Italian Islands Guide
The Italian Islands
Travelers typically think of Greece as the Mediterranean’s island nation, but in fact, Italy has hundreds of islands as well—from the usual suspects, Sicily and Sardinia, to the 120 islands in the Venetian lagoon. Some are absolutely enormous—Sicily and Sardinia are the first and second largest islands in the Mediterranean, respectively, and each has dozens of dialects and subcultures within it. But there are also small islands like Pantelleria and Salina, which are governed by Sicily, and Sant’Antioco and La Maddalena, which are part of Sardinia. Then there are the Neapolitan, Pontine, and Tuscan archipelagos, which rise in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the western coast of mainland Italy, and the Tremiti chain in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Puglia. The islands of the Venetian lagoon vary in size from less than an acre to the larger clusters connected by bridges that comprise the city of Venice. Here are some of my favorite places in the Italian Islands.
I’m starting with Sardinia here, not because it comes before Sicily alphabetically, but because I want it to be the destination of your next Italian holiday. Naturally, I think all the islands should be a priority, but realistically, you have to choose one as a starting point, and this should be it. It’s wild. The island lies about 150 miles off Italy’s west coast, just opposite the mainland regions of Campania and Calabria. Corsica is a short ferry ride to the north, while Tunisia is due south. Sicily, which is just a bit larger than Sardinia, is about 200 miles southeast and is home to around 3.5 times the number of inhabitants.
Most visitors head straight to the Costa Smeralda in the northwest. This is the only place in Sardegna that I do not endorse. Go everywhere else. Start in Cagliari, one Italy's most dynamic cities. Drink wine at Sabores (and take some home from their shop Saprori di Sardegna nearby). Eat modern Sardinian dishes at Old Friend and old school cookies at Durke. And dedicate a serious amount of time for exploring the Mercato di San Benedetto.
Just southwest of Cagliari, Capoterra is home to La Terrazza, a wine bar and bistro serving classic and creative dishes. Nearby Sa Cardiga e Su Schironi has an insane wine cellar. Pair decade old vintages of Dettori Bianco with grilled eels.
Next, head north into the Sarcidano sub-region and stay at Domu Antiga in Gergei. Book a cheese tasting at their caseificio Sinnos and book an aperitivo at Sa Mola Experience in the neighboring town. Stock up on handmade copper pots--or commission the custom copper piece of your dreams at the Pitzalis family laboratorio.
Let's get this out of the way
If you're loaded, sure, go stay at the hotel from White Lotus for a couple days. Otherwise, I would skip Taormina. It was developed for Anglophone tourists 150 years ago and that's exactly what it feels like. Lucia's native Catania and nearby Mt. Etna are way cooler. If you really have to go, eat at Osteria Divino Rosso.
Don’t Skip Palermo & Its Environs
This is seriously the most vibrant city in Italy and it just keeps getting more interesting. Rent a place near the Capo Market or Ballarò market and shop and cook and you’ll have an incredible time. Eat lots of street food like pane ca meusa (spleen and lung sandwich) at Pani ca’ Meusa di Porta Carbone or Nino U Ballerino. Also head to Piazza Ballarò and you'll find loads of stalls frying things (the panelle and potato croquette sandwiches are the best things there). There are a bunch of stalls there including a frittularu (a dude selling fat and cartilitdge and random veal trimmings either in a paper cone or on bun). There is a full Palermo guide here.
Go to Catania
Catania is magic. The black volcanic buildings from nearby Mt. Etna are visually striking and the city has fantastic energy. For food and drinks, check out: Fud (donkey and horse burgers are the specialty), Trattoria N'ta Za' Carmela (horse steaks on via Plebescito!), Le Tre Bocche, and of course, the fish market near the Duomo. Savia is an institution for sweet and savoury treats.
Visiting the Southeast
On the way down stop at I Rizzari in Brucoli for an excellent fish meal. Choose a base in or around Modica, Noto, Siracusa, or Ragusa and explore these baroque towns. I’m partial to Noto since it’s the home to Corrado Assenza’s Caffe Sicilia. Since this perfect pastry shop was immortalized on Chef’s Table the crowds have become a bit unpleasant, but Assenza’s excellent pastries and cookies (not to mention the most pure and life altering almond milk) just keep getting better. The pasta at Il Crocifisso in Noto is relatively solid. Il Crocifisso’s sister restaurant Dammuso TRIES SO HARD. It’s one of a growing number of wannabe contemporary spots that isn’t quite good enough but the wine list is great.
In Modica caffè Adamo is great for granita and sweets in general and Enoteca Rappa is great for wine. In Ragusa I like I Banchi for baked things, especially breads, and cheeses and cured meats. I’m not wild about the dishes that come out of the kitchen but, as the name suggests, the stuff from the banco (counter) is the move. While Noto, Modica, and Ragusa are inland, Siracusa is on the sea.
Also in the southeast, Marzamemi is super cute. Its tonnara (tuna processing plant) is no longer functioning but the sand-colored buildings have been repurposed as bars and performance spaces. On the waterfront, La Cialoma is nice for seafood, especially crudi. Take a dip nearby at Portopalo and the Isola di Capopassero. On the southern coast, the Faraglioni di Ciriga and surrounding seaside is beautiful for swimming. There’s also the Riserva Naturale Orientale just south of Lido di Noto.
Sicily's Smaller Islands
Obviously Sicily is an island, but it also has lots of little islands around it. The Aeolian Islands are the most heavily trafficked and they lay just off the north coast of “mainland” Sicily. Off the west coast, Marettimo, Favignana, and Levanzo are an easy trip from Trapani. Trapani port and Palermo’s airport offers year-round connections to Pantelleria (which otherwise can be challenging to reach given the season nature of its transport).
Pantelleria is my favorite. Stay in a dammuso (traditional dwelling or agricultural building), ideally on the western part of the island so you can eat daily at Osteria Il Principe e Il Pirata and swim at Cala Tramontana and Arco dell’Elefante. If you’re not on a budget, stay at one of the Tenuta Borgia villas (the Villa Grande and its pool was immortalized in Luca Guadagnino’s 2015 film A Bigger Splash and it’s €€€€€ but some of the smaller villas also have their own small private pools).
The Pontine Islands
The Pontine Islands, off the coast of Lazio, were resettled in modern times by Spanish Bourbon aristocracy and Neapolitan peasants, which is why their dialect and cuisines are so closely related to Naples. They share a somewhat common history with Ischia and Procida, farther south. The diets are rich in brothy soups like pesce all’acqua pazza (see page 101) and zuppa di cicerchie (see page 90). Ventotene’s lentil soup is nearly identical to that of Linosa (see page 99)—an example of two distant rural island cultures on opposite sides of Italy coincidentally mirroring one another.
Arrivals to Ponza from Anzio skirt the island’s eastern coast, where sheer tufa cliffs bleached white by the sun are a preview of the dramatic vertical volcanic walls that partly define Ponza’s topography.
Ponza is best appreciated from the water— boat rentals in the port are a convenient and affordable way to explore the island and offer spectacular views, not to mention access to coves and bays not accessible by land.
The port is the largest village on the island; its pastel buildings follow the volcanic peaks of the area. As the closest island to the Italian capital, Ponza is popular with Romans. As such, it’s crowded on summer weekends and during the high season of July and August, but during the rest of the year, it’s sleepy and downright magical.
Today’s Romans were not the first to discover Ponza. In antiquity, it was a place of exile as well as voluntary retreat. Aristocrats built villas on the island, and according to legend, carved saltwater swimming pools into the soft rock faces, for bathing without the risk of sunstroke or suntan. Later these caves were used to raise eels, still an island delicacy. But after the fall of the empire, the island fell into a period of neglect, and it wasn’t inhabited again until the 1730s, when Charles III of Spain founded the village that now accepts ferry arrivals. A few decades later, Le Forna on the north side of the island was founded by inhabitants of Torre del Greco, a town on the Bay of Naples.
Once a fishing and farming village, Ventotene is now a sleepy island with just a small year-round population. It’s famous for its dried legumes, especially lentils, once a major export that has seen a decline in production due to an economy that has shifted away from agriculture toward tourism.
The Neapolitan Archipelago
The three main islands in the Bay of Naples— Capri, Ischia, and Procida—have a robust relationship with the mainland, so their cuisines share a lot in common with the Amalfi Coast and Naples and are particularly rich in seafood. This is in contrast to other islands, where risk of invasion meant harvesting seafood was dangerous and mostly avoided. But the arcipelago napoletano has been an established tourist destinations for centuries (as opposed to the other small islands, which only saw a tourism boom beginning between the 1960s and 1980s).
Close your eyes. What’s the first Italian island that comes to mind? I’d put my euros on Capri (pronounced CAH-pree). It’s home to Italy’s most famous salad (insalata caprese with mozzarella, tomato, and basil; see page 167) and a delectable
flourless chocolate cake, torta caprese (see page 203). This tiny island in the Bay of Naples was developed in the nineteenth century for foreign travelers, mainly well-heeled tourists from America and Northern Europe. For well over a century, it has drawn tourists to its famous sea cave, the Blue Grotto, luxury shopping, and lemon tree–dotted coastline. In 2019, Capri drew 2 million tourists to its 4 square miles. Compare that to 9 million to Rome’s 500 square miles, and you can imagine how absolutely unpleasant Capri can be in high season unless you can retreat to a private beach club or your boat to enjoy the island away from the crowds.
From afar, this ancient island looks like a green volcano rising from the sea. And in a way, it is, though the volcano is barely active, merely emitting heat from springs that warm coves around the southern part of the island. For a couple thousand years, islanders have been eating coniglio all’ischitana (see page 135) while farming the fertile, terraced terrain of their verdant island.
My aversion to fancy things is almost as intense as my attraction to that which is unpolished. It is both of these factors that draw me to Procida again and again. As a bonus, the food is better than Capri and Ischia, too. The place feels like a little slice of Naples has broken off and floated into the bay. The chaotic, soulful, and colorful place had so much in common with the nearby mainland, much more than with its island neighbor, Ischia. Procida’s port is loud and raucous, with backfiring scooters and old women shouting from windows. Above the port, the rest of the island’s settlements are a mix of apartment blocks and modest villas surrounded by citrus groves and other fruit trees.
Getting to Procida is easy. Hop on a train from Rome to Naples (book early to get the best deals on the new-ish Italo train), then walk 25 minutes to the port, or take a cab, depending on your luggage situation. There are regular Snav hydrofoils from Molo Beverello and Caremar ferries from Calata Porta di Massa. There are also connections from Pozzuoli and Ischia. FYI, Procida is a popular weekend destination for day trippers from Naples, so the hydrofoils can get crowded or booked up on Saturdays and Sundays.
Check out La Panetteria at Via Vittorio Emanuele 155/157 for amazing baked goods. Their pizzas, savory breads and torte rustiche are incredible. They also do sweet shortbread crust filled with an eggy and hammy filling. Insane. In the morning, swing by for a lingua procidiana, sweet and flaky pastry filled with custard.
In addition to the stellar offerings at La Panetteria, I always eat at La Conchiglia. The food is decent, it is conveniently situated 10 steps above Chiaia beach, and the tables look across the bay to Corricella. The antipasti are very good, especially the antipasto di terra, a selection of excellent island produce cooked in rich olive oil based sauces. The cappelletti (pasta filled with provolone and eggplant) and stracci cozze e broccoli (strips of pasta with mussels and broccoli) are house specialities.
My favorite dining spot is Girone on Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo in Marina Chiaolella. It’s nice to grab a drink near the port then take the short walk to Girone, a popular place that serves excellent fish. I am partial to the antipasto “sfizioso” with a little bit of land, a little bit of sea, and whole lot of fried stuff. The mussels are fantastic and the spaghetti ai ricci (spaghetti with sea urchin roe) is delicious. If you can stand the idiosyncratic service, you’ll never want to eat anywhere else on the island.