The Italian island of Sicily has long been a vacation destination for global travelers. Once famous for its attachment to the Italian mafia, and the setting for the Old Country scenes in The Godfather, the island has changed persona as of late. Sicily has modernized and tourism is booming, in part due to the immense popularity of the black comedy, The White Lotus. If a trip to Sicily is in the cards, check out our guide on where to eat, drink, and stay on the east side of this magical island.
This is the exceptionally popular hotel where all The White Lotus season two shenanigans take place. A 14th century convent reimagined as a luxury resort, the Four Seasons property is situated on a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea. From the show, you’ll recognize the sumptuous lobby bar, circus-like umbrellas at the infinity pool, and the striking stone pillars throughout the property. Pro Tip: Plan ahead and book early, as The White Lotus effect is real, and this property is regularly booked solid.
A mid-sized hotel with just over 60 rooms, the NH Collection in Taormina is a solid, luxury property boasting sweeping views of the Ionian Sea. The infinity pool and the rooftop restaurant/bar are great places to enjoy the views. The breakfast buffet is sumptuous and not to be missed. The ancient Greek theater and the Corso Umberto, Taormina’s famous shopping street, lie just a few steps away. Pro Tip: An ocean view room on a high floor is a must for spectacular sunrise views from your panoramic terrace.
Taormina is stunning and unique, but crowded, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Ten minutes south of Taormina is the quiet seaside town of Giardini Naxos, for an alternative homebase in the area. Pro tip for those who want a more laid-back vibe: stay in Giardini Naxos and take the very frequent bus to Taormina to make day trips.
In the province of Syracuse in the south east corner of Sicily, is the ancient village of Noto. Built in 1874, Villa Giulia was once a country residence and a wine storage facility for local vineyards. The grounds are sprawling and a garden onsite provides much of the produce served at the restaurant. Rooms are cavernous with high ceilings and cool tile floors with the worn but charming patina that only a 150-year-old property can serve. Pro Tip: the fishing village of Marzamemi is charming, a must visit, and only a 10-minute drive away.
Dane Peter Vinding and his English wife, Susie have lived on three continents where Peter has made wine. Sicily, in the province of Syracuse, is their current home, where they bought land on an ancient volcano and planted vines almost 20 years ago. His flagship wines are single vineyard estate Syrahs: Vigna Grande and Vignolo. Peter recommends holding onto these two “Grand Vins” for 10+ years, as they are built to age. Cuvee Suzanne, a blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc and named after his wife, is one of the “stars of the 2021 vintage, which was a good year” according to Vinding. He continues “It is super elegant, and you can drink it with anything”. Vinding shares: “The Grillo is fine today, but it will certainly last for a few years, growing ample and keeping its nice acidity. Obviously, it is perfect for fish!”
Under the Mazzei family, who have been in the wine business since 1435, Tenuta Zisola was first planted in 2004. With a focus on indigenous varieties (Nero d’Avola, Grillo and Catarratto) and Bordeaux varieties, there’s something for everyone. The property offers various tasting experiences including a food and wine pairing. As for the best recent vintage with the greatest age worthiness potential, winemaker, Gionata Pulignani, proclaims “2019 was an excellent year from a quality point of view. One of the best of recent years, with excellent aromatic and tannin maturation. In particular Nero d’Avola has freshness and acidity, which will allow it to last over time.”
Giasira comes from the word of Arabic origin that means “island”. If you love trying obscure local varieties when you travel, then a visit to Giasira is surely in order. Tasting experiences range from simple wine flights, food pairings, and even a half day hiking adventure. According to enologist Gianfranco Cordero, their Keration white wine made from 100% Catarratto has a good 5+ years ageability potential and pairs well with various Sicilian fish dishes. The Nero d’Avola with racy acidity, plum and cherry notes, plus a slight herbaceous note, is quite food friendly according to Cordero. It’s “perfect paired with dishes of the Mediterranean cuisine, with savory first courses, meat dishes, cold cuts and aged cheeses.”
Grillo and Nero d’Avola are the main planted grapes at Feudo Maccari, a beautiful property in Noto and not far from the charming port town of Marzamemi, mentioned above. The portfolio is spectacular with a few highlights to note. The Grillo expression from the Family & Friends line is “a gastronomic wine to be appreciated even at a higher temperature than classic white wines” according to owner Antonio Moretti Cuseri and would pair well with fish soup and roasted white meats. Saia was the first wine made by Feudo Maccari in 2002 and represents their best selections of bush or “albarello” trained Nero d’Avola vines. When you stick your nose in the glass, you can almost feel the hot Sicilian sun on your cheeks. Pairs well with braised meats and game dishes. “Saia wine is the maximum expression of this (Nero d’Avola) vine” according to Cuseri, who shares that memorable vintages for Saia include 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016. Any of those bottles would make a great addition to your wine collection.
The third of seven properties owned by Planeta, their Noto estate is a beauty. Rolling hills and estate vineyards, plus a winery built into the ground and underground, is barely visible until you reach the building. Etna wines are having a moment, but according to Alessio Planeta, “Noto has the potential to be the next big thing”. The property boasts food and wine experiences, and peaceful, well-appointed accommodations onsite. The wine to try here is Santa Cecilia, their Noto DOC 100% Nero d’Avola. 2021 is the current release; expressive on the nose with notes of sour cherry and dried herbs. This is the wine to hold onto in order to enjoy the bottle evolution. Recent vintages as far back as 2007 are still showing well and an honor to enjoy.
A day to enjoy fresh air and explore Mount Etna is welcomed after endless wine tastings. Etna Wild headed by Etna local, Gianfranco Vasta. Tour options include half-day tours, crater excursions, and added wine tasting visits. The groups are intimate and Gianfranco is engaging, and passionate. The landscape is stunning and a juxtaposition of both barren and lush. Mount Etna is a place to be seen at least once in your life. Pro Tip: snag the front seat in the van to get the best views as you drive up the volcano.
The city of Taormina, up in the hills, is a web of winding cobblestone streets with endless choices of where to eat, drink, and shop. Ristorante Granduca, with its panoramic views and tasty cuisine, did not disappoint. The menu is extensive with wood-fired pizzas and fresh, local seafood as solid choices. Pro Tip: make a reservation for a first-row, ocean view table or arrive right when they open, to secure the coveted view.
If quiet Giardini Naxos, just south of Taormina, is more your speed, then Lamuri is your go to aperitivo spot. Order a cocktail or a glass of wine, and an endless parade of small bites will follow. This is Italian aperitivo: you purchase a drink and the snacks are on the house. On a last visit, the aperitivo included peanuts in shell, potato chips, shelled peanuts, taralli crackers, croquette, crostini, and a cold rice salad. Pro Tip: order the Sicilian Spritz (Prosecco and Limoncello) if you’re not an Aperol fan.
Also in Giardini Naxos, À Putia, is a dining staple in town. The menu is simple and focused on local seafood, including spada or swordfish, a specialty of the area. The best seats are in the cozy main dining room, though for a “chefs table” experience, enjoy outdoor seating with a direct view into the kitchen. Pro Tip: this is also a bottle shop and a great place to stock up on wine for your hotel room or B&B.
It’s no secret that Catania is a foodie lovers paradise. It’s almost impossible to go wrong when dining in this city. Etna Rosso delivered fresh and flavorful local cuisine with every course. Pasta alla Norma, fresh pasta with fried eggplant and fresh shaved ricotta salata, is a specialty and did not disappoint. Pro Tip: Order the traditional method Mount Etna sparkling wine (by the glass or bottle), which is very hard to find and almost never exported to the US.
One of the legendary pastry shops in Catania, Pasticceria Savia was started in 1897 by Angelo and Elisabetta Savia. Now run by their two grandsons, Savia is still a great place to stop and grab a coffee or a nibble (sweet or savory). Pasticceria or pastry shop is a bit of a misnomer, as half of the case is filled with savory snacks, mostly fried, yet all delicious. Pro Tip: For something sweet, try a cannolo. For something savory, any of the arancini options will do. Some are large enough to be an entire meal!
Across the street from Savia is another traditional Pasticceria, Spinella, opened in 1936. With an upscale vibe and a to die for pastry display case, this is where you come for a dessert that is a work of art. On the main drag in Catania, Via Etnea, it’s an easy stop as you’re exploring the sights and sounds of the downtown area. Pro Tip: try the cassata, a traditional Sicilian mini sponge cake covered in marzipan.
Brianne Cohen is an LA based event producer, certified sommelier, wine educator, and wine writer. During the pandemic, Brianne entertained over 7,000 people through her “Virtual Vino” online wine classes, regularly highlighting diverse (i.e. Black, BIPOC, female, and LGBT) owned wineries. She now offers both in-person (and virtual) wine tasting experiences for her corporate clients. Brianne regularly judges at international wine competitions, including the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London and holds the WSET Diploma certificate. She writes on her own blog and for outlets such as Decanter, Vintner Project, and Kiplinger. She also holds an MBA from Loyola Marymount University. Brianne Cohen Wine & Events is a certified woman-owned business with WBENC.