On the third leg of our trip, a heavy raincloud came to rest menacingly above the golden Noto. We paid it no heed, weaving our way past the pinkish stone buildings in search of lunch at the Trattoria del Carmine, a place that had come highly recommended by two reliable sources: the good old Lonely Planet guidebook as well as Alex's sister and brother-in-law.
And boy, did this place deliver - in fact, it was easily one of the best meals we had in Sicily. Tucked away from the more touristy places near the Cathedral, this unassuming-looking restaurant on Via Ducezio serves up honest, delicious fare that understandably has the place teeming with locals. I thought this would be exactly the kind of place Inspector Montalbano would come for a bite to eat if he ever dropped by Noto to investigate a murder case...
Appreciative murmurs were heard from the Bri-Freddie side of the table over the amazing-looking antipasti, half devoured by the time I had a chance to whip out my camera.
Alex and I shared this wonderfully fresh salad (mozzarella, sweetcorn, lettuce, olives and tomato!) which I was rather taken with, and ordered the very next day at a different establishment - though it wasn't nearly as good, probably because the mozzarella bocconcini were of such high quality here.
The best caponata - doused in fantastic Sicilian olive oil and absolutely bursting with flavour.
Salsiccia and potatoes - again, with fantastic seasoning. (As I write this, all bundled up in jumpers against the onset of British winter, I'm thinking this would be a perfect dinner...)
Per me: a remarkable spaghetti with clams, mussels, prawns and fish, topped with crushed pistachios.
A mixed seafood grill for the sister.
And to finish, two life-changingly good cannoli. I will one hundred per cent return to del Carmine next time I'm in Sicily - the food was just excellent and very reasonably priced too.
Walking off our lunch, we were tempted into Anche gli angeli, seduced by the winsome combination of books, wine bottles and art visible through the doorway - as well as that perfect example of a groin vault (just me? Okay.) So cool, and just another reason why Noto is such a wonderful town.
While thumbing through books in translation - Aforismi by Oscar Wilde and Il cardellino by Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch, which I happened to be reading at the time) those rainclouds I mentioned earlier finally burst - and like all good Italian things, the ensuing rainstorm was fierce, passionate and hyperbolic. The steep Noto streets flowed with water as a temporary fast-moving river was created (I understand my sister and her boyfriend were absolutely soaked as they didn't have the good fortune to be under cover when the heavens opened).
We were effectively trapped in Anche gli Angeli. Which suited me just fine. Stuck in a bookshop that's also a bar and art gallery during a freakishly heavy rainstorm? That's basically paradise as far as I'm concerned...
The downpour eased off and we completed our wander through Noto in the best way possible: with gelato at Caffe Sicilia. It's well known that's it's a toss-up between this place and its neighbour Costanzo for the best ice cream in Italy. And I can see why. Not to sound too sycophantic, but the flavours here were extraordinary. We tried mandorla/cannella (almond/cinnamon), fiori di spezie (which I thought was fruits of the forest, but turned out to be a delicately spiced, citrusy concoction), a delightfully fresh basilico (basil), torrone (nougat) and my favourite, Montezuma (a chocolatey, cinnamony, orangey delight. Basically a posh version of Terry's Chocolate Orange. Classy flavour parallel, no?)
We pretty much all fell in love with this adorable Italian macchina. I'd actually learn to drive if I had a cute little number like this to zip around in. Probably.
The next day we decided to explore the other neighbouring towns in the south-east: Modica and Ragusa. We started off in Modica, famous for its chocolate - apparently made in the same way the ancient Aztecs made their chocolate, it's crumbly and delicious.
Modica doesn't only do excellent chocolate, it does mouthwateringly good cakes too. We bought one of these tartufo al pistacchio (a sort of semifreddo, alcoholic-tasting ice cream cake. So much to love in one little green hemisphere.)
Over a late breakfast of espressos and icecream, I had this granite di mandorla tostata, perfect for consumption on the street as the Sicilian day began to heat up. I'd never had anything like this before - basically a sorbet flavoured with toasted almonds which rapidly became a nutty soup - and loved it.
Next on the journey: Ragusa, split into two towns divided by a ravine due to rebuilding after the 1693 earthquake, and a shining example of High Sicilian Baroque architecture. We spent our time in Ragusa Ibla, the lower town, rebuilt along the medieval plan of the city, its passages all the more wonderfully winding and maze-like for it.
This is what I love about Italy, and particularly Sicily - swing round pretty much any corner and you'll be greeted by the most startlingly charming church. Swing round a corner in London and you'll be greeted by the most startlingly alarming vom on a pavement. (Just joking, London, I still love you.)
I practically squealed with glee upon walking up the Salita Duomo and spotting San Giorgio at the end, which I recognised from Montalbano. Basically I binge-watched the entire series in preparation for going to Sicily (and also because it's fantastic) and this stretch is often used for filming in the TV series; the Commissario and his buddies often hang out here for a coffee. Sorry guys, I'm a detective show geek...
After all the uphill strolling, it was time for a spot of lunch. For some reason we were all ravenously hungry so didn't take long deciding to eat at the nearby Ristorante La Piazzetta, which apparently serves the Montalbano crew food when they come to film around here. I'm afraid I'm easily swayed by tidbits of information like that.
While not bad, this meal wasn't nearly as brilliant as the lunch we'd had the day before at the trattoria in Noto (see the mozzarella and sweetcorn salad I said I ordered the next day? There it is, above...) and so doesn't really bear talking too much about. The only interesting dish was Alex's carbonara alla pesce di spada - a beautifully thick tagliatelle-style pasta coated in a creamy carbonara sauce with chunks of swordfish.
Upon grabbing the bill, we wandered down to the Giardino Ibleo, but above our heads loomed those sinister-looking clouds again.
We dashed to the car as the first huge raindrops hit the cobbled streets, only to realise that my mother had left her glasses on the table in the restaurant. So it was that I found myself sprinting through Ragusa Ibla in the pouring rain, lightning bolts flashing and thunder booming above. I was soaked through, and it was the most exhilarated and alive I'd felt in ages. I'd never have thought it, but for me this was one of the highlights of the trip.
We drove away from the storm and back into summer, to the wetlands of the Vendicari Nature Reserve. Here we picked figs, peered at herons and jumped off the rocks to swim in the sea with tiny, glinting rainbow fish.
A word of warning: best to pack diving shoes if you want to swim around here! There's no sandy beaches in the nature reserve, only rocks, and it's pretty easy to cut your feet - pretty much all of us did. And my sister got stung by some unknown object - not a jellyfish, but possibly the seaweed. It is a really lovely spot to swim, though - so warm and peaceful, with very few people around.
We towelled ourselves dry and made our way back to the car as sun set over the Vendicari. These open skies, dancing with colour and cloud, get me every time. So very different to the skyline of home, cut up by concrete and glass.
The sunset after a storm is always incredibly beautiful. As we drove back to Noto we were all glued to the windows to watch this one, glowing and rubescent, as it disappeared behind the hills, leaving only pink clouds behind.
Sometimes the most basic, elemental memories - like running through a rainstorm or watching a fiery sunset - are the very best. Well, I think so, anyway! I hope you enjoyed this post, even though it's been a long time coming. I'll wrap up next time with a goodbye to Noto (and a comparison between the products of the gelato rivalry between Caffe Sicilia and Costanzo!) and a quick stop in the buzzing city of Catania. Arrivederci e buona settimana!