Sicilian Chocolate: Savory and Supreme

Chocolate is a sublime experience. My brother-in-law Stevie has eaten chocolate all over the globe, and he will tell you, there is nothing like a superb piece of chocolate.

Here in Sicily, morning cappuccino is always served with little bite of chocolate nearby. In Avola, we are served these lovely valentines of chocolate with our caffé — ooh.

As an epicurious traveler, I’ve been drawn to Sicily for its romantic history, rumbly volcano, flinty wines and robust cuisine. Yet somehow, the wild isle’s chocolate has remained one of its best-kept secrets for me. Intrigued, I embark on my own chocolate tour — one deep, dark taste at a time.

I begin close to home here in Noto at Caffé Costanzo, a popular spot for coffee, cookies, pastry, or gelato, the best in town. My favorite Costanzo pairing is cioccolata and nocciolo or hazelnut. The flavors are soulmates and perfect for sharing — or not.

Don’t miss the powerful taste of Costanzo’s dark-chocolate arancia, dense and robust chocolate with bittersweet orange — wow!

A Bit of History

In the 1500s, Spanish rule introduced Sicilians to cacao and clever methods for rolling it smooth. The resulting xocoàtl paste was used to accent meats, grated over vegetables, or nibbled on its own as an aphrodisiac. Now, that I can understand.

Follow Your Nose

We follow the fragrance of chocolate to Modica, an hour’s drive through the Sicilian countryside. Here, generations still use rolling pins of lava stone — from Mt. Etna, of course — to refine and smooth the chocolate. The mix is chilled before adding sugar to keep the crystals from melting, producing chocolate with a signature crunch.

City of Chocolate

In Modica we find the Museum of Chocolate plus several charming chocolate cafés and boutiques. And as one of eight Sicilian Baroque towns in the beautiful Val di Noto, Modica has enough cathedrals, piazzas and cobblestone streets for non-chocoholics.

Baroque Cathedral of St. Peter in Modica with 12 apostles

Upon admission, the Museo offers each visitor a whole cocoa bean, dusty with cacao and maybe a little grubby. But surprise! the dry, deep proto-chocolate flavor is delicious.

While chewing your introductory bean, there are several sculptures in chocolate to see. Some are impressive; some are deconstructing — a risk with organics. There is a billboard-sized Marilyn Monroe, and a room-size chocolate relief map of Italy with helpful landmarks like the Coliseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa. Yes, much of it is pretty silly. But it’s fun and takes a mere 30 minutes for a reasonable fee of about €2.

Shop Chocolate

The first shop we visit is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Modica’s earliest chocolatier. When Europe began to favor milk chocolate in the 1800s, the Bonajuto family continued making its signature dark chocolate, and are still going strong.We amble down Corso Umberto to Antica Dolceria Rizza, open since in 1930s. Their chocolates are flavored with exotic essences like fiery peperoncino, below, or citrus. We buy some for friends at home. Me, I doubt they’ll last that long.The venerable Caffe del’ Arte is famous for hot chocolate and classic Sicilian pastries like our favorite the venerable cannolo — with local pistachios, of course.Modica is as serious as Uncle Stevie about its beloved chocolate. Heck, when this part of Sicily was destroyed by the earthquake of 1693, the chocolate industry survived — a genuine chocolate miracle.

Celebrate Chocolate!

An annual festival called ChocoModica celebrates my two Sicilian loves: chocolate and Baroque architecture. Both are entirely yummy.

Old Family Recipe

And hey, if you can’t make it all the way to Sicily to sample the chocolate, here is a special Sicilian Chocolate Cake recipe from my friend, Daniela. It is delizioso, generous and feeds a lot of people — just like Daniela herself!

Sicilian Chocolate Cake

Ingredienti:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1-1/4 cups flour
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 8 oz. yogurt plain or coconut
  • 6 T canola oil
  • 3 T cocoa powder
  • 1 t baking powder
  • pinch of salt

Mix sugar and eggs, then add all the other ingredients.  Put in 24 cm baking pan (Daniela uses a round fluted pan) for 45 minutes. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Like so many Sicilian desserts, it is not too sweet — it is just perfect!

Sei generoso, sei gentile e le tue torte sono superbe!

Grazie, Daniela! xo

 

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Festa!

Here in Sicily, whatever the season and no matter where you are, there is a festival gearing up somewhere. Lucky for us, our little city of Noto is no exception.

Every town has a patron saint — Palermo has Santa Rosalia, Catania has Sant’Agata, and Noto has San Corrado. Each saint is celebrated with processions through the streets, special goodies and treats, and a day off.

Noto’s San Corrado renounced his worldly possessions to become a Franciscan monk. After a lengthy pilgrimage and performing many miracles, he retreated to a rustic grotto. On his death in 1351, Noto’s church bells began to chime and peal … on their own.

A silver urn with Corrado’s holy remains is carried through the city on the shoulders of bearers dressed in white. Four silver griffins, half eagle and half lion, support the urn. A band plays and the procession begins. We walk behind the carriers of the Cilii, tall candles topped with colorful tin shades painted with scenes of Corrado’s life.Everyone, young and old, marches in the parade. Some follow the procession barefoot. The celebration is moving, quite poignant. The level of devotion can be a little confusing — so many Corrados and Corradas. Here comes one now — Mayor Corrado Bonfanti, below, marching in the parade.Noto’s very fine marching band leads the procession. Noto’s gigantissimo fireworks display can be seen for miles — spectacularly noisy!  This festa is a magical day with enough grandeur and gravitas for anyone. We are honored to be here. •

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Magnifici Mosaici

In case you think all we do here is eat and drink, you are only half right. Here are images from a day among the astonishing mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale, in the very small town of Piazza Armerina. My favorite is the Palestrite Room’s “Bikini Girls” who add uncanny perspective to our ongoing international infatuation with sport.

(Top: 4th century AD weight training; discus throwing; running. Bottom: Ceremony w/gold cloak handing crown and palm to girl with radial wheel; girl with victory palm and crown; and game of handball. The “double floor” reveals original mosaic, top-left.)Close-up of the lovely lady holding the wheel in “Bikini Girls.” See the tiny shapes and gradations of color that create the room-sized scenes — much artistic talent required.

Detail from one of the massive living rooms, a sprawling mural depicting gods and goddesses surrounded by birds, sea creatures and oddly amphibious animals.

In the Cubicle of Child Hunters, the panel depicts the animals chasing the boys!
The Grand Hall of the Great Hunt — 180 feet long — depicts all phases of hunting.

In the Hall of the Four Seasons you will meet these two sweet, swimmy fish.

The walkable columned portico has depictions of 162 animal heads, wild and domestic, surrounded by laurel crowns. I love this creature’s sassy, knowing expression.

And amore, of course, is everywhere!

Villa Romana del Casale is an elaborate palatial villa where extensive excavations have revealed one of the richest, largest and varied collections of Roman mosaics in the world. The site is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The villa and artwork date from the early 4th century AD. The mosaics are unique in their excellent state of preservation due to a landslide and floods that covered them for centuries.

 

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Pizza Noto Style

Esperio Diavolo

The historic centro of Noto is easy to explore on foot. Its two main streets, Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Cavour, run through this baroque jewel box and reveal many of her treasures. But sometimes straying off the beaten track yields wonderfully tasty surprises.

Esperio Cinque Formaggi

We discover Esperia Pizza on the downhill side of town. Esperia’s creative menu features upscale and traditional Sicilian pizzas, a few fried sides (why bother?), and a tasty selection of seafood and greens. Surprise! The chef is flexible enough to throw a generous handful of arugula on top of our Margherita pizza on request. Grazie, chef.

Esperia’s wine list is short and sweet. A bottle of fresh La Segreta is a mere €16, perfectly chilled and delicious. I love Sicily’s minerally native wines both in spite of and because of the way they cut the fatty unctuousness of the cuisine.

Let me know if you make it to i dolci — we never have.

Enjoy the film-themed interior! Esperia Pizza,Via Salvatore La Rosa, 72-74, 96017 Noto SR

Interior Esperia

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Anche Gli Angeli

This extraordinary vaulted space is refined and sophisticated, yet somehow manages to be welcoming — a bookish hipster paradise. Anche gli Angeli features a bar, bistro, “concept store,” bookshop and live-music venue. The back walls of this soaring space are lined with wines; its front space is lined with books. Perfect for vino tasting, casual fine dining, literary browsing, meeting for tea and Sicilian sweets, cappuccino, or all of the above. There are even quiet tables for writerly types like me, and a solid internet connection. The chef’s pasta dishes (Noto post 1) are excellent. Charcuterie and cheese plates sustain wine-fueled discussions, day or night. This chef really knows what he is doing. I love sitting at the bar and watching him work. The scene is warm, friendly and fizzy — get there!

Anche Gli Angeli,Via da Brescia 2, Noto, Sicily

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ChoccOfficina Noto

This sun-drenched sleepy corner of Sicily is our home for a month. When we’re not pinching ourselves, we walk the ancient streets at a leisurely pace. We live here and are not in a hurry. We have coffee, dawdle over books, and study Noto’s growing food scene.A great place to start is one of our favorite haunts, Noto’s cheerful artisanal chocolateria and café, ChoccOfficinaRosella and Sebastiano are native Sicilians and serious chocolatiers — plus, they are adorable and very hardworking.

Candied Orange Peel; Sicilian Lemon; Cacao Crumble; and Almond Bark, all in dark chocolate.

Whatever time of day we pop in, CioccOfficina enthusiasts are queuing up for espresso, cappuccino, pastries, cakes, chocolates and traditional Sicilian delights. Everything in sight is local, delectable and gorgeous. “All are made here,” says Rosella, “right here.”

And it smells great, too — filled with the delicious fragrance of melting chocolate. CioccOfficina e delizioso!

Up Next: Just around the corner is Anche Gli Angeli – where the books are!

 

 

 

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Mayor Bonfanti: Noto’s Bounty

Palazzo Decezio, Noto, designed by Vincenzo Sinatra, 1746

Lucky me – I am invited to Noto’s glorious Palazzo Ducezio to interview Mayor Corrado Bonfanti on his pride and passion for local flavors — the sapore of Noto.  “What is so special about Noto is now well known — our native cuisine and wines are beautiful according to visitors and locals alike. This is confirmed again and again in the fragrance and sapore of Noto.”

It is soon to be confirmed yet again in this year’s ‘Best in Sicily’ award for food and wine excellence, recognizing Noto’s esteemed native son, Corrado Bonfanti.

The author and Mayor Corrado Bonfanti of Noto.

The award represents the best this wild isle has to offer in taste and hospitality. It also recognizes those who excel in the field of food and wine – best wine, olive oil, cheese, bar, pastry shop, pizzeria, restaurant, hotel, baker, butcher, canning company and trattoria. And my personal favorite, “Sicilian ambassador of taste,” a job I would love to have!

Among the prizewinners is Mayor Bonfanti, for Noto’s city-wide emphasis on excellence in gastronomy and viticulture, and on Monday, he will go to Palermo’s beautiful Teatro Massimo, above, to collect his prize.

It is not the first time that Noto has participated in the “Best in Sicily” awards. In 2009, the award for the best pastry shop on the island of Sicily went to Caffè Sicilia, here in Noto. “Of course!” as the Bonfanti family is fond of saying.

The Slow Food mascot is alive and well in Noto!

Next up, we visit a few of the Mayor’s personal favorite restaurants in Noto, highly recommended for the freshest, finest local fare and artful presentation. Arrivederci!

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