Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gorgeous Gelati in Baroque Sicily - Noto Italy

Built on a hill a few miles from the sea, Noto is the apogee of Sicilian Baroque. Much of its charm lies in its limestone buildings, their colors changing from gold to apricot depending on the light. Sicily has been defined as a place where “doing nothing is not seen as a waste of time, where people still eat jasmine ice cream” – and Noto, on a summer evening, is a fine place to do both.
Astonishing Baroque stonework supports the balconies of the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata in Noto

In the wake of the terrible earthquake of 1693 that devastated Sicily, the ruined hill town of Noto was completely reconstructed, building by building, on a flatter location closer to the sea. Through the 18th century this became an enormous construction site run by the prominent architects of the day. Today, the town’s Baroque architecture is unique in Sicily and, after substantial restoration, its long-decaying buildings are being revealed in all their glory. The steps that lead up to the cathedral from Largo Landolina are a good place to start a tour of the town’s voluptuous palazzi and grandiose churches, replete with ornamental detail.
Designed specifically to include vistas of the surrounding countryside, Noto’s urban plan was people-friendly and still works well today. Steps lead to the upper part of town and breathtaking views. One of the most popular tourist activities in Noto is just to wander the picturesque streets, taking in golden stone buildings with their handsome facades and elegant balconies, and enjoying spectacular vistas. The other favorite pastime for visitors – and locals – is to savor the delicious gelato (ice cream) and almond sweetmeats for which the town has become famous.

Noto’s reputation for ice-cream making originated 1,000 years ago, when Sicily was under the rule of the Arabs. They planted citrus and almond groves across the island, and brought with them the technique of making sherbet, or sharbat, from fruit syrups, flower essences, and snow from the slopes of Mount Etna. It seems probable that it was a resourceful Sicilian who first had the idea of making a good thing even better, freezing a mixture of milk, sugar or honey, and fruit, and giving the world one of its favorite foods.
By the 18th century, ices were so popular in Italy that almost the entire revenue of Sicily’s Bishop of Catania came from selling the snow from Mount Etna. Not far from Noto you can still see neviere, limestone pits roofed with domes of stone, where snow was buried in winter, remaining frozen for months. Warm winters provoked national crises: in 1777 a boat thought to be carrying snow was attacked and its precious cargo seized – by Syracusans, desperate for ice cream.
The Best Places to Eat Gelati
Corrado Costanzo inexpensive
Tucked into a narrow lane below Noto’s luscious central piazza, Largo Landolina, is a café that looks like any other in Sicily. But the ice cream created in gelateria Corrado Costanzo is judged by connoisseurs from all over the world to be the best on the planet. Eating a Costanzo ice cream is one of the world’s most voluptuous gastronomic experiences, melting neither too slowly nor too fast on the tongue, suffusing the mouth with the unadulterated essence of mandarin, almond, rose, pistachio, mulberry, jasmine, or whichever locally grown fruit, nut, or flower is in season.
The death of Costanzo himself in 2003 has changed nothing – his daughter and son continue to produce ice creams and granitas like no one else. In spring, opt for rose, jasmine, or wild strawberry, and in summer pistachio, ricotta with cinnamon, or dark chocolate with orange. Unlike most, Costanzo’s gelati contain no gums, using only egg white as a thickener. Via Spaventa 7 (behind the Palazzo Ducezio), Noto; closed Mon; +39 931 835 243
Also in Noto
Noto is blessed with another great dessertcreating family, the Assenza brothers, Carlo and Corrado, who own the popular and authentic Caffè Sicilia (+39 931 835 013; inexpensive), which has been operating since 1892. The cakes, pastries, and homemade jellies here are as superb as the innovative gelati – people come from far and wide to sample the flavors, which include almond blended with cinnamon, lemon, saffron, mulberry, wild strawberry, and a radical basil-scented ice.
Also in Italy
When in Rome, eat gelato. The Italian capital’s favorite place to do so is San Crispino (www.ilgelatodisancrispino.it; moderate), a short walk from Rome’s own Baroque masterpiece, the Trevi fountain. It is famous for subtle flavors, including cream with honey or figs. Venice boasts Alaska (+39 41 715 211; inexpensive), beloved of gelato gourmets who appreciate Carlo Pistacchi’s fresh ingredients and experimental flavors such as celery and peach, and licorice and artichoke.
Around the World
Americans eat more ice cream than any other nation in the world, and one of their most famous ice-cream producers, Ben & Jerry’s (www.benjerry.com; moderate), offers tours of its factory in Vermont – on snowshoes in winter. Arguably even tastier ice cream can be found in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at familyowned Persicco (+54 11 3339 7377; expensive), which has several branches.
What Else to Eat In Sicily
Sicily and sweet things go together. The superb offerings from local pasticcerias feature locally grown almonds, and the pastries have a divine melt-in-the-mouth quality. Try Pasticceria Mandolfiore (www.pasticceriamandolfiore.com) or Caffè Sicilia (see right), whose nougat and homemade jellies make perfect gifts. Look for biancomangiare – blancmange as you’ve never tasted it, not unlike the panna cotta of northern Italy. The chocolate of nearby Modica is still made using the Aztec technique, with pure cocoa and sugar, so that it has a crunchy texture. You may be able to peep at the Iacono family making it in the kitchen behind the bar at Caffè dell’ Arte, on Modica’s Corso Umberto (+39 932 943 257) – or cross the road to the more famous Bonajuto (+39 932 941 225), founded in 1880, for free chocolate tastings.
Three Days in the Val di Noto
The old cities of the Val di Noto boast an exceptional artistic and cultural heritage. But this small corner of the island is also known for its dramatic, fertile interior landscape and stunning coastal scenery.
Visit the Baroque cathedral of San Nicolò in Noto and explore the nearby palazzi (palaces). After lunch, head inland to Noto Antico (old Noto) and wander around this atmospheric “ghost town.”
Jump in a car or taxi and head south out of town, through the agricultural and wine-producing center of Pachino and onward toward Capo Passero – Sicily’s southernmost headland. Here you can spend time in the charming seaside town of Portopalo, and enjoy the view of the lighthouse from Capo delle Correnti.
To the north of Noto in the Monti Iblei, deep river valleys have shaped the plateau housing the wonderful ancient site of Pantalica, where a scattering of tombs are smothered by wild flowers in spring. Below, the shady Anapo River can be followed on foot along the track of the former railroad.
Sicily’s main airport is Catania Fontanarossa. There are buses to Noto from the airport and there is a single-track railway from Noto to Ragusa, Modica, and Scicli. A rental car is useful for exploring the area and the island.
Agriturismo Calamosche (inexpensive) is a simple place with rooms and a campsite, 6 miles (10 km) outside Noto. +39 347 858 7319 La Fontanella (moderate) is Noto’s only central hotel, located in a 19th-century palazzo.
Terre di Vendicari (expensive), a stylish country house, lies in a nature preserve south of Noto. www.terredivendicari.it
Above Glorious Sicilian lemons are used to make sorbet, a Piazza XXVI Maggio; +39 931 573 779

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