Taormina is a beautiful city perched above a curvy coastline which hugs the infinitely blue Mediterranean Sea. Yet, "Holy tour group!" was the first thing we shouted when we arrived. The street leading to Taormina's Greek Theater had a daily traffic jam of tour groups steering their way to the Theater. My friend and I renamed it "Holy Tour Group Street." It became our meeting point. "I'll meet you at 7pm on Holy Tour Group Street." "I'm on Holy Tour Group Street, where are you?" With so many tourists, I had some concerns about the food. We immediately looked to the locals for help, asking our cab driver about the food before we even closed the car door.
After a morning of rubbing banging elbows with other tourists, we wanted to eat well and started at Da Cateno, a recommendation from our cab driver. Cateno, a third generation owner of this Roticcerie, made delicious arancini especially for us. His regulars (all men) quickly jumped all over him because he had just told them the aranicini were sold out for the day. A round of good-natured heckling started. We, the two American girls, were brought right into it, and soon felt like locals ourselves. Da Cateno became our regular lunch spot, and Cateno had us sampling all of his dishes. Besides the best arancini on the island, he also made several kinds of lasagne and had a daily meat special. The food was simple, hearty and cost little; our lunches averaged about 6 euros a person, and the banter between Cateno and his regulars is an added bonus. Italians have a saying "Spende poco, mangia bene" (spend little, eat well), and we certainly did.
After lunch we needed something sweet, and Cateno sent us to Bam Bar for granita. The bar is not only popular with the locals; the owner has a slideshow of pictures with him and the international celebrities like Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Antonio Banderas, etc. that have eaten his granita. My favorite flavors were raspberry, peach, coffee and chocolate. The flavors were fresh and intense. We watched them puree the fruit right before making the granita. This granita was on the smoother side, not as icy, allowing the fresh flavors to stand out.
Each night I watched the sun set on the coastline from the Piazza IX Aprile, then headed off to dinner on more recommendations from locals. Ristorante Trocadero, a casual spot near Holy Tour Group Street, has a mix of locals and tourists who dine on traditional Sicillian dishes. I had Pasta alla Norma (pasta with tomato sauce, sauteed eggplants, and topped with ricotta salata). The food was rich in flavor and the t-shirt clad staff remembered us with a hardy welcome on our second visit.
Tiramisu, has linen tableclothes, cushioned seats, waiters in shirts and ties, and beautifully plated seafood dishes. The antipasto of Tonno in Agradolce was excellent. The tuna was perfectly cooked, seared around the edges and soft in the center, in a reduced basalmic vinegar sweet & sour sauce (agradolce). My plate of spaghetti with shrimp and swordfish left me sopping up the remaining sauce with bread. When the waiter caught me wiping the plate and blushing, he gave me a "Bravo!" of encouragement.
Taormina is a city full of flavor, but it's also a city of beauty and history, frequented by many writers and labeled as a "patch of paradise" by Goethe. The lush public gardens are a perfect place to have a picnic. Take the funicular down to one of the pebbly beaches, Mazzaro' or Isola Bella or take a bus to the sandy beaches of Giarndini Naxos. Visit the active volcano Etna. They also have an Italian language school, Babilonia, in which I might enroll during my next visit. If anyone has taken classes at this school, please let me know your thoughts about it.
All the locals I met were as beautiful as the land and sea. Well, there was the "cannoli wench" at Pasticceria D'Amore. She was not as sweet as her cannoli, but the deliciousness of the cannoli made up for her sour attitude. She did warm up to us after our third visit. This "patch of paradise is now at the top of my list of places to live in Italy."
Extra Information on Taormina:
Da Cateno is on Via Cappuccini, 8
Bam Bar is on Via Giovanni, 45
Holy Tour Group Street is really named Via Teatro Greco