The lineup held promise, the name not so much. When I arrived at Castello Fiorentino, a pizzeria down a narrow lane of this fabled Sicilian city, about a dozen people were waiting in the glow of a streetlight outside. The "Florentine Castle" had come recommended by a shopkeeper, and each time the door swung open, revelry worthy of the Sicilian villagers' chorus from Cavalleria Rusticana echoed from the dining room. Yet I wondered: Authentic southern Italian food at a place with northern pretensions? Authentic anything at a "castle"?
I didn't have to wait long for an answer. A local couple I'd queried earlier about where the line formed turned to me as their number came up. Would I like to join their table?
A Canadian jump the queue? Well, when in Sicily…
Danilo, Annalisa and I each ordered the alla norma , pizza with eggplant and salted ricotta, a classic Sicilian combination said to be named after an opera by local hero Vincenzo Bellini, but argued by others to mean, in Sicilian dialect, "the normal way." My pie, frankly, looked like a kitchen accident. Either that or the toppings had been applied by one very blind and hasty cook tossing from a metre's distance. But it was the second-best pizza of my life. Of this I was instantly certain because the best, also an alla norma , had been dished up (with more symmetrically arranged toppings) only the night before at Syracuse's Gran Caffe del Duomo around the corner.
The pizza double play triggered my first epiphany about Sicilian cuisine. So bred in the bone is it, so ingeniously simple and wedded to fresh, local ingredients are the dishes, that the gap between hidden gem and supposed tourist trap can be negligible. If even the café across from the cathedral manages to cook up magic, you know you're in the culinary promised land.
And it's not just the pizza. Few, if any, regions of Sicily's size - at least in the West - can boast of an everyman's cuisine that is so varied and consistently well-executed. Occupied at times by Arabs, Greeks, Carthaginians, Spaniards, Romans, Normans and others, this large island in the Mediterranean was practising "fusion" cuisine a couple of millennia before Wolfgang Puck landed in West Hollywood.
Rice was introduced by Arabs and is the main ingredient in dangerously addictive arancini , deep-fried golden balls that resemble oranges (or aranci , another Arab import) and are stuffed with meat or vegetables. You'll see these all over, but the best I had were in Marsala, a town on the west coast best known for the sweet, fortified wine of the same name.
Greeks are to thank for the popularity of Sicily's ubiquitous eggplant, or melanzana , a vegetable so surprisingly adaptable and substantial in Sicilian hands it might almost make a carnivore forget meat.
So magical is Sicily's way with the purple nightshade that I developed a dependable system of restaurant dining by ordering anything with the word "melanzane" in it. Such as caponata , an intense ratatouille made with eggplant, capers and olives.
You can also see the pan-Mediterranean cultural influences in the fish chowders that came from Spain and in couscous from nearby north Africa, the granular pasta popular in the western province of Trapani, where it's usually flavoured with fish. Then there are the local takes on Italian pasta, typically vegetarian or featuring fish - as in cannelloni with eggplant, penne with artichokes, and bucatini with sardines and sultana raisins.
To most visitors, though, the most obvious evidence of the revolving-door cultural past is Sicily's architecture, especially the Greek and Roman ruins. Come for that, of course, and don't forget your sunblock in the summer. But here's my No. 1 recommendation for a Sicilian vacation: Come hungry and plan to make plenty of time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maybe also a 5 p.m. glass of sparkling zibibbo and a postprandial digestif of Averna or Marsala.
Best of all, with Dan Brown and Tom Hanks devotees flocking to Rome and other artsy mainland regions to the north, Sicily, the have-not Newfoundland of Italy, is a bargain. As one bartender quipped in colourful dialect after I instinctively left two euros on the counter for a one-euro bottle of water: "Where do you think you are, Milan?"
Syracuse, on the southeast coast, is a good place to begin an architecture-and-appetite tour, best accomplished by rental car. Known locally as Siracusa, this is the birthplace of Archimedes, genius mathematician and inventor most famous for discovering the principle of buoyancy in his bathtub and supposedly running naked into the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka," Greek for "I've found it."
Yes, Greek. For centuries before Christ, Syracuse was the bustling hub of the Greek colonies, or Magna Graecia, that occupied much of what is now southern Italy. Back in the day, it was fearsome enough to defeat rival Athens in the Peloponnesian War.
Ortygia, the old town, is the main area of interest, a tiny island joined to the bland mainland section by two short causeways. It is home not only to the quaint Piazza Archimede but also the duomo, a curious architectural pastiche that began life as a Greek temple to Athena in the fifth century BC. A few hundred years later, it was pillaged by Romans, then was rebuilt and converted into a cathedral in 640 AD. Another assault, this time a catastrophic earthquake, came in 1693. The current façade dates to the 1700s and is one of Italy's last really fine examples of Baroque architecture.
Thankfully, you won't find Greektown-style lamb kebabs over bland rice or tumblers of pine-flavoured retsina in Syracuse. But the city does share Greece's fondness for simply grilled fish. A casual spot to enjoy some of the freshest is Il Porticciolo da Piero, close to the bustle of the daily fish market.
Weather permitting, the café tables outside the Gran Caffe del Duomo are pleasant for taking in that Baroque façade while eating a transcendent eggplant-and-ricotta pizza (without the untraditional ham and egg, in this case), or cannoli, Sicily's famous ricotta-filled dessert logs. This is one of the most beautiful squares in southern Italy.
For some of the best cannoli in the world, though, drive less than an hour south to the Baroque splendour of Noto, a small city where famed pastry chef Corrado Assenza practises his craft at a lovely little shop called Caffé Sicilia.
If you're the unfortunate type who needs physical exertion to work up an appetite on vacation, you might choose to brave the half-hour walk, unscenic as it is, from Syracuse's duomo to the archeological park on the western outskirts of the mainland. In summer, don't forget water. The park is home to the must-see Greek Theatre, a 15,000-seat semicircle hewn out of rock in the fifth century. Plays by Euripides and Aeschylus, Syracuse's other famous son, are still staged in summer. Less impressive but also worth a visit is the nearby Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators made sport of murder.
If you haven't seen quite enough ruins before dinner, consider whipping out your cell and making reservations at Don Camillo, one of Syracuse's best restaurants, off the main square near the duomo. The vaulted dining room was built on the remnants of a 15th-century monastery, which, in a theme pervading eastern Sicilian architecture, collapsed in the 1693 quake.
The food here is classic Sicilian, big on seafood delicacies such as sea urchin, served with sophistication and a choice of more than 400 wines. Try any of the insolias, grillos or catarattos, local white varieties that are invariably crisp and lively and usually very affordable.
A food tour of Sicily is incomplete without a visit to a fish market. Virtually all seaside towns have one. But the big kahuna of tuna, the midway of mullet, the Circus Maximus of octopus, is the one in the nearby city of Catania, one of the Mediterranean's liveliest. It runs mornings Monday to Saturday near the main cathedral. Be prepared to eat a raw shrimp should one of the fishmongers peel and hand it to you in a typical gesture of Sicilian generosity (and shrewd marketing).
About an hour's drive north of Syracuse along the coast, Catania is the main landing point for tourists, where inbound flights can provide spectacular views of Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. Etna itself offers one of the more exciting gastronomic excursions, assuming your definition of gastronomy includes fermented grapes. "The mountain," as thousands of slope-dwellers respectfully call it, is home to dozens of wineries. They're experimenting with grape varieties that can take advantage of the brisk high-altitude temperatures to retain acidity, otherwise a challenge in sun-baked Sicily. Most wineries welcome visitors but usually prefer a phone call. (Call for directions in any case; getting lost on a volcano can be especially nerve-racking.) Among the better producers: Cottanera, Benanti, Murgo and Planeta.
The island itself is one of the most prolific wine-producing regions on the planet, annually churning out about two-thirds the output of Australia. One of my favourite large producers, and one of the best to visit, is Donnafugata in Marsala. This also will give you an excuse to see the picturesque, windmill-driven sea-salt-gathering operations on the Marsala shore.
En route to Marsala, on the north shore, fans of The Godfather may be willing to brave the insane traffic of Palermo, Sicily's largest city, with a population of about a million.
While there, visit Teatro Massimo, where the climax of Francis Ford Coppola's movie trilogy was shot, see the beautiful historic centre and take in the Galleria Regionale della Siciliana, which houses Sicily's greatest art collection. Then eat at Nabucco, an expensive place serving modern twists on traditional fare, or Cucina Papoff, less expensive and blissfully old-fashioned.
Or if you're too nervous or rushed to stray far from your car, pull over and grab something to go. This is one of the world's greatest cities for street food. You can walk around while feasting on such specialties as octopus, boiled artichokes, chickpea fritters, snails, fried smelts and the famous pane ca meusa , beef-spleen sandwich.
Now, that's dinner you're unlikely to find in a Florentine castle.
Beppi Crosariol will be in Sicily with The Globe's Mediterranean Odyssey cruise this August. For more information, visit globeandmail.com/cruise.
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Pack your bags
Getting there Alitalia offers connecting flights to Catania and Palermo from other Italian cities.
Where to stay Hotel des Etrangers et Miramare Paseggio Adorno 10/12; (39) 931 319100; www.desetrangers.it/inglese. Pretty much the top hotel in town, facing the inner bay, not far from the duomo. Great breakfast spread in the sunlit rooftop restaurant. Villa Favorita Via Favorita 27, Marsala, (39) 923 989100; www.villafavorita.com . Ranked as a four-star, this 19th-century villa is affordable and serene.
Where to eat in Syracuse Castello Fiorentino Via Crocifisso 6, Syracuse; (39) 931 21097; www.ortigia.it/ristoranti.asp Gran Caffe del Duomo Piazza Duomo 18, Syracuse; (39) 931 21544. Il Porticciolo da Piero Il Porticciolo, Via Trento 24, Ortygia; (39) 931 61914. Ristorante Don Camillo Via della Maestranza 96, Syracuse; (39) 093 167133; www.ristorantedoncamillosiracusa.it.
Where to eat in Palermo Nabucco Di Guzzo Costantino Largo Cavalieri Di Malta 14, Palermo; (39) 091 584763. Cucina Papoff Via Isidoro La Lumia 32, Palermo; (39) 091 586460.