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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Review: Gigliotto - Piazza Armerina

Mount Etna, Sicily, topped in snowImage via Wikipedia
Gigliotto Agriturismo
SS 117 bis km 60 - Piazza Armerina (EN)
+39 0933 970898 / +39 0933 979092

1 out of 3 Stars
Accommodation: 100 euro per couple
Dinner: 3 course meal,
typical Sicilian ; 60 euro for two including wine

After being recommended in both the Lonely Planet Guide and the Touring Club of Italy - Guide to Sicily, both reputable and independent publications, one would assume that this agriturismo would come out trumps, especially as it was located in one of the most fertile areas of Sicily, being Piazza Armerina.

Gigliotto was described in glowing terms by both guides mentioned above.  One wonders if the authors actually stayed there.  The experience at Gigliotto can only be described as disappointing for the discerning traveller. The place itself, a converted monastery was simply beautiful and stylishly restored. The immaculate gardens and surrounds had a significant amount of work done on them. The extension of the guest rooms external to the original monastery itself, were built in the style of the monastery and thus structural harmony was retained. The unobstructed views of a snow capped Mount Etna in the distance were priceless, while the plantations consisting of rows of prickly pears (fichi d'india) and olive trees gave the visitor a warm and uniquely Sicilian feeling.

The sad thing is that although the owner has obviously exerted considerable effort and energy in restoring this place and in creating a splendid location it is unfortunately let down by the management and of the quality of the produce and meals.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the front desk manager who barely lifted his eyes from his sporting newspaper in order to greet us. The usual feeling of warmth and genuine social contact you seem to expect from Sicilian agriturismi was missing. It is the people, the characters, the stories and the local charm that draws you back to Sicilian agriturismi. Instead, at Gigliotto, there was the feeling of being in a place without a soul.

The room we were given was quite comfortable, warm and cosy. Mind you this was only after being initially shown to a room half the size with one quarter the window. The dinner was served between 8:00pm and 9:30pm and was simply not up to the standard Sicilian quality.

The caponatta, usually delicious, was largely bereft of the unique flavours that make it such a typical Sicilian dish. The rest of the antipasti was as inedible as it was uninspiring.  The olives were great though. Then came the driest meat dishes I have ever been served in Sicily. The pork looked as though it had been cooked in the morning, refrigerated and then heated up that night (a practice that the staff admitted to doing for the veal). The lamb, while slightly more tasty still seemed like yesterday's leftovers. The only dish that was of any quality was the fresh aromatised, Sicilian sausages.

No dessert was served, instead we were "treated" with Oranges and Mandarines that were old, greying and dry. And this from the land of the Orange Groves!  How you can manage to serve such poor quality oranges in a land where even the oranges left in the gutter retain a beautiful deep orange glow of freshness, is totally beyond me. The staff's protestations that the oranges were picked from the estate confused me further.

And the cost of this dinner - 30 euro per person! Sicily is a place where you would expect no more than 22 euro per person for dinner at an agriturismo and still eat like a local King.

The cost of the accommodation - 50 euro per person.

Overpriced for sure - and such a shame given the beauty of the location.
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Review: La Piazzette - Caltagirone

La Piazzetta
Via Vespri, 20/A - Caltagirone (CT)
+39 0933 24178

3 out of 3 Stars
Dinner: 3 course meal,
typical Sicilian ; 45 euro for two including wine

Don't be put off by the name. La Piazzetta is not a pizzeria. Instead it is one of those typical restaurants found in country Sicilian towns that cannot but help serve only the most earthy, mouth watering and honest dishes.

La Piazetta is located in the home of traditional Sicilian ceramic art, Caltagirone, and is found a mere 150 metres or so from the famous Scala di Santa Maria del Monte (Staircase of Saint Maria), with its unique hand decorated ceramic features.  Although there were one or two signs indicating where to find La Piazzetta near the base of the Scala di Santa Maria it was not how we found this jewell. Instead we took the best option available whenever you find yourself hungry in a Sicilian village. You look for a group of three old men chatting in the street and you ask them where you can find the best "real local" (in Italian "dove si mangia bene qui vicino?")

Their first response will be at their home with their wife, who no doubt cooks better than anyone else in Sicily, but when you politely decline their invitation they will invariably tell you where the best local produce is cooked. As with any Sicilian village and town, there will always be innumerable places to eat well, but the personal approach will always have the locals directing you to the place that is closest on foot.

La Piazetta serves dishes derived from mainly local ingredients (would you want anything else in Sicily)...and generous servings at that. Upon being seated for a Sunday lunch, our order is taken by the chef and owner, a Sicilian with the great name, Brillantino. There was no use choosing anything from the menu because every dish looked tantalising, ranging from local wild boar to charcoaled artichokes. Instead we took the best option in this type of restaurant, and that was to ask the advice of Chef Brillantino who suggested for starters, the traditional bruschetta (heavy use of cherry tomotoes and only a hint of garlic for taste) and antipasto rustico (freshly made ricotta, lightly grilled, egg flour pieces with prosciutto and rosemary, local olives). From the first taste we knew that only the freshest ingredients were being used.

Knowing how large the main course would be, Brillantino suggested one plate of pasta to share between the two of us and understanding that we are big fans of the wild fennel found in Sicily, we were provided with a gnocchetti (actually a local pasta variety that was very similar) with ragu made from sausage (salsiccia) and wild fennel (finocchietto salvatico). To say that this was one of tha tastiest pasta dishes I have ever had would not be too far from the truth.

For main we had a roast pork leg (maialino arrosto) seasoned with rosemary and local herbs and lamb (aniello arrosto). Both dishes resembled the tremendous delicacy usually only found in dishes that are slow cooked. How they arrived at such a way is a local secret.  Both dishes were totally memorable with the roast pork making me think that while the Bavarians may have perfected roast pork, but the Sicilians added their own inimitable flair.

Even the carafe of house red was a good drop and complemented the hearty dishes on offer.

Antipasti were around 5 euro. Pasta was 7 euro and main was 8 euro. Total meal, including drinks and the refreshing home made limoncello to top it all off at the end of the session came to 42 euro for two. And this, my friends, is considered expensive in this part of the world.

Well recommended and a definite lunch or dinner stop while in Caltagirone, if not only to view the photos of Brillantino with various Italian models and showgirls on the wall.
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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Surfing? Sicily? You better believe it

The calm seas of the Mediterranean do sometimes give way to the awesome swells of surf ... in some places ... including parts of Sicily.

Dream of Italy� - Italy Travel News Blog: Surf's Up in Italy

Sunday, 2 May 2010

2,500 year "Homer" Ship Found off Coast of Sicily - A Treasure Hunter's Delight

Sicily has many more treasures to give up yet. Recently, a ship dating back to 500 BC was salvaged off the coast of Gela, Sicily. The ship was believed to be sailing from Greece to Gela, a Greek colony, transporting various materials. The 21-metre long vessel, is the largest of its type ever discovered, but what is the most amazing thing to me, is that the ship was constructed using a particular obscure method, of pine planks ''sewn'' together with plant fibre, described in beautiful detail by the legendary classical writer, Homer, in his epic, The Iliad.

It is the best-preserved example in the world of a Greek ship built using this technique, and therefore has earned the title of the "Homer" ship. In fact, according to this article from National Geographic, the ship is, "something of a missing link in the evolution of naval engineering".

Sicily's regional councillor for culture, Antonello Antinoro, went even further in typical Italian flourishing style by claiming that, ''Gela's ancient ship is the patrimony not only of Sicily but of all humanity.''

Go here for an amazing video of the submerged vessel. This significance of this discovery kind of makes you want to get into the diving business as a treasure hunter.

Footnote: Sicily, as readers of this blog will recall, was the site of a number of flourishing Greek city states, such as Gela and Naxos, and including the Daddy of them all, the great Syracusa, which rivalled Athens for dominance in the Hellenic world.

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