Modica (Sicily)

Cannoli

The good news about my trip to Sicily is that it wasn’t all eating almond cookies and cannoli, looking for parking spaces in Palermo (and paying one of the fellows lurking about to keep an eye on the car), gorging on fresh ricotta, and wiping and everything you possible can in generous drizzles of the amazing olive oil produced there.

There was “pasta” – made from almond paste, a plate that’d fool even those with sharper eyes than I. We had the aforementioned spleen sandwiches, which I was relieved to hear were not made from pancreas, and we ate salumi (charcuterie) because it was so good that it would have felt like a crime not to. (And I didn’t want to get into trouble in Sicily, if you know what I mean.) Since I only had one week on the island – two days of which were travel days, and two other days were dedicated to work that landed in my Inbox right before the trip – we managed to make the time for a quick trip to Modica.

Sicily pictures-76

If no secret that I love chocolate. And if it is still a secret, then I am the worst keeper of secrets in the world. And I knew that no trip to Sicily would be complete without a trip to Modica, a city with a chocolate-rich history. And friends right and left kept telling me that if I had a chance to go there, I should jump on it.

Sicily - Modica

So I booked a hotel online and off we went, driving across the island, stopping at service stations and sipping excellent espresso, drinking fresh orange juice, and eating panini. In Italy, even gas station coffee is a gazillion times better than the coffee you get back home, the oranges are locally grown, and everything is served with a smile and a laugh. (Well, just the food. The guys pumping the gas – and yes, they still have people pumping the gas for you, handing you a handwritten receipt, if you need one – weren’t as friendly as the fellows in the cafe.)

Ragusa, Sicily

We were told it was 3 to 3 ½ hours to Modica from where we were staying and almost took everyone’s word at it, and did it as a day trip. Arriving in Modica a bit more than 4 ½ hours later, after darkness had fallen over the city, I was cranky and wiped out from navigating streets and maps. And our first thirty minutes were spent struggling to find our hotel; no one in the small city had ever heard of the street that it was on, which I thought was kinda strange. Finally I called and they kindly reeled us in (turns out we were half-block away), and fortunately, we were three-quarters of a block from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto chocolate and confectionary shop.

(When you arrive, even if it’s in the evening later than you anticipated…once you get your head out of the Michelin map of Sicily, which is bigger than the island – it’s easy to see why Modica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s beautiful.)

Modica

Because I have the world’s best partner, he happily agreed to go with me right away (although I think he knows of the consequences if he doesn’t…), and at the beautiful little shop with glass showcases of vintage chocolate-making tools and paraphernalia, they had bowls of each and every chocolate to taste. And taste, we did!

Sicily

Sicily

I love coarse Sicilian chocolate, which is reminiscent of Mexican and Spanish chocolates, where the beans are not finely ground, so texture remains slightly crumbly and bitter, often with a hint of cinnamon added. And proof of the adage that “if you offer a taste, people will buy” (which may just be my adage, because I always do), after tasting each and every chocolate, I bought a big bag of chocolate bars – from ones seasoned with white pepper, to another made with Trapani salt, and blocks of almond-studded torrone. We also tasted a spicy chocolate syrup that I wasn’t sure what it was for, but it was fiery hot and delicious. While my mouth tingled with the heat, I continued to scrape the cup clean.

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto

They were so nice, especially when I pointed out my friend Mort’s chocolate book in their showcase, and they even brought out a plate of pastries to try – a rich marzipan-like cookie made with almond paste they grind on the premises, aranciata e cedrata, a shredded tangle of candied citron and orange, and ‘Mpanatigghi, a specialty of Modica, cookies made with beef and chocolate. The woman at the shop told us the recipe was 400 years old and a closely guarded secret, but they did let me got into the back where they were forming the cookies to watch.

Sicily

In the kitchen they were preparing and rolling out the dough, then piping a mixture of meat and chocolate on each one. And in case you want to know how bakers and pastry chefs keep in shape, check out those forearms! They told me the recipe was conceived as a way to preserve meat, but they’re still popular, in spite of the advent of refrigeration. I ate one and liked it, surprisingly. As I did with the tiny “olives” in a jar of olive oil, which were actually little ovals of almond paste preserved in the thick oil. Delicious.

I also tasted a chocolate-eggplant pastry that curiously, was a memorable combination for me. About a decade ago at an Italian wine bar in Paris, they had candied eggplant stuffed with ricotta, chocolate and candied orange on the menu for dessert, served with chocolate sauce. I was intrigued. But when I ordered it, the waiter advised me not to. However I was proud of my contrarian nature, because I liked it – a lot. Although folks think it sounds weird, eggplant is technically a fruit, and when candied, it takes on a lovely, silky texture that goes marvelously with creamy ricotta and dark chocolate. So even vegetarians can have an unusual chocolate experience in Modica, too.

Sicily

Dinnertime was rolling near, but it was hard to resist one last treat: a cannoli with cow’s milk ricotta (shown at the top of the post), which they told me was a southern Sicilian thing, different from the sheep’s milk ricotta used in the north of Sicily. The smoother cow’s milk ricotta was more refined, less-grainy. I would have liked to have spent more time comparing cannoli, but since time was limited – and my energy was waning, I wanted to hit apertivo hour before dinner, the great Italian custom of having a drink, with something to eat alongside. (An Italian woman once said to me, “Of course you must have something to eat when you drink, no? – it’s much nicer!”

Sicily

I ordered a Spritz and Romain had a flute of prosecco. The two glasses came out followed by a generous platter of little sandwiches, wedges of pizza, potato chips, and savory cream puffs. It could easily have been dinner, but we had reservations to go to at A putia ro vinu, so we left with the plate half-empty, or half-full, depending on how you look at it. (The bill for our two drinks, and all that food was a startling €7,50. In addition to the beautiful architecture, I’m putting Modica on my list as a place to come back to.)

Modica dining

We hadn’t done a bunch of research for where to eat. And to tell you the truth, I was about to collapse from the day of co-piloting during the drive, in spite of the extra boost of energy from all the chocolate. Dinner at the trattoria was homespun, and just fine. We had three small carafes of house wine (our total wine bill was €3!) – I loved my bowl of Paddunedda carni, a soup with thin noodles and tiny meatballs floating in the broth, then had a bollito misto (boiled meat) that was okay, although I was eyeing Romain’s heap of pasta with eggplant and took a few tastes, and I wish I had ordered that. We concluded with two icy lemon graniti, one espresso for my Parisian driver/dining companion – and after that, I was épuisé (kaput), and we called it a night.

The next day we headed to Ragusa. After getting caught in a tangle of traffic, and still a bit bleary from the previous day’s drive, we parked the car and walked around. The only thing I knew about Ragusa is that is was supposed to be beautiful, and that they are famous for a pizza-like turnover, or roll-over, called scaccia. I found a great quote in a Saveur article, accompanied by a recipe, which said “The uglier your scaccia looks, the better it tastes.”

We’d been given brief directions to go to a specific place, which consisted of – “It’s at the end of one of those long streets in Ragusa”, and after driving back and forth (and forth and back) down a number of long streets, checking out each end in search of the legendary scaccia, we asked at a local café where to go and were directed to a nearby forno (bakery.)

Sicily

It wasn’t the best pizza I had, nor the best scaccia (although to be honest, I’d never had scaccia, so don’t take my word for it), but we at least could have bragging rights for trying it. Being a hedonist, I skipped visiting the church in favor of wandering around, hoping to come across an interesting pastry shop. And sure enough, although I can’t find my way out of a Sicilian city or town to save my life, my instincts for finding a nice place for sweets were still as sharp as ever.

Bar Olimpia (Via Salvatore, 12) has a fabulous façade, the kind that makes you want to head in right away.

Ragusa, Sicily

I went inside and found a glass showcase full of treats, include some elaborately glacéed cakes made of almond paste (a specialty of Sicily), and a great variety of cookies. My favorite was the quaresimale. I have a recipe for crispy ones in Ready for Dessert, but the ones here were soft nuggets made with dried fruit and crackly almonds. I know better than to pick a fight in Sicily, and since theirs were so good, I didn’t ask.

Sicily

Most interesting were the ‘Bones of the dead’ cookies, which looks fantastic (although via a mix-up in my lousy Italian, I almost got 50 of them, rather than 5) – however when I got home and tasted one, I nearly chipped a tooth they were so firm.

Sicily pictures-74

Many Italian cookies are baked, and rebaked (biscotti means “twice-baked”) so that they are intentionally crisp, and meant to be dunked. But I tried a brief dunking, then a lengthier dip in the glass, then a several-minute saturation. But nothing was going to soften those cookies. So I didn’t just leave my heart in Sicily, I left my bones, too.

43 comments

  • I drove around Sicily this spring, and it was one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time. The food was invariably excellent and people were very friendly and welcoming.

    Ragusa is stunning. Besides the architecture and picturesque setting, I also loved Ragusano, a hard cow’s milk cheese. Another Sicilian cheese discovery was Enna Piacentinu, sheep’s cheese perfumed with saffron and whole peppercorns.

  • I just wanted to say that I am sooo enjoying your sicily travelogue – i adore Sicily and am vicariously reliving my trip there

  • You are killing me with this one. I am going to have to make a trip to Modica now just to eat chocolate!

  • I have decided that salted chocolate is even nicer than salted caramel! There is now a museum of chocolate in that part of London where I live, and although the chocolate it sells is far from cheap, it is extremely delicious!

  • Please keep posting about your Sicily trip! It seems my only trips to Europe include a stop in Sicily, it helps that I have family there….but we keep getting drawn back in by the people, lack of tourists, and the fact that a mediocre meal is hard to come by.
    I live in your old stomping grounds, Berkeley CA, and I’m afraid what people think is good Italian food is really what I have termed ‘California Italian’.
    I made the almond cookies in your last post, wonderful. I accidentally used pistachios that were lightly salted(for the outside of the cooke), and it added a very nice sweet/salty dimension to the cookie.
    I love the culture, the people, the food….. damn, time to plan a trip for 2014.

  • The chocolate and island of Sicily look beautiful.
    My sister has been banging on about me going after she went to Trapani for the Easter festivals.
    What’s with the down on offal? You know you eat it in all sorts of products – sausages and pies, hazlet and haggis, to name but a few.
    Pancreas is usually called sweetbreads here, although in someplaces they reserve that name for thyroids, but no worries, they are very easy to tell apart. Different but equally delicious.
    With xmas looming, it must be the gizzards season. Yum.

  • David, there must be SOME way to eat those osse da morto. Perhaps they become softer when they are warmed through? I would be interested in knowing how the locals eat it, and also what they are made of. They LOOK like some kind of meringue on top of some kind of brittle, but that would not account for the hardness, no matter how dry they were. (A quick online survey did find one reader who planned to use them for teething biscuits….)

  • Catherine: It’s interesting because I was just reading a book on “Italian-American” cuisine by an Italian who lives in the US (Lidia Bastianich.) And it’s funny to think that there is a whole parallel “Italian” cuisine, that exists in America – much (or some) of it cooked by Italian immigrants. I guess it’s like Tex-Mex cuisine, which is sort of a fusion.
    : )

    Nick: I don’t mind offal – in fact, I just had a salade Landaise for lunch today (in Paris) that was covered with confit of gizzards and liver. (And I had sweetbreads a few weeks ago, too.) I am concerned, however, that since many of those organs are used as ‘filters’, that the animals raised for organ meats be as sustainably raised as possible, for that reason. I have a recipe bookmarked for kidneys that I’ve wanted to make from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for quite some time, but don’t know where I can find them in Paris that have been sustainably raised.

    Linda: We used to make them at Chez Panisse (from the recipe in Chez Panisse Desserts) and they were light and crispy. I don’t know how anyone could have eaten those cookies, but I would imagine they might have been nice layered in a cake that was left to soak?

    • I can see your reasoning re the offal.
      I use a little abattoir a couple of villages away, they only deal in locally reared animals – their access precludes the big lorries of beasts hauled from miles or even countries away.
      The farmers mostly bring a few animals at a time, usually in the back of their pickups.
      Few beasts are shed reared here, almost everything is kept on the thick lush grass.
      I guess I don’t have the city dwellers perspective and fears.

  • Your mention of aranciata e cedrata caught my eye because I love both ingredients, but it must be a very localized delicacy. Google failed to bring up anything but an Italian website offering it for sale (I think). Any idea what goes into making it? Or is it literally orange and citron, period?

  • I had a similar experience a few years ago when my husband and I visited Sicily. That darned Michelin map, made driving there look so easy! The GPS we’d brought was equally useless. We got lost so many times, I can’t count. At one point my husband stopped the car in the middle of nowhere and said, “I am going to call Hertz right now and tell them to come and get this car”. This outburst was followed by 3 hours of us driving in sullen silence. Driving in Sicily was definitely a test of our marriage. Fortunately we survived the challenge.
    And it was definitely worth it. The food was so fantastic, that I wished I’d had a much bigger stomach to devour it all. Besides the superb gelato in Noto, my favorite dish was pasta alla Norma – with a delicious eggplant and tomato sauce with Nero d’Avola red wine.

    • Although a lot of the major roads are well marked, they’ll point in the direction to go – then you hit a roundabout, and there are no signs which road to take from there. Fortunately my “driver” was Parisian and isn’t afraid of anything, so was fine driving through Palermo, etc..

  • I was just reading an Italian dessert cookbook from the library last night and it has a recipe for Chocolate Eggplant – I read it, thought “blech” and moved on. But I guess I will make a copy of the recipe and try it sometime. The book is “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan, if anyone is interested.

  • Long time follower, first time commenter. We were just in Italy and I thank God for the GPS. It does take some of the adventure out of travel, as getting lost can be an adventure. But it does save time and eliminates much frustration. It gets you to where you want (most of the time.) Especially important if traveling in the country side as most roads have no apparent name. It also helps relationships, i.e. between driver and navigator. Don’t leave home with out it!

  • Talking about Sicily, did you get a chance to have some cucidita.. fig-stuffed cookies that are made for Christmas and traditionally from Sicily. I just made them for the Baking with Julia group and they were fantastic.. just wondering what the authentic ones would taste like!!

    • I did have some fig-stuffed cookies that was okay, but not great. I’m trying a recipe right now and if I like it, I’ll share it on the site.

  • Hoping to visit Sicily next Spring so loving your recent posts. There are so many recipes for Ossi dei Morti – get the right one and they’re delicious. This one, for instance is based on a Chez Panisse/Lindsey Remolif Shere recipe. Before your time I think but you might like – definitely not tooth shattering!
    http://saffron-strands.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/ossi-dei-morti-bones-of-dead.html

  • San Antoninu vestito di velluto
    Fa me trovare un posto fotutto

    That’s a Palermitano prayer to St. Anthony for a parking spot . He’s the patron saint of finding lost objects. The parking place is assumed to be yours but temporarily mislaid. It works for me in Berkeley.

    I enjoy your books and blog. Thank you.

  • I’ve never been to Italy, but your description of the food alone, not to mention the photos, makes me want to reconsider, right away. Especially the chocolate and pastries, not to mention very good gas station coffee. Sounds like a great journey. Just a little wary though of the navigation challenges. I guess google maps isn’t available over there?

  • You thought the guys at the gas station were less than friendly? Try being towed in Ragusa and ransoming your car back. The bright side? Knowing you’ll be having dinner when the ordeal is over … Also, re the delectable cannoli in the south – we were at dinner at a friend’s in Marina di Ragusa where we’d barely made a dent in the cannoli (from Caffe delle Rose), so the hostess begged us to take some home. So now I can say that when a Sicilian told me to “take the cannoli,” it was an offer I couldn’t refuse!

  • Sweetbreads in the US are thymus gland from the middle of the “chest”–part of the immune system. And delicious…

  • What an awesome post. Your pictures are wonderful and I feel like I am in Modica as well.

    I was thirty years of age when I left my little town, New Iberia, in South Louisiana and started traveling. I was raised in Cajun country where good food was our greatest pleasure and a form of entertainment.

    Thank you for taking me (at seventy-five years of age) on such a delightful trip to Modica.

    Your post are an adventure and I look forward to each new one.

  • Hi, David
    Thank you for your wonderful posts! Lucky you to have such delectable travel spots nearby. Here’s a link to a blog I follow: Proud Italian Cook. Marie just posted her annual holiday recipe for those Cucidati cookies. Lisa

    http://www.prouditaliancook.com/2013/11/scenes-from-our-annual-cucidati-making-day.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ProudItalianCook+%28PROUD+ITALIAN+COOK%29

  • Thanks David, I was just in Sicilia for the month of September with some old (and, alas, we are old now) school chums. Spent ’71 – ’72 in school in Firenze. We really enjoyed Modica, and ate very well at a simple storefront trattoria on the main street. What a beautiful town.
    Thanks for the Mandorle cookie recipe… I love those so much and can hardly wait to make them. I already have got the almond flour… but what about a recipe for the Almond Paste Pasta? Was it made partially with almond flour? Is the dough very sticky to work with? Any chance of posting a recipe for the pasta? It looks divine. Is it sweet or savory? I’m guessing savory.
    And Thanks for taking us vicariously on wonderful food and travel adventures.

    • I second the request for a recipe for the almond paste pasta. It’s a totally intriguing concept.

  • Hi David, just a note about the bones of the dead ‘osse da morto’ the sicilian have them on halloween, tip on how to eat it, you leave them in your mouth and slowly slowly you crack it and soak them with your saliva, really nice sweet biscuits… enjoy

    recipe
    ingredients:

    600 g cake flour
    600 g caster sugar
    12 g of clove powder
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    150 grams of water

    prepare the sugar syrup, it is important NOT to boil the syrup.
    In the mixer add the flour, cinnamon, clove powder and pour in the sugar syrup.
    mix the ingredients well , then take the dough and return to the heat for a few seconds, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon .You will get a soft dough .

    on a floured table roll many sausages and then give them the classic shape to make the biscuits .
    Cover the biscuits obtained with a veil and let it dry for at least 3-4 days. In the old days you dry them in the sun during the day and bring them in at night.

    After this time the dough on the surface has dried , assuming a whitish color . It ‘s time to bake.
    Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and arrange the biscuits, wide apart , on a baking sheet on which you placed a sheet of parchment paper wet and squeezed .

    Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the sugar will caramelized.

    Remove from the oven and let cool before removing.

  • David, Lidia Bastianich is from my homeland, Croatia, not Italy.

  • Jessica: Yikes, I can imagine it’s not a pleasant experience getting your car towed in Sicily. People were pretty helpful there telling us how to use the machines to buy parking slips from the meters, but in Palermo, I could only imagine if you didn’t pay those guys to “watch” your car for you – it was €5 well spent!

    Sandra: Thanks – I never delved into her heritage but apparently she was born in a part of Croatia that was Italy, at the time. Her website talks about “her Italian roots and culture”, but it was interesting to read a little more about her.

    jacky: Appreciate the recipe : )

    Linda & Grace: I don’t know where you’d find a recipe. I think those were more decorative than meant to be eaten, although I could be wrong. My guess is that they are made from almond paste and glucose, or something else to make the paste more pliable. Or else they are just almond paste – either way, they’re shaped by some pretty skilled hands!

  • Never noticed how Mexican and Spanish chocolates are grainier, I think the added texture would make them more interesting :)

  • Not to quarrel with your depiction of Romain as Best Partner Ever, because he’s obviously a treasure, but I’m not sure agreeing to immediately accompany you to a chocolate emporium makes him a saint – it just makes him sane:).

  • oh I remember hunting for hotels in the old towns in Europe. It is always a painful, even with a GPS. I remember several times in Spain when the GPS kept telling us to turn the wrong way down one way streets, we drove around for 30 minutes before we got to our hotel, and just like you we were only about half a block from it but just couldn’t navigate there.

    We have since learned to just pay for parking at the fringe of the old town and walk to the hotel.

  • Ohhhhh thanx for putting some picture in to Sicily dreaming to visit since my high school days reading ‘Mario puzo’
    as always i enjoyed it

  • Thank you for the charming story. We first visited Sicily for a month twelve years ago and fell in love with the Ragusa province. After three trips to Sicily in four years we bought a house in Modica that we restored for three years. It’s not the easiest place to get to from New York, but it gets more enchanting every trip. Modica is not only beautiful, but also a bustling, active and real small city. Glad you enjoyed it and posted about it. Sad I’m almost out of my Bonajuto orange peel candied in Sicilian honey from our September visit!

  • A few years ago I particpated in a workshop about cooking with chocolate and we also made this candied eggplant with ricotta an chocolate and it was delicious. It was accompanied by a desert wine from Pantelleria, an island south of Sicily. This wine, Passito di Pantelleria, made the dish even more memorable!

  • Hi David,
    I’ve been living in Sicily for 20 years now, in Messina, on the north-eastern tip of the island. Modica and Ragusa are some of my favourite places, and I always get down there when I can. Reading your post has made me think it’s time for another visit! My daughter goes wild about the Bonajuto chocolate too, especially the cinnamon version. They even use it in their local form of ragù, and it gives a silky texture and shot of cocoa to the meat sauce that is actually quite addictive!
    The ossa da morto are traditional at this time of year here in Messina too, since they are baked to celebrate the Day of the Dead on 2 November. They’re not all hard, thank goodness, and after years of trial and error I now have my trusted pasticcerie where I know my teeth will not be endangered. As for the hard ones, there is NO solution. They’re hard, and will break your teeth, quite simply!

  • David, I really love this post. It was like being with you. Does your partner share his food with you willingly, or he is forced?

  • yum! everything looks so delicious.

    i’m giving away a kitchenaid mixer on my blog! i’d love it if you came by and said hi!:
    http://lovintheoven.com/2013/11/dulce-de-leche-espresso-bean-cookies.html

  • David, you are my true & you are my blue. Inspirational, romantic & witty. I think you are the originator of my creamy broccoli soup…

  • Thank you for letting us visit beautiful places through your eyes. And thanks to Romain for joining you on these adventures.

  • oh yes, your “french driver” is monifique (sic). did you see the Big Blue? we owned a cinque centro when we lived in italy for 10 years!

  • My holiday in Ragusa was one of the best, made even more memorable because my friends living there brought me to some of their favourite places. Sicily is indeed a gem!

  • u know I love it and David is witty but I think is a tad crazy lol..love the posts. The pictures are to die for. Kudos

  • Hi David
    Being of Sicilian heritage but having spent most of my life in Piemonte (the other part of my heritage) I finally went to SIcily and visited the eastern part of the island. I found the Sicilians with one notable exception, to generally be very unfriendly, unhappy and unhelpful, unlike the Italians on the mainland. The exception, of course, was Siracusa where we ate better than any place else.(We also visited Ragusa and ate at one of the Michelin star restaurants, Taormina was all tourist food for the abundant disgorgements of the cruise ships. Although I must say Noto had great ice cream). The people of Siracusa were delightful and happy, the food divine, the city and history wonderful. If you go to Sicily, be sure you visit Syracuse, and don’t feel bad if you miss any place else on the eastern part of the island.