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The San Domenico Palace Taormina, Italy: “Very Sicilian”

The entrance to the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina is a modest affair. An archway in a long and tall stone wall. On either side, a shelf bearing a small statue of a medieval monk. Nothing more. No sense of what might lie ahead.  It is only after passing beneath the arch and through the stone-paved court into the lobby of the hotel proper that the possibility of the extraordinary emerges.

Set into the side of a cliff that descends like a grand stairway affording a series of heart-stopping perspectives of  terraces, gardens, and the Ionian Sea, the San Domenico is a multi-dimensional property layered with centuries of Sicilian history. It was built as a Dominican monastery in the 15th century, then purchased, expanded and transformed half a millennium later into a luxurious hotel that, save for a brief occupation during the Second World War by Fascist forces who were subsequently ousted by the Allies, has been consistently renowned as a destination for the renowned. Heads of state, directors of financial empires, figures of society, cinematic stars, artists and writers  have signed its guest book.

Although thoroughly modern in terms of comforts and services, a tranquil  aura born of the monastic presence still lingers. It is felt in small chapels off medieval walkways, in silent cloisters studded with plants and palm trees, brimming with vines of brilliant bougainvillea  and rimmed  by an Italianate pillared arcade, in a grand ballroom that still recalls its original use as the monastery’s church, in a spacious bar and cocktail lounge that retains the simplicity of the Dominican refectory it once was. It can also be felt in the long corridor beneath a vaulted ceiling in the Garden Wing where red doors, no more than five feet high, open to rooms that were once monks’ cells but today, furnished with marble furniture and velvet drapes, are the choice accommodations for many guests. The sense of the past is so powerful here, it would come as no surprise to see a figure in a white cassock emerge from behind one of the doors and head off to prayers in the quiet order of his day.

Atmospheric as a cell might be, our taste ran to the more modern settings of the Grand Hotel Wing, the annex added when the property became a 105-room property. It is accessed through a series of splendid, spacious salons where sofas and chairs are upholstered in rich vermilion and gold damask, and walls are hung with museum-quality paintings. They bring one to a tiny elevator in an equally tiny hallway that rises to the upper  floor where luxuriant two-room suites with gleaming tiled floors and antique honey-colored wood furniture -- whose panels of floral decoration bespeak the sunshine of Sicily -- are housed.

After settling into our suite, we stepped out onto the broad terrace. Before us was a stunningly glorious view of Taormina Bay extending far out to the horizon, still and serene as a floor of aqua-marine glass. Peering over the railing’s edge, we looked straight down the cliff’s steep decline. With a rush of vertigo, we saw the terraces outside the dining rooms, a sizable perennial garden,  a swimming pool complex, and a hilly forested ground above  the coast. We turned, trying to follow the line of the coast northward until a promontory topped with some craggy constructs ended the view. We were soon to learn, these were actually the ruins of an ancient Greek theater.

It was a perfect mid-April day; the garden was at the height of spring bloom and the air was filled with the delicate scent of lavender. Escorted by our able guide, the dynamic and vivacious sales director Paola Vasta, we strolled down rectangular descending paths lined with perfectly groomed flower beds. Little white margaritas were fighting for space amongst tall delphiniums  in shades ranging from soft pink to fuchsia, mandarin oranges and lemons peeked out from the branches of small trees, and bright balls of red and white geraniums led the way to a stately arbor.

“The air is simply intoxicating,” said Paola when a whiff of jasmine sailed by in the breeze. She stopped and looked around her as if seeing the garden for the first time. “The San Domenico employs an entire staff of gardeners;  it is very special in that respect. It’s also very special in the art you will find throughout the hotel. Many paintings have been restored, but all are the original, going all the way back to the 15th century. Some people say the hotel is like a museum. And I guess, in many ways, they are right.”

The next morning we met Paola for a walking tour along the Corso Umberto, Taormina’s pedestrian main street that stretches across the city. Taormina is one of the high destinations in Italy, on a par with the Amalfi Coast and Capri, and although mid-April is still a bit early for the tourist season, the narrow avenue was filled with people, taking in the medieval buildings, churches, shops, restaurants and cafes. We passed a big church with a clock tower opposite a large piazza that allowed for a clear, open view to the sea.

Sales Director Paola Vasta

“This is a one of the great archaeological structures of Taormina,” Paola told us. “It was destroyed and re-built several times.” She pointed out the medieval clock tower directly behind the church and the classical Greco-Roman style of the church itself. “Sicily is mixture of the different cultures that inhabited Italy: the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Moors. Here you have an example,” she said. “In this area, the influence of Greeks is paramount.”

Not much later, we arrived at what we had taken for a craggy structure when glimpsed from our hotel terrace the day before. The ancient Greek theater, built between 223 and 214 B.C., is a World Heritage Site and considered one of the best preserved structures from antiquity. “The acoustics are fantastic,” Paola told us. “You don’t need any scenery because the setting itself is the backdrop. All kinds of performances take place here: classical dancers, operas, concerts of classical and popular music, theatrical plays. Last year Sting was a major attraction.”

We climbed the stone stairways of the amphitheater all the way to the top. The stage was directly below us, distant but clear in the morning light, the sea at its back. From this height, we turned and visually traced our route back, starting with where we were at this moment to the point at which had we began our walk. Now it was the San Domenico Palace that marked the end of the view. With the right optical equipment, we could make out the terrace to our suite, one of us joked. Yet there was a strangeness to the scene. At the same time, we thought how the hotel and theater were like bookends holding between them the essence of Taormina.

And there was something else. Rising up behind a row of cyprus trees, Mt. Etna. Seeing it now in all its solitary majesty, we recalled our first sighting of the volcano several years ago from the roof garden of a hotel in Ortega, the island off the coast of Syracusa.  That was from a great distance. Now we had the feeling that we had been encountering it since we entered the airspace above Catania several days ago, through the long drive from the airport to Taormina, and then at various lookouts throughout the hotel.

People who live in Taormina regard the volcano as a kind of guardian. It erupts frequently, and an eruption is considered a harbinger of good things to come, according to Alessandro Malfitana, a native of the region around Mt. Etna who recently returned home after working in London as a wine buyer for the past seven years.        

“I was away for a long time,” he said, “and all during that time, I used to wake up in the morning and feel something was missing.  I missed the sun, of course, but I also missed the volcano. I used to think how I would look out the window of my house, and there it was. There’s something special about living so close to Mt. Etna.” Now back home, Alessandro has taken on the position of sommelier at the San Domenico.

Loris Coluso is also local, but from Naxos, a little town directly on the sea. He is the headwaiter at the Principe Cerami, the flagship restaurant of the San Domenico and makes the trip to the hotel on his motor bike. “This is the perfect time for me to make the trip,” he told us, “and the perfect time for you to enjoy the hotel.” 

It was also the perfect time to enjoy dinner at the Principe Cerami. The weather was a bit too cool for al fresco dining on the terrace overlooking the sea. But the interior of the dining room is splendid enough to make one reluctant to move anyplace once seated in the small (four tables at the time of our dinner) but regal space beneath a high ceiling painted bright red, surrounded by walls that change from deep purple to royal blue depending on the lighting in a particular place of the room and huge Romanesque windows, each embracing four tall window panes that look out to the terrace.

Named for the nobleman who transformed the property from a monastery to a hotel, the Principe Cerami acquired its second Michelin star in 2010, and the glow from that achievement has not dimmed. As the only restaurant in Sicily to be awarded a second star, it is understandably the destination of choice throughout the area. There is but a single seating, and reservations are a must. Also they are staggered, spaced about fifteen minutes apart, so that when a group arrives, be it just a couple like us or a party of ten, their table is set and waiting for them. By the time a second party enters the dining room, the first has already been welcomed and seated, the server and sommelier have introduced themselves, the menus have been consulted and preliminary descriptions and discussions of the choices are already underway.

And so we were greeted, escorted to one of the round tables covered with a gold cloth, presented with menus and left to examine the offerings for a few moments before Loris arrived. The first diners this evening, we felt like royalty in this jewel box of a dining room as he explained and elaborated on the options, answered our questions, and getting a sense of what we were about, put it all together.  A few moments later, Alessandro appeared with suggestions for the wines that would work well with our selections. A refreshing amuse bouche of grouper tartar inside a cucumber shell accompanied by  citrus fruits was placed before us, and we were on our way.

Between the two of us, our dinner consisted of seared scallops prepared with rosemary and garlic; a salad of tomatoes and herbs and sweet fennel sauce; a raw fish selection consisting of tuna marinated with wild fennel, trout marinated with lemon, and monkfish marinated with saffron accompanied by avocado mayonnaise; a “homemade” bread soup with wild fennel seeds and a poached hen-egg;  spaghetti with dried anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs; risotto with green peas, asparagus tips and red mullet fillets; hake in a court bouillon with sea truffle sauté; and sautéed red bream with thyme and orange.  In between, we succumbed to a tempting array of breads, all baked on the premises, with an assortment of variables like dark olives, cherry tomatoes, sesame seeds, pistachios, almonds and figs as well as  breadsticks with fennel seed, and aromatic toasted brown bread accompanied by a cream  made of fresh ricotta and sundried tomatoes in lieu of the typical butter or olive oil.  Dessert was a sublime lemon sampling in the form of a warm tart, airy mousse, and ice cream.

Some of the staff at Principe Cerami

Chef Massimo Mantarro

Assistant Hotel Manager Luisa Cacopardo

Hotel Manager Enrico Licari

A 2002 Cavalieri from northern Italy accompanied our first courses. “A great, great sparkling wine,” Alessandro said (and it was). “But I can’t call it champagne.” Who cared? It was as good as any we’ve had.  But he moved closer to home with his second selection: a soft, delicate, crystal-clear and aromatic white: Etna Bianco, Cotanera (2011).

“I wanted you to try a wine produced from grapes grown in the Etna region where volcanic soil is rich in minerals and nutrients,” he told us. “They are of limited production, but getting more and more well-known all over the world. Very Sicilian.”

“Very Sicilian” as in a conversation  overheard during dinner between a server and a diner at a neighboring table regarding the raw fish entrée. “It’s not sushi,” said the server. “We had sushi before there was the word sushi. We use only local fish. Whether it is fancy or not, it is fresh and tasty and not from any other part of the world.”

“Very Sicilian” as in Massimo Mantarro, chef at the Principe Cerami for nine years whose culinary gifts resulted in a first Michelin star in 2007 and a second in 2010,  whose lauded gastronomic combinations are rooted in his native soil, who – in a culture dominated by powerful egos -- is surprisingly and charmingly self-effacing.

“Very Sicilian” as in “Zero Kilometer,” a label we heard, for the first time, from hotel manager Enrico Licari which describes the kitchen’s  commitment to using products close at hand like the lemons we had seen in the perennial garden that afternoon, the very same ones used in the dessert we enjoyed at dinner a few hours later.

“Very Sicilian” as in Luisa Cacopardo, assistant hotel manager as well as San Domenico’s defacto archivist, who told us about the rich Jewish culture in Sicily that went back to the classical Greek period but summarily ended with the expulsion of Jews throughout the Spanish Empre in 1492.

“Very Sicilian” as in the hotel’s staff -- engaging, informed, enthusiastic. “One hundred rooms allows for intimacy, for the staff to get to know you,” Enrico said. “That is what distinguishes us from other five star hotels.”

That and the “Very Sicilian” warmth equally distributed between the sun and the people.

Highly notable – worth a trip from anywhere.

A member of The Leading Hotels of the World.


San Domenico Palace Hotel
Piazza San Domenico 5
98039 Taormina
Sicily, Italy

Phone:  +39 0942 613 432

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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