on a day when most other Ibla restaurants were at least two thirds full. The main dining room has barrel vaulted ceilings with restored frescos, modern cable track lighting and dark grey and black slab marble floors. The walls have a tripartite color scheme: aquamarine half way up, an interlude of frescoes with off-white on the vaulted ceiling and stark white walls at either end of the chamber.
The theme is continued on the tables with linen napkins that match the lower walls resting on white tablecloths over aquamarine base layers. Chairs are light cream leather with dark brown wood. Bay windows are like real-time paintings of the lovely Irminio Valley. Even the soundtrack of Arab pop music worked well in this quintessentially Christian setting in a weird sort of way.
Things got started with an amuse bouche of polpetto di ricotta e salsa crèma di fave. A large dollop of fresh ricotta was rolled in fine breadcrumbs, fried, and then served on a cold and creamy chickpea puree. It was an excellent little bite.
Cenobio works with ancient Scilian wheat varieties grown in the Ragusa region. Three types of bread arrived with the amuse bouche. Very good miniature cornetti-shaped light whole-wheat rolls and rectangular rolls with bits of sundried tomatoes were served warm. The room temperature slices of a nicely latticed loaf were good but a bit old and definitely the least interesting.
We ordered two different tasting menus. Patti had a four course “Traditional” and I chose the five course “Mediterranean.” Mine began with three kinds of raw marinated seafood. Tuna with lemon zest and olive oil had great flavor and firm texture. Salmon was softer and richer than the tuna and served with a dollop of creamy avocado sauce on top. Raw shrimp with a little emerald green olive oil had an incredible mouth feel and a very subtle flavor.
Patti started with BFE, as in best falafel ever. Cooked a minute and two-bite sized, they were served in a Jerusalem artichoke and turmeric sauce. The falafel was loaded with finely chopped herbs that made their insides a bright green, which contrasted nicely with the sauce. This dish amply demonstrated Sicily’s Arabic culinary influences.
My next course consisted of salt cod fritter with artichoke trifolati style (fried in olive oil, garlic, and parsley). It was less a fritter and more like a crab cake made with baccala and minimal breading. The artichoke was a nice bitter counterpoint to the rich salty cod. Historically, Sicilians traded salt produced in the Trapani area with Basque fishermen who caught the cod in the Atlantic off Newfoundland and returned the preserved fish to the Mediterranean.
Service was impeccable throughout our long meal. For example, Patti received a complete but empty setting to accompany my extra antipasto. Plating was clean and professional on every dish.
My pasta course was house-made tagliolini with Pantescan mullet sauce. The perfectly boned chunkettes of small mullet was a real treat. The dish was perhaps a bit under-seasoned. The pasta was garnished with a small sprig of sage, and the bite that contained it made me want more sage to perk up the dish. The tagliolini were well-made and perfectly cooked. Pantescan mullet from the island of Pantelleria was a nod to the Carthaginians, who controlled western Sicily for centuries in antiquity and traded with the Greek colonists on the eastern side of the island (when they were not at war with them that is).
Patti’s primo was clearly superior to mine. She had pumpkin and chickpea-stuffed tortelloni with a creamy cheese sauce. The fantastic sweet and savory flavor with a rich mouth feel made the dish something between pasta and a dessert. Chickpea dishes harken back to Roman times. Cicero, who traveled to Sicily in order to prosecute a corrupt Roman governor, wrote admiringly of the island’s natural endowments. His name means chickpea in Latin, probably derived from an ancestor with a rather large wart on his nose.
My secondo consisted of pan-fried cernia (grouper) with sautéed beet greens and braised agrodolce (sweet and sour) fennel. The fennel was an excellent contrast to the expertly cooked but restrained fish. The beet greens were sautéed in butter and well seasoned. Fennel grows wild all over the island and was probably used for medicinal and culinary purposes when the Sicels were in charge of Ibla.
Patti’s course was baby lamb from the Testa dell’Aqua region (near Noto) with oil-free caponatina. The lamb was superb, a tiny three-rib rack and a small boneless sirloin served in a brown sauce, which I thought could have used a touch more salt. The caponatina got a BCE award from Patti. The diminutive term for the dish derives from the use of a mirepoix dice on the ingredients, which displayed excellent knife skills. The dish was a perfect blend of sweet and sour that was made without either olive oil or olives. Caponata reached Sicily from Catalonia during the Aragonese occupation of the island.
Next we were served a predessert, something I have never experienced outside of a Michelin star establishment. It consisted of a small chocolate macaroon sandwich with chocolate crème in the middle juxtaposed by a dab of very bittersweet chocolate with a hint of pepperoncino. The Spanish again are responsible for bringing chocolate to Sicily via their conquests in Central and South America, particularly the pre-Columbian practice of mixing it with hot pepper.
My main dolce consisted of cubes of Greek yogurt semifreddo topped with persimmon mouse and served with a white licorice sauce. It was extremely light and refreshing, just the thing after all those courses. The mouse and sauce definitely took the dish up a level. This modern dish has deep roots in Sicily’s ancient Greek past. Sicilian Greek colonists invented the bucolic style of poetry to celebrate the island’s flocks and the products made from their milk (such as yogurt).
Patti had the convent’s cannolo, which turned out to be a partially deconstructed cannolo/Napoleon hybrid. Pastry rectangles were layered with ethereal sweetened ricotta, and a simple drizzle of honey. The origins of cannoli are not clear, but my favorite story is that they originated in the harem of Caltanissetta during the Arab occupation. Then they were repurposed by Catholics into a traditional Palermo carnevale snack that nonetheless maintained its original phallic role as a fertility symbol.
For wine we drank Grillo del Barone, 2012, Barone di Sarramarrocco at our waitress’s suggestion. A flowery nose gave on to citrus notes leading to mango fruit with a long tropical fruit finish. The wine went quite well with the varied dishes of our two menus. The Nosco school offers sommelier courses in addition to its cooking program of study. Their two page wine list is a jewel box of Sicilian regional varietals.
After a wonderful trip through the history of Sicilian gastronomy we had one more act of splendid isolation in Ragusa—the climb back to the car. While it is possible to catch a bus at the entrance to Giardini Iblei that will take you back to Ragusa Superiore, we felt compelled to climb the steps that snake back up to the underground car park below the town’s main post office. Needless to say we met neither tourists nor locals on our journey, save for a scarred old roue of a tom cat, who clearly thought that there were decent odds that two such well-fed stranyeri might well join the choir invisible at some point of the ascent, thus providing him with provender for weeks to come. MagoGuide is happy to report that we frustrated his crafty plans and lived to eat another day.