Exploring Erice, Sicily

Erice is a medieval town perched up high, way up high. If we thought Taormina was high above the Mediterranean, driving up to Erice felt twice as high, with even more dramatic views of the valley and mountains below. The town is a maze of cobblestone streets, narrower even than those of Taormina. Our hotel, Hotel Elimo, was at the end of one of these medieval streets, and we had to quickly dump the luggage with a car waiting behind us. The streets are barely big enough for one car, let alone wide enough for another car to pass.

We arrived at lunch time, hungry, and found Ristorante Ulisse, a Frommer’s listing, just down a cobbled street from the main piazza, Piazza Umberto. The dining room was already mostly full of what seemed to be a mix of tourists and locals, including a priest lunching after Sunday Mass with a table full of congregants. We both had a regional pasta called busiate, shaped like long thin rag curls. Don had the Trapanese sauce, tomato pesto with basil and lots of garlic. I had the Ulisse sauce, a mixture of the usual vegetables: eggplant, zucchini and tomato. Both were well done and tasty.

After lunch we stopped by Pasticceria Grammatico, a local pastry shop mentioned in both Frommer’s and Lonely Planet. It also appears in one of my Sicilian cookbooks, Sicilian Food, as the author, Mary Tyler Simeti, coauthored the book Bitter Almonds about the life of the nun turned pastry chef who started this shop. The little cookie sized treats are a dense, rich almond based pastry in various shapes and flavors.  My favorite is pistachio with its rich nutty flavor.

In the afternoon we visited Castello di Venere, sitting on a cliff at the edge of Erice with spectacular views of the valley and sea below. The castle site dates back to ancient times, with a more contemporary castle being built around the 12th century.

Inside the ruins aren’t all that much more interesting than what you can see from the outside and it really isn’t worth the admission price of €3 as essentially the same views can be found outside the castle walls.

We ate dinner at another Frommer’s find listing, Monte San Giuliano. This is the type of restaurant I love – when I know the language. The menu is in Italian only; they speak to you only in Italian; and you can fumble a little and they continue to speak Italian. The dining room is pleasant and cozy, decorated in a casual rustic style. The service is friendly and attentive but not overly fussy. We had the plate of various smoked fish and orange; the caserecce (a homemade pasta shaped like floppy folded out tubes) with shrimp, sea urchin and the usual vegetables; swordfish alla matalotta (one of the dishes I made before coming to Sicily) and tonno all’agrodolce, tuna in a sweet and sour sauce, similar to the type of sauce used in caponata and in the meatballs we made at Donatella’s. A simple and different preparation that we will definitely add to our repertoire. The wine, Quarter by Firriato, was also excellent, a blend of four grapes –  Nero d’Avola being the most prominent – with bold fruit and berry flavors.

After dinner we stopped at a pastry shop a few doors down, Pasticceria Michele Il Tulipano. We were the only customers in the place. I ordered a piece of pistachio tart at the counter and they told us to sit down and asked if we wanted a cappuccino with it (Yes, we are tourists. Italians don’t drink cappuccino after breakfast.) I asked if decaffeinato was possible, making up the word –not a huge leap, which turned out to be right. The TV was on a channel with the picture mostly snow as the reception was poor. It was some silly, quintessentially Euro comedian thing that the staff though was hilarious and could barely take their eyes off of. We sat there laughing at the situation, wishing we understood what was so funny – what insight we would have into their culture – and eating the bad, bad, bad tart. Only the pastry had any flavor (certainly not the filling) and it tasted like bad pastry. In no way deserving the high recommendation in Frommer’s.

Erice has more churches than restaurants and for €5 you can get a day pass that gets you into the top five, including entrance to the bell tower of the Duomo.  Most of the exteriors are simple in design with few ornate embellishments. A couple of the churches have a soft

pink stuccoed exterior than contrasts nicely with the gray tones of the surrounding stone buildings and streets. The interiors are generally more contemporary in design, having been redone in more recent centuries. One could spend all day taking pictures of the streets and churches of Erice, with so many intriguing shapes and angles.

For lunch we ate at Caffé S. Rocca, with a rustic style similar to Monte San Giuliano but with a more intimate dining room featuring stone walls and a wooden ceiling. We had the octopus salad, a simple preparation with celery and cooked peppers in a light oil and vinegar dressing; risotto marinara, a seafood risotto in a tomato based sauce, tasty but a little heaving on the salt; and the busiate alla S. Rocca, pasta with swordfish, the usual vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, tomato and onion) and seasoned with mint, yummy and not too salty.

Before dinner I sat in the living area of the hotel, which also turned out to be the living room of the family that runs the place. As I worked on my blog, the mother watched game shows on the TV next to me. She is a quiet woman that really doesn’t say much in any language. I finally heard her speak English when someone came in to inquire about a room and directly asked her if she spoke English, or perhaps German?  “No, no, English.” When asked about the room price. She answered “€110” in English. The man repeated the price hoping for a reduction, but she simply repeated “€110”. I’m not sure she knew any other numbers.

For dinner we ate at La Pentolaccia, a Lonely Planet listing, located next door to Caffé S. Rocca. We choose it because they had a sign outside the entrance that read “oggi cuscus” (today couscous). The western side of Sicily has a stronger Arab influence so one is more likely to find North African style dishes such as seafood couscous. The dining room is in a 16th-century monastery and has a similar rustic ambiance to the other restaurants of Erice, albeit with warmer yellow walls with ceramic tile accents. We had the antipasto rustico, a plate of assorted antipasto including: olives, cured anchovies, sun dried tomatoes (super flavorful), fried potatoes pieces (not so good), hard dried sausage ( spicy and excellent) and two kinds of cheese (OK); the seafood couscous with pieces of fish and strips of calamari served with a rich and flavorful  fish broth on the side, to be poured or ladled over the couscous, very nice seafood flavor and well seasoned; the seppie ripiene (stuffed cuttlefish, similar to squid) The stuffing was oregano flavored bread crumbs similar in flavor and texture to the bread crumb coating used on the swordfish alla Palermitana that I had in Palermo. The cuttlefish was cooked well and not rubbery; the stuffing, however, was just as soggy as it was in Palermo. The last dish was a veal cutlet in a rich buttery balsamic vinegar sauce. The veal was cooked perfectly, tender and still pink in the middle and the sauce was rich and tangy without overwhelming the meat. We selected the Planeta Chardonay having read good things about this wine and were not disappointed, not oaky or too sweet with nice acidity. Just another lovely meal in Erice.

The next morning we woke up to dense fog. The weather up here in the clouds can be quite windy at times and is foggy first thing in the morning – usually burning off by the afternoon. Made for some interesting pics.

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One Response to Exploring Erice, Sicily

  1. Pingback: Thinking About a Trip to Sicily? | Cooking in Tongues

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