It's Italy Week! All week long, we're celebrating everything Italian and Italy-inspired: recipes, stories, and travel tips. Today Shane Mitchell waxes nostalgic about a particularly tiny town in Sicily known for its wines and chocolate shops.
“You go on without me,” I said.
Sitting pretty on a balcony with a bottle of chilled Grillo bianco, I waved goodbye to my husband Bronson, who was determined to hike across to the Cathedral San Giorgio on an autumn day in Modica, Sicily. As the crow flies, it wasn’t far, but on foot, required navigating a maze of cobbled footpaths and stairways down, and then up again, scaling both slopes of the Val di Noto, the narrow valley where this sun-baked Baroque city rises in stepped rock terraces. I was happy to observe his progress from a distance at Casa Talía, a cluster of tiny restored houses with patchwork gardens of olive and pomegranate trees high above the city center. After a long and lightly quarrelsome drive—no GPS, just printed maps, not much signage—through the Hyblaean Mountains in the southern province of Ragusa, I needed downtime.
Smaller than Siracusa or Palermo, and divided into Alta and Bassa (upper and lower towns), Modica was first settled during the Bronze Age, and occupied variously by an assortment of mainland invaders. The Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, and Spanish put down roots here, and this layered history is richly reflected in the region’s food culture. By the 10th century Arab traders introduced rice, saffron, raisins, citrus, and nutmeg; the fried street snack known as arancini, or stuffed rice balls, is a principal contribution to the local cuisine, but Sicilian candies and pastries were also heavily influenced by their techniques. Greek colonists encouraged an appreciation for seafood, while Spanish conquistadores added tomatoes and cocoa from the New World.
My husband swore he waved to me from the steps of the Cathedral. I didn’t notice. He returned drenched and footsore, in a better mood for exploring on his own.
“You’re such a slug,” said Bronson, pouring himself a glass and plopping down in the garden chair next to me.
Absence makes the heart blah blah, but trust me, we’ve been married a long time and know our boundaries. Good thing we share a passion for wine, the reason for our journey here, especially hard to source vintages of Nero d’Avola (a grape introduced by the Greeks) and organic Nerello Capuccio from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. We also geek out on obscure history: Some of our biggest car arguments are centered on B-side tunes from British synthpop bands or what evil empire carved the craziest monuments from piles of rock. He’s a standard castle and cathedral guy; I favor dictator-chic palaces and lost ziggurats swallowed by jungle.
Modica had something for both of us.
After finishing the wine, we changed into clean clothes and set out for Corso Umberto 1, the main avenue that bisects Modica Bassa and opens into Piazza Muncipio, the city’s de facto living room, lined with palms, fountains, trattorias and shade umbrellas. One of my favorite social rituals in Sicily is the passeggiata, a leisurely evening walk elevated to an art form, when everyone dresses up and strolls before the dinner hour. This performance involves a certain gossipy vedere e farsi vedere (see and be seen), and the Modinese are no exception, wandering back and forth with a gelato in hand, or sipping inky caffé corretto (espresso with a shot of amaretto) at a bar in view of the promenade. My husband and I joined the flow until we located Via Clemente Grimaldi, a side street near the Cathedral of San Pietro, and turned off to enter the ground floor of an old palace, now home to Accursio Ristorante and an anticipated meal worth all the accidental detours.
Chef Accursio Craparo has a modernist sensibility without losing track of his roots. He’s best known for updating the traditional dishes of a childhood spent in Sciacca, a fishing port in the southwest. His dining room was cleanly Mediterranean: walnut chairs, tiny electric lanterns, neutral table linens. (I wanted to steal the napkins.) The wine list is focused on boutique producers who rarely export their best bottles off the island. Craparo knows every one of the winemakers; each of the 150 labels is a treasure. So is his ricotta-stuffed arancini, a deceptive reengineering of the classic rice bomb.
He recommended the spremuta di Sicilia, a citrusy pasta laden with anchovies, bottarga and wild fennel, and then sent out ravioli stuffed with guinea fowl and zucchini leaves, and a stunningly simple pane e cipolla, a sweet-and-sour onion stuffed with black truffle and Fiore Sicano, an aged cow’s milk cheese also known as tinnazzu ri vacca. This dry-salted, mold rind cheese is produced in the Sicani Mountains and hard to come by beyond western Sicily.
We left for a dessert crawl. Modica has a famously sweet tooth, best expressed in the Agrigento pistachio-studded gelato at Caffè Adamo on Via Marchesa Tedeschi and the 'mpanatigghie of Caffe Dell'Arte on Corso Umberto 1. This delicate sweetmeat pastry dates to the Middle Ages, and typically contains lean Modica beef, chocolate, ground cinnamon, and clove. (Legend has it nuns baked them for monks during Lent as a way of sneaking meat into their meals.)
Our last stop was Antico Dolceria Bonjuto, the city’s oldest existing chocolate factory, still owned by descendants of founder Francesco Bonjuto, who opened his wood-paneled confectionary in 1880. The Bonjuto family specializes in cioccolata modicana, based on an Aztec recipe introduced by the Spanish during their rule of the kingdom. The technique employs manual grinding of beans rather than conching, giving the finished chocolate a singular coarse and grainy texture. Wrapped in paper and foil, thick bars were stacked on the counters and in glass cases, with nibs set out for sampling in a tasting corner. Bonjuto is known for its distinct flavors—Trapani salt, white pepper, cardamom, lemon, and ginger. We bought cannoli dipped in chocolate to fuel our hike back up the dimly lit alleyways, and extra bars for the impending drive onward to Etna.
The next morning over rustic toast smeared with honey and huge cups of local hot chocolate, my husband looked across the table at me.
“Let’s stay another day.”
No argument there.
Have you ever been to Modica, Italy? Let us know in the comments below.