It had been a long day in the car – my mother driving, me navigating, and my long-legged brother in the back seat trying not to get car sick – as we drove up from Agrigento in the southwest, through Enna and Piazza Armerina, home to the lovely and well-preserved Roman mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale. With Mt. Etna’s peak long looming in the distance, we were happy to finally have arrive on the lower slopes of the volcano. Just past the tight, black stone-cobbled streets of Santa Venerina, we stumbled upon the road sign leading the way to our destination, the hotel Monaci delle Terre Nere.
After backing up 100 meters to let a small truck pass (I was supremely grateful for my mother’s dexterity driving our manual rental car), we buzzed in at the main gates and drove up to the rust-colored façade of the former aristocratic manor which now houses the hotel’s reception and restaurant.
As we checked in, aperitivo was just beginning, and we were offered a glass of Etna bianco or rosso, made of the local grapes carricante and nerello mascalese, along with a spread of cheeses and meats, including salami made from the local black pig of the Nebrodi mountains.
We helped ourselves and settled into the lounge, taking in the minimalist design accents of the hotel’s décor and how it interplayed with the 400 year old house. Glasses quickly emptied of the refreshing local wine, we climbed back into our car to drive 300 meters across the property to our room, one of four housed in a beautifully restored farmhouse.
In our suite – two adjacent rooms originally part of a 1730 rural building made of rough hewn lavic stone – the interplay of minimalist design with the original structure was on full display. Lights were set within the small holes which had held the original wooden beams that would have served as scaffolding before being removed; our bed projected from the wall, lit from below, seeming to hang in thin air; these, along with every other touch, showed the care and thought that had gone into the restoration of the buildings as a whole.
The building itself was nestled within one of the many terraces upon which a handful of other buildings were situated amidst vines and citrus groves. A short walk around the property revealed a greenhouse, kiwi trees, and a grove of vanilla pink oranges, as well as other well-marked varieties of trees.
We ate in the hotel’s Slow Food certified restaurant and treated ourselves to the four-course menu prepared by chefs Pino Guerrisi and Francesco Troina. We whet our appetites with a riff on the traditional eggplant caponata, which made use of the abundant wide fennel growing throughout the island, then had our minds blown by a pesto of pistachios from nearby Bronte, just on the opposite side of the volcano. Next, my mother chose a gorgeous swordfish caught that morning with a parsley, lemon, and olive oil sauce, while my brother and I dug into local lamb with herbs and ratatouille.
Everything the chef prepared showcased the fresh, local produce and in-season fish and meats, with every bite a little more intense and flavorful than the last. Each of the courses paired beautifully with the Etna wines that filled the wine list, from the sparking bianco di nero from Murgo to a rich, leathery 2003 Calabretto Etna Rosso, beautifully aged with a whiff of crushed violets on the nose.
Everything was so good that we returned for every dinner of our three days staying at Monaci, enticed by the ever-changing, tightly curated menu that was produced each morning at the outdoor breakfast that over looked the manor. We couldn’t help thinking about dinner as we sipped our freshly squeezed blood orange juice.
Via Monaci sn, 95019 Zafferana Etnea, Catania, Italy
Afternoon aperitivo in the reception with glasses of Etna bianco or rosso and snacks, to be enjoyed inside or outside on the front lawn
Tastings and tours of wines made on the northern side of Mt. Etna
A private Summit Craters tour to the top of Mt. Etna and its surrounding landscape, booked through the hotel, with a certified naturalist guide
- 18 rooms and suites
- Slow Food certified restaurant
- 1 pool with a bar nestled between vines and citrus groves
Winery visits: Most of the quality wineries are situated on the northern side of Mt. Etna, including Tenuta delle Terre Nere and Passopisciaro. Most require an appointment for a tour, so email or call ahead, and include in your request whether you need a tour in English. Tenute delle Terre Nere, Contrada Calderara, 95036 Randazzo Catania, Italy, +39 095 924002; Passopisciaro, Contrada Guardiola, 95012, Castiglione di Sicilia, Italy, +39 0942983225
- Taormina: The chic, polished streets of Taormina belie its famed reputation as a resort town, but it’s still worth the day’s trip to see the Teatro Greco, with its outstanding views of the Mediterranean, and the excellent pizza at Vecchia Taormina. Vico Ebrei 3, Taormina, 98039.
- Isola Bella: A 5-minute cable car away from Taormina (or a short walk from the Belvedere, depending on the tide), this island houses a natural reserve with beautifully preserved coastline. Enjoy the pebble beach next to the clear turquoise Mediterranean waters. Cable car departure from Via Luigi Pirandello.
Originally posted on SAVEUR.com