Salina: Italy’s secret gourmet island

Salina, Sicily CNN  — 

As the hydrofoil approaches Salina, the second-largest island of Sicily’s Aeolian archipelago, it’s not hard to understand why Michael Redford and Massimo Troisi chose it to shoot many scenes of “Il Postino” (The Postman).

The 1994 film won an Academy Award for its tale about falling in love with poetry, and, to that end, there really couldn’t be a more poetic setting than Salina.

Salina is the second-largest island of Sicily's Aeolian archipelago.

Poetic and magical

The green hills that sit high above the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea. The ominous shadow of the volcano that is the island of Stromboli in the distance. The color and movement of the port. The sights, yes, but then the smells.

Depending on the time of year, scents of wisteria or caper flowers dreamily intoxicate the air, leaving behind a lingering essence that will pleasantly haunt you long after you’ve left the island.

What’s more, destinations such as Salina are a world away from Italy’s crowded Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. And much of the tourism here in summer is Italian.

Thanks to its freshwater springs, Salina is the greenest island of Aeolian archipelago.

Its diverse climate with millennia-old olive groves, prickly pear cactus, vineyards and typical Mediterranean vegetation means the fertile island produces tons of capers, chestnuts, a high-quality low-acid olive oil and more. There even was once a former salt (saline) lake in Lingua, hence the island’s name.

The port area of Santa Marina Salina is the busiest part of the island, with small boutiques, ceramic stores and other specialty shops lining the short main street of Via Risorgimento.

Island’s claim to fame

Many food experts, including local chefs such as Martina Caruso, claim that capers from Salina, which are plentiful on the island, are the best in the world.

To wit: There’s an annual festival on the island each June to celebrate them and the major role they play in the local cuisine.

They are picked one by one by hand and marinated in sea salt, olive oil and sometimes vinegar.

On Salina, the briny nubs – technically unripened flower buds – have a compact bud, and, when cured, last for up to three years.

While capers can be found in salads, pasta or as a garnish for meat or seafood dishes, locals especially love eating them on the typical pane cunzato.

This simple Sicilian street food, local to the islands, is a flavorful and crisp bread round topped in these parts usually with fresh tomato, mozzarella and capers. Bar da Alfredo in Lingua is the most famous place to try it.

Maurizia De Lorenzo’s Sapori Eoliani makes and sells organic caper products from patês, pesto and sauces using all locally grown produce from eggplants, tomatoes and wild fennel to the capers themselves including caper flowers, leaves and the cucunci (caper buds).

Paradise of plenty

Thankfully, the lack of mass tourism on Salina means that most of the bars and restaurants on the island are authentic, catering to local tastes and standards.

And there’s more to Salina than just caper-studded dishes.

At Bar da Alfredo, you would be remiss to leave before tasting the granita (a semi-frozen, refreshing sweet). Gelsi (mulberry), limone (lemon) or fichi d’india (prickly pears) are the homegrown favorites, and in the morning, it’s customary to dip your brioche bun in the frozen delicacy.

For creative cocktails with a dreamy sea view, try In Sé Natura, located at the Hotel Santa Isabella.

Since this is Italy, it’s likely no surprise that wineries are sprinkled throughout the island. Caravaglio, Colosi, Fenech and the internationally renowned Hauner are all recommended.

Tiny Pollara, home to one of the island’s best caper producers, is worth a visit, especially to watch the sunset from the low-key L’Oasi Snack Bar. Grab a spot on one of the picnic chairs at this family-run kiosk that sits in front of the only church in the town.

On the topic of churches, the Sanctuary of Madonna del Terzito is another important site. Its long history touches on a monk taking refuge from persecution and the myth of the Virgin Mary who appeared to the faithful after three rings of a bell in the 1600s.

To honor it all, one of the island’s biggest festivals combining market stalls, a procession and fireworks takes place annually in July.

Porto Bello restaurant, with a terrace overlooking the port, is unpretentious seafood dining at its very best. Start the meal with a sauté of clams and mussels and a raw tuna and shrimp platter and their signature involtini di pesce spada (crumbed and stuffed sword fish) are not to be missed.

Or feast on octopus salad, caponata and the Sicilian classic of pasta alla norma at the casual Didyme.

Destinations such as Salina are a world away from Italy's crowded Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre.

Beyond the port, there are a few other sleepy towns to explore, including Lingua and the only sand beach at Rinella.

But one town in particular is a humble gourmet gem – Malfa. Famous for producing the white wine Malvasia and exporting it to the world, Malfa is a must-stop for wine lovers.

The intense, delicately sweet flavored Malvasia can be found at every restaurant and bar on the island.

Traveler’s token

When you’re ready for a break from indulging in the island’s gastronomic delights, head to the port area. Santa Marina Salina is the busiest part of the island, with boutiques, ceramic stores and other specialty shops lining the short main street of Via Risorgimento.

Shops include the chic concept store Le Signorine. Brainchild of sisters Marietta and Concetta, the boutique sells independently designed, handmade items from bags to jewelry to kids clothes. Stop in Salearancio for unique clothing and accessories.

Along the same street sits the eclectic gallery, artistic space and bookshop Amanei. Each year in partnership with Elettra Bottazzi and Marta Bandini’s Rome gallery Parione9, it hosts artists-in-residence April through to October.

A delightful stay

The Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia is a luxury wine resort by the Tasca d’Almerita family complete with a panoramic views, gourmet restaurant and 27 minimalist design rooms. The spectacular property sits within the stunning, peaceful surroundings of five hectares of vineyard.

The Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia  is a luxury wine resort.

The historic lighthouse and centerpiece of the property was the inspiration for owner Alberto Tasca. Of the property’s tranquil setting, Tasca says, “Turn after turn with a landscape that takes your breath away, my wife Francesca and I arrived at Capofaro.”

Tasca and his wife were “charmed by the slightly run-down lighthouse and the vineyard at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.”

Days at Capofaro are spent lounging at the pool, cocktail in hand, snacking on club sandwiches packed with capers of course (and even caper mayonnaise). Wine tasting is also a fine activity.

Cap off the day with dinner by chef Ludovico De Vivo. On-site produced wine pairings are optional but highly recommended.

Hotel Signum boasts a luxurious spa and the only Salina restaurant with a Michelin star.

The smaller boutique property on the island, also in Malfa, is the four-star Hotel Signum. It boasts a luxurious spa and the only Salina restaurant with a Michelin star. Chef Martina Caruso was named Italy’s female chef of the year in the 2019 Michelin guide and at 30 years of age, is among the country’s youngest of this caliber.

From $481 per night
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“I listen to and respect the land, the island and my surroundings,” Caruso says. “For me cooking is freedom. It’s where I follow my heart.” Her family owns the hotel and her gastronomic delights are an ode to childhood memories, cultural identity and roots.

While Salina may be more known for its wine culture, visitors craving a creative cocktail would do well to check out In Sé Natura. Located in the Hotel Santa Isabella, the restaurant counts a dreamy sea view among its attractions.

Local mixologist Luigi Bonasera can conjure up drinks with wild fennel infusions or something smoky.

In Sé Natura is also where Chef Alessandro Greco serves up Aeolian cuisine with little contemporary twists.

There’s something magical about Salina. It has history, heart and soul. And with a spectacular, unspoiled coastline and outstanding food and wine, you may wonder what all the fuss over the rest of Italy is about.

Find these places

Caravaglio, Via Provinciale, 33, 98050 Malfa, +01788580833

Cantine Colosi, Dir. Viaria C. Fraz. Giammoro 98042 Pace Del Mela, +39 090 9385549