Perched near the northeastern tip of Sicily between mountain cliffs and sea, Taormina is anything but new. This town of narrow, winding, lava-paved streets, lush Mediterranean gardens and jaw-dropping views has been a must-see for generations of aristocrats, artists, moguls, celebrities and tourists. Most of the architecture is medieval, but the town's origin stretches back to 4th century BC.
What is new is a growing food-and-wine scene, with innovative chefs creating the first modern Sicilian gastronomy worthy of the island's incredible natural bounty of fresh produce and seafood. It's a break with tradition—once, the only good cooking was found at home. Hand in hand with the gastronomic boom is a steadily emerging wine scene: Scores of new wineries, some helped by winemakers from mainland Italy, are transforming this island, best known as the nation's largest bulk producer.
For the wine-loving traveler, the changes have already been dramatic. A decade ago, a memorable restaurant experience meant a table with a beautiful view but little else, and visitors complained of being served Italian wines that had spoiled in the Sicilian summer heat. Since then, new chefs have modernized the local Sicilian cuisine, already notable for its exotic east-meets-west and savory-meets-sweet combinations.
In a centuries-old palace in the heights of the town, a local investor, a French architect and Taormina's hottest chef, Pietro D'Agostino of La Capinera, have teamed up to create the first thoroughly modern all-suite boutique hotel and spa. Hotel El Jebel opened in June with nine unique designer suites retailing for $719 to $2,879 a night. The weak economy has pushed entry-level promotional rates down to $288. Top-priced suites still include personal shoppers, on-site spa treatments, gastronomic meals and use of the limousine, yacht and heli¬copter. "It's a package of whatever you want," says D'Agostino. (But the wine and bar tab is extra.)
The Taormina seafront of intimate bays below the town is accessible by foot (a 25-minute descent on stairs set into the mountainside of figs, cacti and olive trees) or by modern cable lifts that take only four minutes. Next spring, the high-end Ragosta Hotel group plans to open La Plage, a sleek, 61-room "über-luxury" resort and spa that will include private seaside bungalows and a Roman chef's idea of Sicilian-Asian fusion cuisine. It will sit near Isola Bella, a tiny island and nature preserve that almost touches shore.
Taormina is about an hour by car from the nearest international airport, in Catania. Daytrips include guided visits of the craters and higher flanks of Mount Etna, the towns along Etna's wine route (although wineries are not set up for public tours), the provincial capital in Messina, and the Alcantara Valley river gorges. There are boat excursions to the coastal bays and grottoes. The high season runs from Easter weekend through October; private beaches typically open in May, and outdoor opera, music and dance performances run all summer in the Greek theater. But hotels are open all year, and off-season days are often sunny and mild.
Note: When calling the following establishments from North America, dial 011, then the telephone number. Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1 = 0.69 euros) and rounded to the nearest dollar.
WHERE TO EAT
Via Umberto, 96, Linguaglossa
Telephone (39) 0-95-777-4333
Web site: www.ristoranteboccaperta.com
Via Nationale, Spisone
Telephone (39) 0-94-262-6247
Web site: www.ristorantelacapinera.com
Via Santa Maria dei Greci
Telephone (39) 0-94-221-208
Web site: www.casagrugno.it
LE DUE SORELLE
Piazza Municipio, 4, Messina
Telephone (39) 0-90-44-720
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
OSTERIA NERO D'AVOLA
Vico Spuches, 8
Telephone (39) 0-94-262-8874
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
WHERE TO STAY
GRAND HOTEL TIMEO
Via Teatro Greco, 59
Telephone (39) 0-94-223-801
Web site: www.grandhoteltimeo.com
SAN DOMENICO PALACE HOTEL
Piazza San Domenico, 5
Telephone (39) 0-94-261-3111
Web site: www.sandomenico.thi.it
For more information about the restaurants and hotels listed above, including descriptions and hours of operation, read the complete article in the October 31, 2009 issue of Wine Spectator.
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