There’s a tiny volcanic island in the Mediterranean where Giorgio Armani spends every summer. It’s called Pantelleria (scroll down for photos of the food and landscapes), one of the lesser known islands of Sicily. It is actually closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. It was previously conquered and inhabited by Arabs, and much of that influence remains. The architecture brings to mind Marrakech, or even Bodrum, more than it does Palermo or Naples, and this is the only place in Italy where the alphabet includes the letter k (although locals are as apt to speak French as they are Italian).
Following the example set by Armani, the No. 1 thing to do in Pantelleria is simply to lounge in the sun and escape from it all. And eat, of course. Just know this: There’s not much variety on the island. There is only one cuisine, Pantescan, most restaurants serve pretty much the same menu and pretty much everything that you’ll eat is grown here. Strangely, sadly, this is an island without fishermen, which means the local cuisine is almost entirely without fresh fish. Oh, there’s plenty of fish alright, but most of what’s served in restaurants is shipped over from the main island of Sicily, and it’s not particularly fresh. But never mind the fish.
Focus on anything and everything that’s made with capers, eggplants, olive oil or tomatoes, the island’s most prolific products. Pantelleria’s capers might even be the best in the world — they are cherished throughout Italy. You’ll eat your weight in eggplant caponata. The local pesto is made primarily of capers, with a handful of local oregano. Another local tradition is a pasta sauce made with pulverized cherry tomatoes, almonds and garlic, which they also call pesto. Both of these Pantescan pestos are typically topped not with grated cheese but with toasted breadcrumbs, and they’re so delicious you seriously won’t mind eating them over and over at the town’s few notable restaurants.
Here are five places where you can eat like a local, because there just aren’t very many tourists, and certainly not any Americans:
1. La Nicchia
This is the best restaurant on the island, located in the village of Scauri (blink and you’ll miss it). The restaurant is owned by one of the island’s biggest caper farmers, so naturally you’ll want to eat the caper pesto here. La Nicchia also operates a great little tapas bar across the street from the marina in downtown Pantelleria Town.
2. La Risacca Ristorante Pizzeria
Come nightfall, this is the hottest scene in town, and you’ll smell the wood-fired pizza oven from two blocks away. Very good pastas. Decent local wine by the jug. Located downtown just a block from the marina.
3. Pantelleria Dream
This is one of the more romantic spots on the island. The chef makes a fantastic Pantescan couscous (opt for the version without seafood, of course). Fabulous views from a beautiful mountaintop perch. Live jazz some nights. Outdoor fireplace lounge.
4. Le Cale
Le Cale is a popular bar and restaurant perched on a clifftop lookout in the village of Kamma, a popular snorkeling spot and swimming hole. Go straight for the pasta with tomatoes and pistachios.
5. Da Pippo Il Buongustaio
This is a gigantic food truck permanently parked next to the marina in downtown Pantelleria. And from the looks of it—two flat tires and a busted bumber—it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. They make damn good rotisserie chicken, plus excellent arancini.
And here a couple of suggestions on where to stay:
1. Rent a dammaso. Dammasi are the traditional Arab-style architecture houses. Most of them are built into the hillside and don’t look like much from a distance, but these are by far the nicest places to stay on Pantelleria. If you want to experience the island like a local, this is the only way to do it. The best selection of luxury damassi can be found at either the Pantelleria Collection (many choices) or Monastero (an ultra- exclusive collection of five neighboring dammasi with a fabulous shared pool).
2. If you prefer a hotel, the most expensive resort on the island is the Pantelleria Dream, a collection of rustic-chic villas scattered across the hillside overlooking the sea. Or there’s the stripped-down, budget-minded but fun Mursia Hotel (where you can also rent mopeds for only $20 a day). Alternatively, the Kuddie Rosse is a terrific serviced apartment hotel with kitchenettes and sea-front balconies in every suite.
(Click on the first photo below to start a slideshow, or scroll down. Then call your travel agent.)
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