We spotted her simultaneously. But it was my friend Jessie who bounded down the street after the young Sicilian woman whom we had just seen pull a golden arancino from a white paper bag.
“Scusa!” she called after the woman, before catching up to her and inquiring about the still-steaming deep-fried sphere with a creamy rice interior. With a knowing smile, the woman led us to a nearby alley steps from the main drag of Taormina and pointed to a humble pizzeria, the source of the arancini that I’ve been dreaming about ever since.
Situated about 30 miles north of Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily, Taormina is a gorgeous seaside town perched on a hilltop. It has everything a traveler in search of a storybook Mediterranean escape could hope for: a medieval layout; ancient ruins; belle epoque villas; and sweeping views of the Ionian Sea, the Sicilian coastline and, on clear days, the smoky crest of Mount Etna (about 20 miles away as the crow flies). The town has long attracted literary titans, including D.H. Lawrence and Goethe, who once compared Taormina to paradise, and generations of glamorous celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren.
These days, Taormina, with its designer-label shops and Michelin-starred restaurants, still draws glamour-seeking vacationers. But it is by no means exclusive: for one thing, cruise ships, many filled with Teva-shod budget travelers, loiter in Taormina’s bay.
But as I would discover, the real charm of Taormina is not found in the lovely views or the historic sites, nor is it in the luxurious hotels or the stylish bars with dazzling panoramas. Beneath all the glitz lies the true appeal of Taormina: the secret hideaways and discreet spots that have somehow remained under the radar, like the hole-in-the-wall pizzeria from which those heavenly arancini came.
However, when Jessie and I arrived in Taormina on a sunny afternoon in October, I had my doubts about the place. An enormous cruise ship was anchored in the bay, and the main streets were sagging with tourists. To reach our hotel, Jessie had to navigate our rented cherry-red Citroen down a street so crowded that we initially mistook it for a pedestrian zone.
“The whole world comes to Taormina — Russians, Germans, even Filipinos,” said Carmelina, a longtime resident who, the afternoon that we arrived, chatted with us at the jewelry shop Il Quadrifoglio, on the bustling Corso Umberto.
Indeed, while walking through the Teatro Greco, an approximately 2,000-year-old Greco-Roman amphitheater that is Taormina’s most famous attraction, I spotted Japanese and Swedish tourists. On the expansive terrace of the Grand Hotel Timeo, known for its Etna views and celebrity clientele, I overheard conversations tinged with accents both British and American. And later, as street musicians serenaded the crowd on the main Piazza IX Aprile, I watched a German couple snapping photos of the pretty panorama: a stone clock tower, a pair of picturesque churches and the beautiful view of the bay.
But beyond a handful of tourist magnets, the crowds evaporated.
At the sprawling public gardens known as Villa Comunale, steps from the terrace of the Grand Hotel Timeo, I discovered the same wonderful bay views but shared them with strolling Italian families, not international tour groups. And in those gardens, surrounded by blooming rosebushes and bougainvillea, I had my choice of benches upon which to linger without the onus of shelling out for an overpriced cocktail.