Who hasn’t heard of Marsala wine? You might not know, however, that it comes from the West coast of Sicily, in fact, Marsala is the most western point of the island. With such notoriety for its wines I would have thought that the town itself would be filled with tourist attractions cashing in on the wine’s fame. But no. You can barely tell that Marsala is even produced here, let alone find a restaurant that serves something al Marsala. Actually when we arrived at lunch time we had a hard time even finding a restaurant that was open. The town center is attractive, charming and clean, lined with baroque buildings. A pedestrian only shopping street runs through the center of the old town with lots of bars and pastry shops but few actual restaurants.
We finally ended up eating at Il Mare Colore del Vino, just off of Piazza Carmine. We had the penne all’arrabbiata and the spaghetti al nero di seppia (cuttlefish, similar to squid, in a black ink sauce). While the arrabbiata was just OK and tasted more like Chef Boyardee than anything really Italian, the al nero was excellent with nice sized pieces of cuttlefish, black creamy heaven. But be careful when cutting cuttlefish. I stuck my knife into the little sucker and squirted black ink all over my shirt and the wall of the restaurant. Thankfully it is water soluble.
After lunch we wandered over to the Archeological museum to see a warship sunk during the First Punic War in 241 BC. According to Lonely Planet seeing this ship alone is worth the trip to Marsala. Well, only if you are really into that sort of thing. Don enjoyed it, but for me a few pieces of really, really old timber on a metal frame showing how the rest of the ship should have looked is interesting but not a must see. The best part of the museum visit was the outing to see the mosaics. Don happened to notice a sign at the front desk that said that if you wanted to see the mosaics, ask at the reception desk. So I did. Yes, we could see them but we would have to walk. “Is it far?” “Un po lontanto” (a little far). OK. We waited for our guide; or rather guide plus companion, two rough looking Italians who smoked too much and spoke in a fast accented Italian that I could barely understand. We walked along the waterfront for about 10 minutes and arrived at a locked gate. No, he didn’t have the key; it’s not supposed to be locked. After a bit of negation of meaning I learned that this excavation site had been closed for some time and had just reopened today. They hadn’t worked out all the kinks in the system yet for tourists to visit the site. Normally there is a path that leads directly from the museum to the site, but it was still under construction, hence the long walk along the waterfront. Finally someone arrived in a car with the key and we were allowed in.
Our guide took us around what was formerly a Roman villa, showing us various sectors of the residence. “This is where the servants lived; the mosaics are simpler and an inferior stone was used.” In the main residence there were mosaic floors with the head of Medusa symbolizing Sicily, a guard dog protecting the entrance and the floor of the sauna drying room decorated with lions, tigers and jaguars attacking their prey. A fun and interesting tour and well worth the wait to get in. Our guide really wasn’t used to talking to foreigners, not knowing how to explain something if I didn’t get it the first time, but we managed. I was thrilled and humbled at the same time. A great authentic speaking experience, but humbling for my lack of vocabulary and speaking skills.
On his run through town later in the afternoon, Don noticed a pleasant looking Bottega just down the street from the hotel. La Bottega del Carmine on Via Caturca, just off of Piazza Carmine, has a lovely patio in back of the dining room with a more modern feel complete with Astroturf. Actually in the dim light of the paper luminaries it’s hard to tell it isn’t real grass. The weather was perfect for dining outside and the setting was quite charming with its quirky fake grass and plastic chairs. The menu was very much like the typical Sicilian menus we had been seeing, but they did have an al Marsala dish, yay! We started with the Antipasto di Mare ed Affumicati, an assortment for two of various seafood appetizers, including two kinds of smoked fish (swordfish and tuna), an octopus salad, another kind of cooked fish with onions, a shrimp and orange salad, and bruschetta (toasted crusty bread) with tomatoes and smoked fish, all very well done and generous for two. The Filetto di bosco al Marsala, a beef fillet with a wonderful light Marsala sauce and a mound of savory mushrooms, perfectly done and tasty. The flavors of the Marsala wine and the mushroom melded perfectly with the beef without being overwhelming. Spaghetti con Triglie di Scoglio e pomodorito, a tomato based spaghetti sauce with red mullet, also excellently done. We wanted to try one of the regional wines – in the region of Marsala they make more than the sweet fortified wine they are famous for – and the waiter recommended the COS, Nero di Lupo, an authentic Sicilian unfiltered Nero D’Avola varietal, which we enjoyed very much. However, having just looked it up online, it is not from Marsala but Ragusa, on the other side of the Island. For desert we tried the 20 year old Marsala, same price as the 10 year old but less sweet (of course this information is coming from the same waiter that recommended the wine.) We did, however, enjoy the Marsala and it wasn’t as sweet as some dessert wines, pairing nicely with the Sbriciolata di Pere con Gocce di Cioccolato (a pear cake drizzled with chocolate). We left happy having tasted a bit of Marsala.