The Trip of A Lifetime... Greece, Sicily, and Rome
My father, Santo Rizzo, was born in Ciminna, Sicily in 1948. He came to the U.S. as a young boy in 1955 as his parents wanted their children to achieve what we all know colloquially as the American Dream. My father has achieved so much in his 60 years in this country and has truly accomplished what many immigrants can only hope for. One thing he hasn't done, however, is visit his hometown since he left so long ago. Growing up, I heard the stories of Ciminna regularly. Sometimes the tales of him as a young free spirit in the Sicilian countryside were my bedtime stories. Other times, the detailed anecdotes of my other family members about "the old country" enchanted me. All I knew is: I needed to go. I yearned to see my roots with my own eyes. Finally, after 36 years; it was about to happen.
My wonderful boyfriend, Jay, knew how important this was to me, so we decided to plan our summer vacation to include this monument of nostalgia. While we were at it..why not spend an extra week in the Greek Islands??!! So our trip went like this. 4 days in Santorini, 3 days in Mykonos, 4 days in Palermo (and Ciminna), and finally 3 days in Rome. Read on to see all the highlights, "must visit" locations, and of course, restaurant recommendations.
In Santorini we stayed in the picturesque town, Oia (pronounced ee-ya). You've probably seen all of the postcard like pictures of the white domes towering over the bright blue ocean?? Those were all taken in Oia. We stayed at Mystique, a sexy boutique hotel on a cliffside only a few steps from the heart of town. The location was fabulous and the hotel itself was beautiful. Cons: If you are not able to climb treacherous flights of stairs multiple times each day, do not stay here. They do not have an elevator. The restaurants in Oia were outstanding. Fresh grilled fish was eaten several times each day.
Every spot had simply prepared, fantastic Greek favorites and staples with insanely fresh seafood at the focal point. Ammoudi Fish Tavern was an incredible dining experience. You have to descend about 500 feet of mountain steps to reach sea level where Ammoudi resides. It's a gorgeous scene down there, and you dine next to all the octopus that was just caught and is hanging in the sun to soften up before it's grilled. But beware, once your bellies are full... the only way to get back up the mountain is an arduous walk, or a donkey ride!
Another must-do is to be a sailor for a day and charter a sailboat. The waters and cliffside are dreamlike and the best way to experience it is from the water. Four of us rented our own fabulous boat for the day and it was magical. We got to swim in the dark blue buoyant waters surrounding the island. It's so buoyant you can barely dunk your head! Cliff diving from the Southern most point was also on the itinerary... don't chicken out!!
On our 5th day we took a 2 hour speed ferry to Mykonos. Mykonos is widely known as the "party island" and it definitely holds up to this moniker if you want it to. Jay and I, however, were still looking for a bit more of a mellow time. Plus, our hotel, Utopia, was a pristine, refined and mature experience...and also 30 minutes from town (but all was right in the world as we had our own private pool).
Mykonos Town is GORGEOUS. It feels like a movie set. Every building is bright white and blue and the narrow winding pathways and "roads" are quite maze-like... you WILL get lost, but that's part of the fun. Get a Gyro at.... Also a note... nightlife does not even come close to beginning until about midnight or 1am. The hopping time for dinner is about 10-11pm. If you show up at the normal time for us Americans, the venue will be completely dead. We learned our lesson on the first night. Unless you want to party by day, then head to the beach club at Nammos... it's off the hook. If you've even been to an international Nikki Beach, this is quite similar.
Landing in Palermo was surreal. I couldn't believe I was finally there! We stayed a bit outside of the city center in a historic hotel called Villa Igea that was built in 1899.
The morning after we arrived, my cousin Marco, came to pick us up and drive us 45 min to Ciminna. When we arrived I was almost in tears, it was even more beautiful than I ever expected. The rolling hills and vibrant green cliffs, the ancient town hugging the mountain side. I was home. And believe me, they made me aware of it. We had a 2 day welcome wagon. We spent time with about 10 cousins on the first day including my great aunt (my Nanna's sister) and about 40 cousins on the second day. Rolling out the red carpet is an understatement. They were so excited to see their long lost American cousin that they cooked every regional dish you could possibly imagine. Vitello (veal) breaded then grilled on an open flame out in the countryside, homemade pasta, figs from the garden the size of apples.
It was never ending and Jay only wished he learned the Italian words for, "Please, no more! I'm so stuffed it hurts!" The warmth and love we experienced from people I was related to but had never met was unforgettable. Now if only I can get my dad to go back with me.
The next day in Sicily we went to the beach at San Vito Lo Capo. It was a 2 hour drive from Palermo but worth every minute. It was the most picturesque sight I had seen on the trip so far. The water was shallow, crystal clear, warm, and was reminiscent of the Caribbean. Don't miss it. Even the drive there is breathtaking.
The last day in Sicily we spent our time walking through the ancient markets that are over 1000 years old and in search of the perfect cannoli. Mercato di Capo and Ballaro are the largest and most extensive. They sell every type of food product you can imagine and the energy is palpable. You must also check out La Vucciria, it's the most famous of the markets by day, but by night it has some of the best "hole in the wall" restaurants, bars, and music. It feels like you're walking down a dark alley, and all of a sudden, there's a party going on. There's even a fresh oyster cart in the middle of the piazza. It was incredible.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Fine by me. Since I last visited Rome in 2005, it has been my favorite global city. Nothing compares to it. The ancient ruins juxtaposed with the cosmopolitan scene. It possesses the world's most glorified history, art, and spiritual artifacts, as well as world class restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. Do not be surprised at all if living in Rome is on my agenda.
Here are my picks! Of course you MUST go to the Colloseum, Vatican, Trevi Fountain, and Roman Forum...that's a given. But for food and other fun stuff, here ya go! Close to Campo di Fiori is a little Ristorante and Salumeria called Roscioli. It's FANTASTIC. Incredible burrata, meats, cheeses, wine, and pasta. Get the carbonara.
You have to check out the Trastevere neighborhood. It's cool, trendy, and where all the action is. It's like the Wicker Park of Rome. The food is fabulous too. We had a casual lunch at Grazia e Graziella and the pizza Capricciosa and Roman artichokes were out of this world. We had a romantic date night at Antica Pesa. A bit more high end, modern Italian, but still fantastic. The wine list was thicker than Webster's dictionary, it blew my mind, yet we still selected an outstanding white called Quintodecimo.
The nightlife is casual yet scene-y. This is definitely where the cool 20 and 30-something Romans hang out. Very few tourists as well which is always a bonus. Lots of cocktail bars, even some mixology bars. Here's a tip: Most places you go to the cashier and tell them what you want and pay. They then give you a ticket you bring up to the bartender. It's super screwy and bizarre, but seems to work.
Shopping: simple. Via Corso and all around the Spanish Steps. High end, boutiques, chains, local designers, everything you could dream of is in Rome and concentrated in these two areas. Also, the small streets off of Campo di Fiori also has great shopping. Be prepared to drop a lot of dough!
Every place we visited would be a dream to return to. Greece was breathtaking and Italy was so meaningful. What would be most meaningful would be to actually go back to Sicily with my father. If you're reading this dad, PLEASEEEEEE can we go???????? If you all get a chance to go to any of these locations, PLEASE message me and tell me what your favorite part was. I'd love to learn more for my next trip! Efcharisto and Grazie!!!