As the sun set, the cruise ship slipped away, leaving a comparatively quiet town behind for Jessie and me to explore. But after a weeklong journey through Sicily with a mercurial GPS misguiding us across the unfamiliar island, we both needed an aperitivo first. Which is how we found ourselves at the Cloister Lounge Bar at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, an elegant establishment in a former 15th century monastery. Though hardly hidden, the hotel’s cloister, shaded by palms and bougainvillea, felt like a secret garden. Last summer, this sublime sanctuary was the stage upon which Dolce & Gabbana presented its Alta Moda collection, with its couture interpretations of Sicilian style — widows’ veils, black lace and swishing crinolines that seemed plucked from the set of The Leopard — to an audience that included Monica Bellucci, Isabella Rossellini and Anna Wintour.
Since 2010, the cloister has also served as an al fresco bar with soft piano music, crisply attired waiters and flickering votives — a glamorous scene befitting an earlier era in which a youthful Marcello Mastroianni might have clinked glasses with friends at a nearby table. Soaking up the atmosphere, we sipped Champagne cocktails and chatted with our waiter, who offered to sneak us into the guests-only gardens behind the hotel. After tiptoeing down a wide hallway, we descended some steps into a lush terraced oasis of orange trees, roses and bougainvillea-draped arches. Had we not had a dinner reservation to honor, we would have wandered around the tranquil gardens all night.
But instead we exited the grounds and crossed the street to Osteria Nero d’Avola, where a waiter whisked us upstairs to a packed rooftop terrace. Glasses of Prosecco and a plate of bruschetta quickly appeared on our table, followed by a basket of bread and what would turn out to be a point of particular pride — several bottles of olive oil. Before long, the restaurant’s gregarious chef, Turi Siligato, who was weaving among tables explaining the provenance of each oil — this one from Ragusa, that one from Noto — arrived bearing a large jar of preserved white olives.
“White olives are very rare,” he said, proffering one with a spoon, “but the flavor is extraordinary.” To further illustrate the freshness of his products, the chef, an ardent proponent of the Slow Food movement, then pulled out his cellphone and scrolled through photos of himself, harvesting olives in some, wearing a wet suit with a fresh catch of sea urchins in another. When our primi arrived, he insisted on suggesting oils — one stronger, the other more delicate — to pair with our respective dishes.
The next day, I rode a cable car down to the pebbly waterfront, where after a brief hike and a quick clamber through knee-high water, I discovered the Isola Bella nature preserve. The secluded islet, covered with exotic flora, was crisscrossed by trails with postcard-worthy views of the bay’s crystal-clear waters. Afterward, I retreated to the seaside terrace of the nearby Villa Sant’Andrea — the sister property to the renowned Grand Hotel Timeo on the hilltop — for an aperitivo. The friendly service and direct views over Mazzaro beach offered by the less-heralded sibling again proved that the better pick was the less ostentatious option.
That concept was reinforced later that night at our dinner at a one-Michelin-starred restaurant where the creative swirls and strokes made more mischief than magic. Instead, the one place that did leave me with stars in my eyes, the place I now dream about, the place for which I would return to Taormina, was Da Cristina, a nondescript pizzeria that trades in takeout — and those unforgettable arancini. There may be no table service, but peek behind the counter and you’ll find thick-crust pizza topped with artichoke and eggplant, cheese-stuffed sfoglie, and arancini with the perfect balance of rice, cheese, ragu and peas coated in a thin fried shell that lends a satisfying crunch to every bite. If I were resigned to eat only one thing for the rest of my life, those arancini would be it. And to think I once had doubts about this town.