I have always heard the stereotype “the best food in Italy is in the South.” While northern Italy has plenty of delicious dishes to offer, Trattoria Familiare da Michele & Jolanda in Sicily is where I had the best meal in my entire life. While you can find good food everywhere in Italy, I learned food is just one component you need to have an amazing experience.
I stumbled upon an authentic mom and pop restaurant while wandering the streets of Palermo with two travel companions after our visit to the Cathedral. We noticed a sign for a local trattoria. We looked it up online and saw only a handful of reviews but all were overwhelmingly positive.
We walked into the trattoria and decided to use our Italian language skills and asked for a table for three. The owner, Michele, was thrilled to host customers that were tourists who could speak Italian. From that moment on, he treated us like family. The Italian menus featured a course menu - we could choose between three types of appetizers, four varieties of pasta, house wine or soft drinks, and cannoli for dessert. The fixed price of 20 euros was shocking in the best way possible.
We each ordered a different starter so we could have a sample of the menu. As we waited for our food to be prepared, I used my Italian skills to ask Michele where the bathroom was. He led me behind the counter and through the kitchen. To my surprise, I realized this was Michele’s personal kitchen. We were not just dining at any trattoria; we were dining in Michele and Jolanda’s home. As I made my way back to our table, I saw Jolanda preparing our food in her kitchen. I conveyed my exciting discovery when I returned to the table.
Our anticipation was palpable. Michele delivered some complimentary snacks along with bread and house wine. He insisted this was no extra cost to us and he wanted to share his fresh olives and ricotta. It was evident that all of the food we were eating was made in house that very day.
Finally, the food began to arrive. I ordered the caponata, a melody of eggplant and bell peppers complimented by tomato sauce and olive oil. Michele's version of caponata was exceptional - the key ingredient was pumpkin drizzled with honey. He made it clear that adding this ingredient does not make his dish an authentic caponata, however, Michele decided to put his own twist on the dish with seasonal ingredients.
Following the incredible caponata was the pasta. I ordered what might be the most adventurous pasta order on their menu. It was pasta con sarde or pasta with sardines. Although this pasta is not for everyone, the harmony of seafood flavors in this dish was unlike anything I had ever tasted. Topped with Michele’s unique recipe of ginger infused breadcrumbs made it all the more unique.
Our plates were licked clean and then it was time for dolce. Michele served three cannoli made with homemade ricotta. Our stomachs were on tilt but we couldn’t say no because the cannoli were so rich and flavorful. Michele topped each cannolo with cocoa powder along with traditional powdered sugar.
Reflecting back, this multi-coarse adventure was the best meal I have ever eaten in my life. While each dish may not be considered traditionally Italian, all of the food was true to Michele. Each dish was paired with his narration of the twists he puts on his recipes.
I could not recommend Trattoria Familiare da Michele & Jolanda more. The next time I’m in Sicily, I know this will be one of my first stops. No matter where your travels take you, I hope you find your own experience like the one I had at Trattoria Familiare da Michele & Jolanda.
Eric Gotsch is a writing intern that is a rising senior at Loyola University Chicago where he has a double major in Italian Studies and Political Science. Eric studied abroad in Rome for his Fall 2023 semester while also interning at Il Centro Studi Americani, an Italian-American international relations think-tank. For fun, Eric likes to exercise, practice Italian, and bake focaccia.