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Wondering where to find historic towns with sweeping piazzas, incredible food, and friendly people? Look no further than Sicily’s Val di Noto in the south east of the island. We’re joined by Sicily travel expert Karen La Rosa who takes us on a journey through pretty towns and colorful landscapes and shares some of the best addresses to seek out in this wonderful region.
The Val di Noto is a very special part of Sicily and Italy. Many of the towns were destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake in 1693 and the area was rebuilt in Baroque splendor in the following decades. These days, this region is known for its architecture, relaxed lifestyle, culture, food and wine. If ever there was an area deserving of the overused term “hidden gem” this is it.
Each of the towns of the Val di Noto has its own unique charm and specialty. In Modica, you’ll find an obsession with chocolate and delicacies made to ancient recipes. Catania has a world-famous fish market and an up-and-coming food scene blending tradition with modern techniques. While Ragusa is home to artisan traditions and spectacular views.
And it is not just the towns that capture your heart. In this region, the countryside is verdant in spring. While in autumn vines are dripping with grapes before the harvest leaves the countryside bare, but still beautiful.
What better way to discover this area than with a travel expert who takes specialty groups there and spends as much time sitting in the piazza and lingering over long lunches as she does exploring the ceramic shops of Caltagirone. And following in the footsteps of a famous Sicilian detective.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- All about the baroque towns of the Val di Noto and what makes each of them unique
- Where you can taste gelato made with wine
- Places you can visit if you’re a fan of the Inspector Montalbano series
- The best way to get around this part of Sicily
- Where to stay in the Val di Noto to enjoy the welcoming Sicilian hospitality
- Dishes and wine to try when you visit this region
- How to find a workshop where artisans make designs for Dolce e Gabbana
About our guest – Karen La Rosa
Karen is a tour operator and owner of La Rosa Works that specializes in travel to Sicily. For more than 10 years, she has been promoting travel to the island, bringing small to medium sized groups to join her and designing and arranging itineraries and tours for independent travelers.
Sicily is Karen’s heritage and her passion. That love evolved into a highly respected boutique travel business. Karen shares the island’s beating heart with her clients – from authentic, historical and off the beaten path experiences, to the contemporary and entrepreneurial efforts that represent the new paths in present day Sicily.
Karen’s tours are immersive and fun with expert guides, wine and food always the protagonists. Karen’s website, her YouTube channel, and social media presence are all aimed at engaging people interested in exploring Sicily’s fascinating history, stunning beauty, warm hospitality and some say, the best food and wine in Italy. Her clients write reviews that are amazing and a true testament to her kindness, generosity and passion for Sicily.
Karen is an Italian Wine Specialist, speaks Italian and has visited the Sicily countless happy times.
You can also find Karen on these social media channels:
Places and services mentioned in the show
- Val di Noto – region in the south east of Sicily famous for UNESCO listed Baroque towns
- Towns of the Val di Noto – Catania, Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli, Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Palazollo
- Gagliardi Hotel – lovely boutique hotel with views over Noto’s Corso Umberto
- Anche gli Angeli – recommended restaurant in Noto
- Caffè Sicilia and Caffè Costanzo – places to go in Noto for gelato and sweets
- gli AROMI – herb farm near Scicli
- Gelati di Vini – where to get the wine gelati in Ragusa
- Rosso Cinabro – colorful cart designers that work with Dolce e Gabbana with a workshop in Ragusa
- Modica – town famous for chocolate – visit Ciomod to tour the factory and make your own bar
- Caltagirone – town famous for ceramics in the north of the region
- Sapio – Michelin starred dining in Catania
- Vecchia Masseria – farm stay near Caltagirone
- Feudi del Pisciotto – wine estate with accommodation near Caltagirone
Resources from Untold Italy
- Join us on tour in Sicily – details here
- Reasons to visit Sicily, off the beaten path Sicilian towns and our favorite Sicilian desserts
- Listen: to our other podcast episode recorded with Karen in Episode #107 Tastes of Sicily, Episode #069 Sicily’s Aeolian Islands Episode #036 Palermo not what you expect and Episode #043 Excursions from Palermo
- Driving in Italy – a guide to getting around by car
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? Below is a full transcript of our episode conversation. Unfortunately it does not pick up our lovely Australian and American accents however!
Ciao and ben venuti to Untold Italy. I’m Josie and I’m Katy and we’re here to help you plan your trip to Italy. Between us, we have many years of travel experience and we want to help you uncover your own as yet untold stories and adventures in Italy. Each episode you’ll hear practical advice, tips, and ideas to help you plan your own trips to the magical land of history, stunning landscapes, and a whole lot of pasta. We’ll have interviews from experts and focus on local destinations and frequently asked questions about travel in Italy. Thanks for listening and make sure to subscribe to our show. Now let’s get started on your regular dose of Bella Italia.
Ciao amici! Ciao friends. We appreciate you joining us today for a very exciting episode, this time on the show. We are joined by Karen La Rosa. She’s an expert on Sicily and she’s going to talk to us about the beautiful Val di Noto region in the southeast of the island of Sicily. This is one of the areas I mentioned in my top places to visit in Italy episode and it was such a joy to talk about it with Karen who usually spends a good part of the year there. But before we get started, I wanted to do a big shout out to all of you wonderful listeners who have supported our show since we launched in January this year. 2020 has been a struggle for many of you and us too. But here’s the thing. Recording the podcast episodes and talking about Italy has helped us. Me and Josie get through it.
[00:01:48.760] And we hope it helps you dream a little too. Even if we can’t be there, just a hint of what is to come when we can visit is keeping us going. I wanted to share with you that as of last week, our episodes have been downloaded over 30000 times. And we think that’s quite an achievement given the travel situation this year.
[00:02:08.520] – Katy Clarke
So thank you! Grazie to you all. We so, so appreciate your support. And we can’t wait to bring you more wonderful places and stories from Italy in the coming weeks. So let’s get started today, talking about Sicily with my new friend, Karen LaRosa. Always fascinated by her Sicilian roots, Karen’s love of the island grew into a full blown passion when a cycling trip that took her across the countryside where she discovered ancient ruins, fascinating cities, and met the kind and generous people of Sicily. Since then, she’s made countless trips back from her home in New York City, taking small group tours to discover the landscapes, food and wine of this incredible island.
[00:02:50.770] – Katy Clarke
Karen joins us today to talk about the Val di Noto region, and she’s with us. the insider tips that you can only dream of including (and you won’t believe this), a gelato shop that makes its icy cold treats with wine and the workshop that helps fashion icons Dolce e Gabbana create some of their most iconic designs. So without further ado, here’s my interview with Karen La Rosa
[00:03:14.170] – Katy Clarke
Benvenuti. Welcome to Untold Italy podcast, Karen. It’s so wonderful to have you on the show. And I’m very excited to chat about the Val di Noto with you.
[00:03:23.430] – Karen La Rosa
Well, thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
[00:03:27.320] – Katy Clarke
Appreciate that. Now, Karen, before we immerse ourselves in the Val di Noto. Could you please let our listeners know a little bit about yourself and what your connection is with Sicily?
[00:03:37.570] – Karen La Rosa
Sure. I am Sicilian by my heritage. My great grandparents came and always as a little girl, I was always fascinated by my history. I was the one always asking the questions and always wanted to go. And when we got married, we thought we would go but didn’t. And then, as we talked about earlier, we had twins and then a third one and kind of life got very complicated. So once we had control back a little bit when they were older.
[00:04:14.740] – Karen La Rosa
My husband actually gave me a gift of a bike trip, a bicycle trip in Sicily. And we went with some friends and we drove halfway around the island. And then we met a small group and rode our bicycles from Palermo to Agrigento. And that, I have to say, quite honestly, was life changing for me. And we biked on these small roads through vineyards and olive orchards. And it was just there was a connection I felt that I couldn’t even really describe.
[00:04:49.630] – Karen La Rosa
It’s all described on my in a story I wrote on my Web site. And, you know, since then I swore I was going back and I did. And then I went again and I had met people over there who were very, very kind to me and took me all over the island to see different things and meet different people. So being an organizer from way back, I was always in charge of our college group of friends for 30 years.
[00:05:17.320] – Karen La Rosa
I booked trips all over the place for us to travel one week together. Organizing was, you know, came very naturally to me. At one point I was in the New York Choral Society and they asked me to book a trip to Sicily for them for one hundred and thirty people and to sing three concerts. So this was like, OK, I can do this. And took a year and a half of planning, but we went on this absolutely fabulous trip.
[00:05:47.650] – Karen La Rosa
They are still talking about it. This was 10 years ago. And after that, people just kept calling me to ask book for my in-laws, for my friends, for my this one, for my that one. And that was really the genesis of my business, which is to arrange tours for either small groups or people to travel independently. And then I started taking tours around myself as well. So usually in the spring and the fall when it’s the nicest time to travel, I will go and bring a group on some kind of theme that I invent or that somebody asks me to do for them.
[00:06:29.380] – Karen La Rosa
And it keeps me in Sicily a couple of times a year, which I love. It makes people happy, which I love. And I get to share what I know, which at this point people tell me is more than most of the Sicilians.
[00:06:46.510] – Katy Clarke
It’s funny how things turn out that way when you look at it from an outsider, but an insider perspective.
[00:06:52.810] – Karen La Rosa
Yeah, well, the Sicilians tend to stay very close to home. I just think that’s in their blood. They have their small communities. So to be someone who gets in a car and drives all over the place from the east to the west, north to the south, you know, you get a different perspective of the island and you really see the differences from the east side, which is very Greek influenced to the West Side, which is much more Arab influenced.
[00:07:23.070] – Karen La Rosa
And and, you know, you just learn a lot by seeing how people live and what they do and hear their stories because everybody and everything and Sicily has a story.
[00:07:38.330] – Katy Clarke
Absolutely. And one of the amazing stories, I guess, is that we’re going to talk about today. The, I guess, the regeneration of the area that’s known as the Val di Noto. And it was obviously destroyed by a big earthquake in the 17th century. And, you know, I just love this story of regeneration. I think it’s so sort of relevant to the situation now. And so can you tell us a bit about the Val di Noto and why it’s so special?
[00:08:08.270] – Karen La Rosa
Sure. So back in the times of the Arabs, they were very agricultural people and they noticed that there was quite a difference between the areas in Sicily. So they divided it into three what they called valleys, valli, which is the Arab word for province or territory. The Val di Noto was the one in the south east. Val Demone is the Northeast. And Val di Mazzara is in the west. The Val di Noto and really the whole eastern seaboard of Sicily was destroyed in 1693 by this major earthquake that you mentioned.
[00:08:52.490] – Karen La Rosa
They call it affectionately the big one. So you’ll hear guides refer to “the big one” all the time. And it was major I mean, it took out two thirds of the population of Catania and just leveled towns mostly in the south east. So, I mean, Catania was destroyed quite a bit. But down as you go further down, they think the epicenter was around Palazzolo , which is just west of Siracusa. And in 2002, the whole area, eight towns really were given UNESCO designation because of what happened after the earthquake.
[00:09:37.490] – Karen La Rosa
So think about it. It’s 1693. Northern Europe has been involved in a you know, following the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church is taking back and they are building churches and important buildings, all in this baroque style. It wants to demonstrate power. It wants to demonstrate, you know, it’s very ornate and floral. It wants to call your attention to it. So by the time 1693 happens, they’re already down the pike, the northerners.
[00:10:19.760] – Karen La Rosa
But they needed to call upon their architects in Sicily. And they had a couple of very talented ones to start reconstruction. And so they looked to those northern designs and then took them to the next level. So some of these towns that were leveled, they oftentimes they just decided, well, there’s nothing but rubble here. So we’re gonna pick up the whole town, move it a little bit away and reconstruct the whole town, which is what happened in Noto or we can fix up part of it.
[00:11:01.100] – Karen La Rosa
And then in the case of Ragusa – Ragusa Ibla is the old town and Ragusa Alta is the more modern town, modern, quote unquote. That’s just up the hill. So it was easier to start afresh than to take what was virtually rubble and rebuild there. So these architects came in and little by little, they rebuilt these buildings in a style which was took the northern baroque and embellished it even more, made it even more ornate, made it more exuberant and very emotional like the Sicilians tend to be.
[00:11:46.300] – Karen La Rosa
So you have these crazy looking buildings that are also demonstrating power of the church and wealth and those kinds of things. But they incorporated cherubs and animals and crazy kinds of faces on the gargoyles and the waterspouts. And when you look around, they are just stunning to look at. And in these eight different towns, Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli, Caltagirone and , which is not a place that many people visit
[00:12:30.000] – Karen La Rosa
You know, you can go and just walk the streets and look up at these buildings and just be in owe at at their beauty. Mostly carved from tufa stone, which in Noto anyway, which is that sandstone color. So they reflect in the light. They’re just beautiful.
[00:12:49.330] – Katy Clarke
It’s so true. And I think that’s just one of the absolute pleasures of visiting that area is just wandering through the towns and just sort of soaking it up. But I can’t think of a better way to describe it, really, because it’s not that you actually have to do anything, really, except just go and enjoy yourself and sort of passagiata around.
[00:13:08.460] – Karen La Rosa
Right. I mean, each town does have its certain thing. Noto, I bring that went up because I’ve spent a lot of time there recently. It was rebuilt sort of with an urban plan and they built it in a way that the sun would, just east to west so that it would get sun most of the time. Most of the day. And it is beautiful, especially when the sun is setting and it just reflects off the the Duomo, which is this very ornate church, very light sandstone color up this huge staircase like it’s perched on top of an altar itself and smack in the middle of the Corso Umberto.
[00:13:55.170] – Karen La Rosa
So you cannot miss this. You can see it from all over. And it’s beautiful. And it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It becomes the place where everybody congregates to eat their gelato. People want to, you know, just take a rest. It’s sort of the focal point of the whole town, which is centered along this course on the main street going through the town.
[00:14:24.270] – Katy Clarke
It’s a very special area, isn’t it? I remember going up to the church of Santa Chiara where you can get a wonderful view of the Corso Umberto from the rooftop.
[00:14:33.300] – Karen La Rosa
Yes, I was going to mention that. That’s something you have to do, is either go there or San Carlo, either one. But to get that elevated view is really, really special. One of the hotels in Noto is actually one of my favorite hotels in Sicily is called The Gagliardi. Gagliardi was one of the architects and it is an old restored palazzo. And they made it feel like it’s very much a home, in fact the rooms don’t have any numbers on them. You just have a key kind of telling you where to go. But it has a rooftop. So to go there and sit out there and have a glass of wine looking over this whole scene is just so special. And the place itself is just a lovely, lovely hotel.
[00:15:21.620] – Katy Clarke
It’s going on my list.Thank you, Karen. I think I can always be convinced if there is a roof top and wine and an amazing view. That’s definitely one of my favorite things. I wish I was there right now, actually. But also the amazing thing about Noto is it’s got a pretty strong food culture as well, as I recall.
[00:15:47.600] – Karen La Rosa
Yeah, well, it’s known now for its gelato because of Corrado Assenza, he’s part of an old Noto family. And right on the Corso Umberto is the store Caffe Sicilia, the little place where he sells the gelato and the sweets. And he was a chef who did experiments with different ingredients and making sweets his own way.
[00:16:10.740] – Karen La Rosa
Chef’s Table did an episode about him. And now to get into this place, there’s always a line. And it kind of makes me sad because Costanzo’s is right around the corner and their gelato is quite fabulous. And there’s generally not a line to get in there. There’s a wonderful restaurant. And we went, I don’t even know how many times, three, four times to Anche gli Angeli, also the Angels , a restaurant just down the street from the Gagliardi Hotel.
[00:16:47.940] – Karen La Rosa
And it’s fabulous food. They are very kind of hip and modern, but traditional in what they make. And they have a great wine list. And they had a gay pride flag hanging out front, which I thought was really, you know, it’s unusual. But happening more and more. But Noto tends to be pretty gay friendly.
[00:17:11.440] – Katy Clarke
Is that right? Sometimes you think of Sicily as a very traditional place. And I guess when you’re describing this restaurant, I think it’s really interesting because you do see this really nice juxtaposition of old and new there that’s maybe a little bit unexpected.
[00:17:29.480] – Karen La Rosa
Oh, it’s totally unexpected, and I find for me anyway, it’s you know, history is wonderful, but we kind of are living now and making new history. So I did a tour that I loved, which was a contemporary art tour. Now, who thinks about that? But it’s a long story how that happened. And it was connected to an exhibit at the Delaware Contemporary Museum. But it was amazing that once I looked into it, we visited contemporary artists and galleries and private collections that had Jeff Koons. And, you know, different kinds of modern and contemporary art that you just wouldn’t naturally associate with Sicily because you think of old stones as they call them. And so it’s there. You know, it’s it’s there. There was a whole contemporary culture. You just have to, you know, focus on it and dig around a little bit.
[00:18:35.460] – Katy Clarke
Yeah, it’s definitely true. And I guess I think it’s getting a bit mor a bit more exposure, just thanks to some of the TV shows and the book and the movie The Leopard, which is very interesting.
[00:18:51.290] – Karen La Rosa
Well, one of the things that really has put that area on the map is not the old stone history, but Montalbano. He is fabulous. And once people start reading those books and now, I mean, all 36 of the episodes are in film, on television. You know, they are so captivating. And you could see all these towns mostly filmed in Scicli, which is where the police department is. But there are times when he goes to visit Ragusa and Punta Secca, obviously, where his house is. So it’s like traveling around that southeast area, which I think, you know, people actually wanted me to do a Montalbano tour. And so I said, why not? I love it. I’ve never done it. So I did it with them and it was fabulous.
[00:19:53.230] – Katy Clarke
It does sound like it would be. I mean, the thing is, I think it’s hard to explain, like you’re just driving around these small roads and it’s actually not that bad to drive around, which I was quite surprised about actually, because we’ve had some less than exciting driving experiences in Itaey. But actually found Sicily , much easier to drive in than some other places. But you come across these towns and they just sort of sort of hanging there on a hill and they’re just glistening.
[00:20:28.100] – Karen La Rosa
They are amazing. Yes. I mean, it’s the main roads are very fine, easy to travel. You know, you can travel on them easily. In the towns themselves, it gets a little bit, you know, close. And they all have very small cars and are used to zipping in and around or they ride on motor scooters. So for people who are not used to that, it can be a little bit challenging. And then there’s the parking and all that. So really, though, if you want to see Sicily, you really have to have a car.
[00:21:03.680] – Karen La Rosa
If you’re not on an organized tour where you’re in a van or a small bus or something, a car is the best way to do it. This is because the public transportation from the main cities, from Catania, from Palermo, is not great. You can do day trips to a couple of places. But beyond that, it’s very difficult to travel by bus. I once took a bus to one of my ancestral home towns and the return bus there was only one and it was leaving 10 minutes later.
[00:21:36.110] – Katy Clarke
Oh, you had to stay. Oh dear!
[00:21:37.740] – Karen La Rosa
So I said, wait a minute, maybe I should rent a car. And, you know, that’s definitely the way to go..
[00:21:46.490] – Katy Clarke
I agree with that. And I think my best tip, which put my hand up, I learnt the hard way here, was to research where to park before you set out. And pop in the map. Because then you save all this time trying to avoid the historic centers and going round in circles.
[00:22:07.460] – Karen La Rosa
I mean, parking in a place like Catania or Palermo is just horrible. It’s just horrible. I once went around for two hours trying to get into this one driveway because I could not get to it. I got to see more of the city. But it was a little frustrating.
[00:22:28.720] – Katy Clarke
Sounds like it. Now one of my favorite places was actually Ragusa and I just loved that walk that you do from the top of the old town, down to Ragusa Ibla and you finish at the gardens there. It’s just so beautiful. It’s that somewhere you’ve spent a lot of time, too.
[00:22:46.820] – Karen La Rosa
I’ve been there many, many times. I haven’t actually stayed there overnight. I was supposed to be there actually right now because we were going to sing in that Piazza Duomo. Now my group was going to sing in the Duomo. So that was hugely disappointing. But the town is just, you know, narrow winding, these streets with steps all over the place. And you have beautiful, beautiful vistas. I think those gardens are lovely. And the little church down there is quite beautiful.
[00:23:21.880] – Karen La Rosa
It’s it’s really just, again, another one of these towns where you’re best served just walking around and poking up and down these little streets. One thing you have to do that’s that’s maybe touristy, but it doesn’t matter. On the Piazza Duomo, there is Gelati di Vini. I don’t know if you’ve got there, but it’s this place that sells wine flavored gelato.
[00:23:50.140] – Katy Clarke
How did I miss that?
[00:23:52.500] – Karen La Rosa
Being an Italian wine specialist I focus on wine a lot, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s really good. And then there’s another place that’s very cool to visit there, which is a little workshop of cart makers. The Sicilian carts are a tradition there. They used them for years and years back in the 19th century, early 20th century, too. They use them as regular carts, but they also decorated them fancifully. It would be a way to show their wealth and their connections and their knowledge with the stories that they painted on the sides.
[00:24:38.110] – Karen La Rosa
In any case, they trot them out now for all kinds of festivals and feasts. But there is an old cart maker in the town of Ragusa down a side street. It’s a small little workshop. And the interesting thing about these cart makers, apart from the fact that they are very lovely people, is that they are the ones that create the designs for Dolce e Gabbana, who have now have a whole line of appliances that they make highly decorated in Sicilian motifs.
[00:25:16.120] – Karen La Rosa
And the Rosso Cinabro brothers are the people that do that. So when I’ve been there and talked to them, they show you all these designs that they created. And here you are in this old town on this side street. And they’re creating designs for a company that’s making billions
[00:25:40.710] – Katy Clarke
I hope they are adequately compensated because they are quite amazing designs.
[00:25:44.750] – Karen La Rosa
I imagine so, but they’re a little workshop. It is just this old thing with, you know, old tools hanging around and colorful designs, works in progress, old carts. It’s you know, it’s very charming and wonderful to see to learn about the history. But the juxtaposition of Dolce and Gabbana and these people is kind of kind of funny.
[00:26:09.920] – Katy Clarke
You’re just giving me about five more reasons to go back to Ragusa!
[00:26:15.650] – Karen La Rosa
Have you been.. when you’re at the Piazza Duomo, if you’re looking straight at the Duomo, behind you is an old palazzo and they give tours of the palazzo. Inside from that palazzo from their living room window is the best view of the Duomo. And if you go there in the evening. It’s stupendo. It’s so glorious. In each town has has its own focus. I mean, then you go on to Modica. I mean, are you a chocolate lover?
[00:26:55.190] – Katy Clarke
Yes. Yes, I am. Hands up. Yes.
[00:26:59.270] – Karen La Rosa
Because that’s what that’s what that town is all about. It’s the Spanish who brought over chocolate and the way that they made it or the Aztecs made it. They came over to this area and they started making chocolate there in the same way as the Aztecs. So it’s low fire chocolate, which means that the sugar doesn’t fully melt and you get that graininess in what you eat. And if you go to Modica, the street is lined with shops selling this kind of chocolate.
[00:27:31.220] – Karen La Rosa
And of course, you can take tours of one or two of the more famous makers giving you samples. Oh, my God. They give you bars and they give you chocolate drink and they give you chocolate filled pastries and go there when you’re tired because you will leave there with your eyes wide open.
[00:27:52.950] – Katy Clarke
There’s nothing quite like a chocolate buzz to get you going.
[00:27:55.400] – Karen La Rosa
Oh, my gosh, it’s fabulous. And there is a place outside of town called Ciomod, a bigger company that you can go to. And they will not only explain and show you how the chocolate is made, you can actually make your own bars and take them home with you. Which is kind of fun. Wow. The kids would love that.
[00:28:17.300] – Katy Clarke
Oh, they sure would. Well, it’s funny, as you know with kids going around Sicily, they just they sort of get plied with sweets and ice creams wherever they go. They think it’s fantastic.
[00:28:30.460] – Karen La Rosa
Oh it’s their world over there. Imagine just everything is outdoors or most of it. You know, it’s not like Florence or Rome where you’re going into this museum and that museum. Just about everything is outdoors – ruins and passegiata and all these things, markets. A child doesn’t feel confined there, you know. And then there are goats and mules and horses and all these other fun things to see.
[00:28:59.600] – Katy Clarke
Absolutely. Well, we actually stayed at an agritourismo near Avola when we were in that area. And it was wonderful. It had its own lemon grove and swimming pool. And I always say and its own on site restaurant and cellar, which was, you know, great. So I always in heaven. I was like, I don’t have to leave!
[00:29:23.270] – Karen La Rosa
Was it Villa Favorita?
[00:29:23.550] – Katy Clarke
No, it was Chiusa di Carlo.
[00:29:29.940] – Karen La Rosa
There are a lot of nice agriturismi and you know, that’s perhaps, you know, the future. Anyway, I think people are going to be looking to that kind of stay, perhaps more than staying in the cities at the bigger hotels. And there are a lot of really nice ones down there.
[00:29:47.810] – Katy Clarke
I think you’re right. I think people will be looking for that, maybe a longer stay and, you know, more rural environment away from the crowds.
[00:29:55.560] – Karen La Rosa
Yeah. Hmm. And as I said, there’s so many lovely ones
[00:30:00.190] – Katy Clarke
Yeah. And it’s I think it’s a real shame. Look, Europeans are very knowledgeable about the agriturismi, but I feel like it’s my own personal crusade to educate Americans and Australians about about this style of accommodation, because it really is special and unique. And I wish that everyone could have that experience because we just love it. .
[00:30:22.490] – Karen La Rosa
Well, unfortunately, the word that people use to translate that is like, “oh, it’s like a farm. “And when you say something is like a farm, it sounds very, very rustic. I had just my group that I was supposed to be with in September. We were staying at one outside of Siracusa that is like a five star place now. I mean, they’re all across the country you can get very rustic ones. You can find very rustic ones but there are many, many types. And with swimming pools and spas and different things like that.
[00:30:57.430] – Katy Clarke
So how do you describe them? Because I’m kind of stuck on how to describe them.
[00:31:01.430] – Karen La Rosa
Not sure I get my percentage right. But technically they have to earn 60 percent of their money from actual farming, whatever it is – if they make olive oil or fruit that they grow. But the rest of it they can do for as accommodations. So many of these places it’s always a longer story. You know, they are, restored baglio or, you know, just old farm places. They were not just a farm on the side of the road, but these were little villages, many of them like a baglio was a unique structure where you could have had the owners and the workers and the animals. And there could have even been a chapel there. But it was a contained space and many of those have been turned into accommodations. One of my favorite ones is outside of Caltagirone, and it used to be a secret. But it’s not anymore. And it’s called Vecchia Masseria which means old farm. It has a courtyard and it is so peaceful there. And it does have a pool and it’s got their own restaurant. The food is fabulous and they serve a wonderful breakfast. And it’s just, you know, you’re not in the city. It’s quiet and beautiful. Lovely service.
[00:32:22.180] – Katy Clarke
One you’d just keep going back to.
[00:32:24.520] – Karen La Rosa
Well, it’s a good place – that one in particular. Because as you’re going from one place to the next, it’s a good stopping place. But many people have found out about it because it is so lovely and it’s convenient to Caltagirone. So now it’s hard to get a room sometimes.
[00:32:45.360] – Katy Clarke
Sure I can see it’s quite near Piazza Amerina.
[00:32:51.370] – Karen La Rosa
You know, you go to Caltagirone, which is another one of my favorite places for all the ceramics. I mean, I am a ceramics nut and they are all over my house – just little things that I’ve bought. It’s like an open air museum. So the Arabs had been at one point sent there Calta means hill. So it’s a hill town like most of them. And there are workshops all over the city. And many, many public works all done in ceramics. The biggest one being the hundred and forty two steps that are in the center of town. Just a huge staircase. And each rung of the staircase is decorated with ceramics done by different artists. And as you go further up the steps they go from the oldest to the more modern ones. So if you if you make it up one hundred and forty two steps, you get a little history of the designs and the colors that they used earlier on compared to now. So it’s an interesting thing. And then there are all these workshops that you can stop in. It’s like just being in a museum.
[00:34:08.510] – Katy Clarke
I mean, this is the most amazing thing about Sicily. It is all these little layers you can uncover. And it’s just really such a special place. I did an episode of the podcast a few weeks ago about my favorite places to go, and Sicily is so high up there it’s not even funny. I can’t wait to go back. But there’s one place that I didn’t get to in the Val di Noto that I really missed. And you’ve mentioned it a couple of times but I’d like to know alittle bit more about Scicli.
[00:34:37.580] – Karen La Rosa
Well, Scicli is small, smaller than Modica and Ragusa. So it doesn’t get as much tourist attention. As I said, Montalbano is the one that’s really put that on the map. So, again, it’s a place that you go and you just walk around and look at a lot of the baroque architecture. There is a church that you can see there that has this huge diorama inside. That is really one of the most incredible things I’ve seen.
[00:35:15.080] – Karen La Rosa
And there are still in the walls of the hills in many towns, they had built carved out small areas and people actually lived in there. So you can still see that in Scicli. And there are a couple of people that still live in these carved out homes. I mean, they’re there right in front of a parking lot. But, you know, there had not been a parking lot there before. But, they still exist for you to see.
[00:35:47.510] – Karen La Rosa
So that’s interesting. Outside of Scicli, there is another place I would really love to be. It’s called gli AROMI. And it’s basically an herb farm. And Enrico Russino , is this kind of this crazy guy, exuberant, enthusiastic. And he grows herbs and he has turned this place with his wife, now Rita, into a place to go and visit, learn about all kinds of herbs and nature. And she used to have the best restaurant in Scicli but she closed it and now she cooks over there.
[00:36:31.590] – Karen La Rosa
So, know, you get this tour, you listen to this man wax romantically about all these herbs. You smell, you touch, you taste, and then you have this lunch that Rita prepares. That’s fabulous. And it’s in a beautiful location. In fact, it’s so beautiful that he recently built a stone amphitheater that overlooks the sea. So you’re looking south and he invites artists to perform there and they cook out. And it’s a really, really interesting place. And that’s outside of Scicli as well.
[00:37:09.560] – Katy Clarke
Wow. And Karen, have you sung there yourself?
[00:37:12.650] – Karen La Rosa
No I sang on the big chorus trip that I did 10 years ago. I was singing at that point, but I kind of sadly but not sadly, I kind of had to give up the chorus because there was no way I could be gone for a month in the spring and a month in the fall and be able to sing. I mean, it’s quite demanding. This chorus we used to sing at Carnegie Hall and in the Lincoln Center and big places. And you have to be prepared. In fact, we were Andrea Bocelli’s backup chorus when he came to New York. So I’ve sang in these huge places with him, which is, you know, what an experience. But you have to be dedicated and I’m dedicated to Sicily now. So I can’t really. I can’t do all the things.
[00:38:06.640] – Katy Clarke
Oh, it’s such a hard choice.
[00:38:08.580] – Karen La Rosa
It is. No not really. Because there’s a time for everything. And I did that, you know, for many years and now I’m doing this. So life has phases. You know, the kids, the chorus. And now I’m I’m doing this. We can reinvent ourselves. Isn’t that great?
[00:38:29.780] – Katy Clarke
Yeah. And I think that’s so true about this area of Sicily, too, you know, with all the changes after the earthquake. And you know, what we’re going through now and it’s a contrast and it’s also a coincidence, really. But I was going to ask you as well, like, so you took your tours in spring and in fall or autumn. And we visited in spring and absolutely loved all the flowers while were there. So tell us a little bit about the different seasons in Sicily.
[00:39:03.610] – Karen La Rosa
Well, it’s a very temperate place, so I’ve been there almost every month of the year and it doesn’t really get, by our standards, very cold. I’ve never worn a coat in Sicily. The Sicilians do, and scarves and hats. But for me, a couple of sweaters and it’s fine in the winter months. Come spring it’s glorious. I mean, you drive through these hill towns and these hills and the flowers, the colors of the flowers just get me every time. There’s, you know, the sula, which is what the sheep eat, is this purplish pinkish flower that just carpets the hills and the yellow and the pink almond blossoms.
[00:39:52.580] – Karen La Rosa
And it’s just so beautiful. So I love going in the springtime. Then as it gets warmer, you know, naturally things start to harvest and the landscape changes quite dramatically actually in the fall. You’ll have all the vines dripping with grapes and you’ll have all the olive trees, you know, hanging with fruit. But the hills are almost naked because when you look at them. In the spring, they’re covered with greenery and flowers and in the fall it’s almost like you’re looking at the like a human body, like the limbs of a human body or somebody lying on their side and the curve. It’s a completely different look. And equally beautiful, but more stark in a way than the springtime would be.
[00:40:50.660] – Katy Clarke
Well, I love harvest time because I love wine and perhaps people don’t know so much about the wine from this area of Sicily. Is there something particularly different about the wine in southeastern Sicily.
[00:41:05.720] – Karen La Rosa
Yes. I mean, the simple answer is yes. Sicily actually produces more white wine than red wine. But the big grape down in the south east is Nero D’avola, and it’s the black grape from Avola. It’s a very rich grape and it makes wine that’s very fruit forward and kind of jammy tasting. And because you are in the warmer part of the island, Sicily is all microclimates. I think I might have said that earlier, but the climate changes dramatically based on where you are.
[00:41:44.570] – Karen La Rosa
So the Nero Davola that is grown in the southeast area tends to be pretty fruit forward and what they call kind of a hot wine. A warm wine. The white wines are lovely. You have a Moscato de Noto. You can have a sweet moscato but the ones that are not sweet are just really delicious. And there are wineries all over the south east. Another place I wanted to mention – Feudi del Pisciotto
[00:42:20.600] – Karen La Rosa
Which is another designation for farm. It’s like a feudal area. Feudi del Pisciotto – that is a winery. And they’ve restored their structure into accommodations. So you can stay there. It’s. Oh, my God, it’s wonderful. And the rooms are lovely. There are birds in the morning. Oh, my God. The sun comes down. It’s just great. And they give you wine tastings there as well so you can go through and taste all their wines and not have to worry about driving anywhere. You just kind of fall into the restaurant or fall into your room. Nero D’Avola is the big grape down there. Moscato di Noto is one of the whites. Catarratto is the third most planted grape in all of Italy. So it’s planted all over Sicily as well. And there is a lot of that down there, too. Inzolia – there are many different blends of wines. They they blend a lot of these grapes together to make the whites too. But there’s plenty of wine there and many, many interesting wineries to visit. I think I’ve been to over fifty five at this point
[00:43:38.720] – Katy Clarke
That must have been very tough for you, Karen.
[00:43:41.280] – Karen La Rosa
No, because each have a story, you know, they have a history. They have a style.I’m very interested in the wine making. They have family, generations of families. And the food is always great. Great place to eat. A winery. So I really just enjoy going and learning.
[00:44:04.390] – Katy Clarke
It’s an amazing experience. We had an earlier episode of the podcast with another person I interviewed Alex. And he was talking about the wines in Umbria. And I think what’s really fascinating is that they just create these really unique experiences around their winery and around the stories if they wine, which maybe if you’re from the new countries or the new world is unique. Sometimes in our areas it gets to be homogenous somehow. And you don’t have that in Italy and especially in Sicily. It’s all very related to the territory where they are and the stories of the families that that create the wine.
[00:44:42.660] – Karen La Rosa
Yeah. And most of the wineries I’ve been to when you go there, they treat you like family. Like they want to feed you. They want to share what they’re doing. They’re not big corporations. You know, it’s not it’s not like visiting Napa or a place like that. You drive in, you have your tastes, you pay your money and you leave. This is a two, three hour event now, you know, which which means it’s not really about the drinking per se for them.
[00:45:13.140] – Karen La Rosa
The Sicilians, I think, drink the least of any of the Italians. And for them, it’s food, wine, it’s food. You eat, you have a glass of wine. And mostly they drink local wine. They don’t drink even the bottles that we get here, you know. Mostly they drink wine that they get for a euro and a half. And it’s good, you know, the grapes are good. They grow them well.
[00:45:40.330] – Karen La Rosa
And so this is not what they used to call sfuso. I mean, it’s still sfuso. But it’s not cheap crummy wine versus very expensive good wine. The playing fields kind of evened out a lot. And these big consortium know how to make wine.
[00:45:56.850] – Katy Clarke
Well, what sort of meals would they serve with the wine? It’s just it’s all about the food for me.
[00:46:03.210] – Karen La Rosa
Well, generally, you eat pasta every day for lunch. Which is fine with me. And they, you know, it varies based on where you are. In the east part of Sicily pasta alla norma. Anything with eggplant is big you know. You see that a lot. You also see a lot of pork products. Everybody’s going to serve you some salami or some suino nero, which is the the black pigs. And of course, it is an island.
[00:46:36.300] – Karen La Rosa
So anywhere you are on the coast, you’re going to get some really, really wonderful fish. Fish that if you go to the market, I don’t I’ve never seen these fish. I don’t know if they even have names, but you get this fish and they prepare it in the simplest ways with a little lemon, a little parsley. And it’s heavenly. Everything is fresh. Everything is so, so fresh and grown very locally, maybe even in their own garden.
[00:47:08.470] – Karen La Rosa
And it has a taste that I always lament when I go that I can’t find anything that tastes like that here.
[00:47:18.770] – Katy Clarke
I know it’s the same here. Even though we’ve got some amazingly fresh, delicious seafood. But we had some of the best seafood meals of our life in Sicily and it was cheap too.
[00:47:30.860] – Karen La Rosa
Yeah, well, most things are less expensive. I mean, prices have changed even in the last 12-15 years. But there is a restaurant in Catania that opened up a year and a half ago and it’s received Catania’s first Michelin star. The chef is 26 years old. He was. He must be 27 or 28 now, but. You get this meal that goes on for three hours. It is not only beautiful. It is delicious.
[00:48:07.630] – Karen La Rosa
The wines are chosen. The service is exceptional. Runs you about 100 euros a person. Now, that’s a lot of money. Not by New York standards, it’s not. And for a meal like that, many places you would pay three and four times that much in Paris or in New York or in London. And Catania has actually become quite a food town. And they have the fish market, you know, like most towns have a market depending on the size, it could be once or twice a week.
[00:48:46.860] – Karen La Rosa
The bigger places have them every day and the fish market in Catania is world class like something you’ve never seen anywhere else. And it’s been operating, I think, since the 12th century, six days a week, much like an Arab souk with a lot of calling out. Oh, buy this and buy this fish. It starts at dawn and it closes up like it never happened at one o’clock in the afternoon.
[00:49:19.070] – Katy Clarke
We didn’t make it there. We went to the one in Ortigia and I left a piece of my heart there. I love it. The seafood and just the characters of the place just gets under your skin, doesn’t it?
[00:49:36.620] – Karen La Rosa
Yes. And I love when you go to a restaurant. They just bring you a bucket and you get to choose your own fish. It’s like, well, which one would you like us to grill? That one. And then you have this thing and it’s so good.
[00:49:51.260] – Katy Clarke
Oh. Karen I could talk about this for hours. But, is there anything that you especially wanted to mention before I let you go back to your day?
[00:50:03.140] – Karen La Rosa
You know, as you said, I could talk about Sicily. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. And I could go on and on and on about all aspects of it. I just think people need to to think about Sicily in a different way than the media has presented it in past years. And Palermo’s one of the safest cities going. The beauty there, there’s so many things to uncover. There’s so many different ways to experience this island.
[00:50:36.500] – Karen La Rosa
It’s a little bit exotic, but it’s, you know, for people from the United States anyway, it’s not that far away. It’s still just south of Italy. How much it’s actually a part of Italy. I don’t know. But my husband, when we went there said, I’ll never refer to you as Italian again.
[00:50:58.460] – Katy Clarke
Oh, Karen. Well, while we’re resting in place and we’re kind of dreaming of Sicily in Italy and all these amazing places that we can’t unfortunately get to right now, is there one place that you really just can’t wait to get back to, apart from Sicily as a whole. Is there one place that you just think, oh, things are going to be okay when I’m at this place?
[00:51:20.570] – Karen La Rosa
Well, I’m very fortunate in that I have some very good friends. I’m friendly with this family. They’re seven brothers, all older. And two of them live here in New York. And they have this property between Catania and Taormina and Aci Castello. And it’s a big house. Five bedrooms, five bathrooms. It’s actually on my web site because they rent it out. But when it’s not rented out, I have spent many, many happy days there.
[00:51:53.000] – Karen La Rosa
They have an olive orchard. So I’ve participated in the olive harvest several times. And they have garden and I did a yoga tour there, actually. I know being there in the morning with this group doing yoga was pretty special.
[00:52:14.060] – Karen La Rosa
And, you know, just the day lasts very long. You grill your food, whether it’s artichokes or sausage and, you know, drink wine under the moon. And it’s a place I feel very much at home. And it’s also just so beautiful and so relaxing and that’s sort of where I feel like just being. I want to work in the garden and I want to sit there and look at the sea..
[00:52:46.300] – Katy Clarke
And then eat the fish! It does sound amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. Really want to get back to Sicily very, very soon. As soon as I can. But before we sign off, how can our listeners stay in touch with you and find out more about your tours and how to get on them? Because I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m ready to come with you.
[00:53:13.190] – Karen La Rosa
I could take you with the twins because I’m used to twins. People can find me on my Web site. LaRosaworks.com and on that on my Web site. I’ve put many different things. There’s a recommended reading list and film list and there’s articles and stories that I’ve even written. I haven’t had much time to do that lately, plus all my tours and general travel information about Sicily. So that’s a good place to start.
[00:53:46.490] – Karen La Rosa
And from the web site, you would be link to my social media pages, my Instagram and my Facebook, which is LaRosa Works Sicily. And then I have LaRosa tweets, but I only tweet when I have something good to share.
[00:54:04.600] – Karen La Rosa
And then my latest project that I’m proud of. But it’ll be a continuing project is a YouTube channel and LaRosa Work Sicily presents. I have asked many people that I know to make videos for me of various things and Sicily – you know how to make gelato or how to do this. And Ortho’s have read from their books and different things like that. Plus, I have playlists and other channels. So if somebody wants to learn about Sicily in an intimate way, they go to this one page and then you’re there.
[00:54:42.310] – Karen La Rosa
You’re not like going into the rabbit hole of trying to Google or look up this and that. There’s a lot there and it’s growing. I’m working on a new video right now, and it’s fun for me because it’s keeping me very close. But I think people are really enjoying it.
[00:55:01.090] – Katy Clarke
I have to agree, it’s an absolutely wonderful resource. And I’ve spent a few hours looking at it myself. And it’s great. Grazie Karen for joining us on Untold Italy. It’s been such a pleasure reliving some of my most cherished travel memories with you and dreaming of visiting Sicily and the Val di Noto again very soon. Thanks for joining us.
[00:55:23.030] – Karen La Rosa
I hope so. Thank you for having me.
[00:55:26.420] – Katy Clarke
Ahhh Sicily, I could have chatted all day with Karen. What a kind and generous person she is and what a passion she has for Sicily and the Val di Noto region. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely excited to head back there and seek out that wine gelato. Yum. And relax on the beautiful farm she mentioned. We’ve added information for all of the places Karen mentioned into the show. Notes for this week’s episode on our Untold Italy website at untolditaly.com/31 for episode 31.
[00:55:59.690] – Katy Clarke
This link is also available in your favorite podcast app. There you will find details also of Karen’s web site and her prolific resources on all things Sicily. If you have even a passing interest in Sicily, make sure to follow her on your favorite social media channels as there is something inspiring posted every week.
[00:56:20.690] – Katy Clarke
I’ve invited Karen back on the show in the coming weeks to talk about Palermo with us. As it’s a city, I’m longing to discover myself and learn much more about.
[00:56:29.020] – Katy Clarke
If you want to be notified of that and all upcoming episode. Make sure to subscribe to our show. Thank you once again for all your support. We really appreciate it. Grazie and ciao for now.