Our third and final excursion out of Siracusa was a loop around the Val di Noto. This area was destroyed in 1693 by Italy's largest ever earthquake and was rebuilt, as UNESCO would say, to represent "the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe". We added a second loop to visit some of the filming locations of our favorite Italian TV series - "Inspector Montalbano".
On our way to Noto we noticed signs for Avola, home of Nero D'Avola grapes. We took a detour and followed some signs to "Avola Antica", not really sure what we would find. After much winding and many switch-backs we found ourselves at a lookout point for Sicily's "Grand Canyon - "Cavagrande del Cassibile". Bright yellow spring flowers, a cloudless sky, fresh mountain air, the gentle clang of cowbells in the distance, and a stray dog sleeping in the shade made the scene complete.
Back on track, we arrived in Noto and took a walk up and down its two main streets to enjoy the warm sand-stone Baroque architecture and grand staircases. It was lunch time and the Pride Flag outside a restaurant caught Nancy's eye. "Anche gli Angeli - Sicilian concept store, lounge bar & restaurant" was set in the barrel-vaulted crypt of an old Jesuit monastery [hence the name "Even the Angels"] with accents of turquoise in the cabinets and miles of bookshelves. A fun bread tray and complimentary fried sage leaves set the tone before Nancy had "Grilled Sea Bass with Eggplant Cream" and Richard had "Paccheri (over-sized pasta tubes) alla Norma (tomato sauce with eggplant)", all prepared by the female chef. The local white wine was crisp and full-bodied. Since the neighboring town of Avola is famous for its almonds, Richard had to have the "Almond Panna Cotta" to finish things off. Nancy came away declaring it her favorite meal in Sicily.
After a quick stop in Modica for a coffee/tea break, we headed to Ragusa Ibla for two nights at the Itria Palace - a small boutique hotel with sand-stone walls, a super-comfortable bed, and another killer view out our bedroom window. At the suggestion of Renata at the front desk we took a nice stroll through the lovely old town to a restaurant called "That's A Moro" - a play on "That's Amore" that explains the many "Teste di Moro" - ceramic Moorish Heads - that are all over Sicily and were featured in the restaurant's decor. Nancy had Salmon with a Pistachio Crust and Richard had Lamb Ribs. A complimentary Orange Amaro (an herbal liqueur) finished off the meal.
It was warm enough to keep the window open all night so we could hear the splashing of a mountain stream just outside our window - natural white noise for a restful night.
On our second day in Ragusa we began our Montalbano "pilgrimage". Ragusa Ilba, where we were staying, is used in many scenes. We also visited the town of Scicli, home of Montalbano's Police Station in the fictional town of "Vigata". Then we were off to Punta Secca, where Montalbano's sea-side villa in "Mirabella" is filmed. Finally we visited the Castello di Donnafugata, scene of the home of Mafia Don Balduccio Sinagra. This last site was actually worth a full-blown tour.
The Montalbano road trip had the added benefit of cruising mountain-hugging roads overlooking farms, orchards, livestock, and acres of greenhouses full of seedlings. Stone walls are everywhere you look and bursts of yellow wild flowers filled the grazing fields. Marshes and palm trees signaled that we were drawing closer to the sea. Some areas seemed abandoned - a sad reminder that one generation of farmers was dying off without a new one interested in continuing. Others were vibrant, suggesting that, as we saw with the Etna vineyards, a fresh energy of the next generation can sometimes take hold.
Back in Ragusa Ilba we followed another hotel staff restaurant suggestion, this time from Masha our breakfast waitress (who spent 3 years in Portugal and gave us tips for that as well). Ristorante Ai Lumi was in the Piazza del Duomo and we had the undivided attention of the staff - we were the only patrons on this quiet January night.
When Nancy asked about the fish, the waitress escorted her to the front of the restaurant where fresh fish sat on ice. They came back to the table and proudly introduced Richard to a whole "San Pietro" - a local specialty. It was fun watching the kitchen prepare our meal, clearly from scratch. While we waited we had a collection of local cheeses - our waitress instructed us to start in the center and work our way around from the cow's to the sheep's milk varieties. The meal was outstanding - the poaching liquid from the fish, with olive oil, parsley, and more, was served on the side and was the star of the show. But here's a dinner tip - when an item isn't on the menu, ask for a few details on pricing. [We should have learned this lesson when we had the pasta with truffles in Portofino.] It turns out that the fish was priced by the kg and it was a precious pesce!
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Nancy McCabe &