The hidden island of Pantelleria is located 62 miles southwest of Sicily and a mere 40 miles from Tunisia, the nearby North African coastline is clearly visible from its shores, and the island’s influence from its neighbor is dramatically apparent.
I just can’t get the island off my mind. It was never supposed to be part of my voyage to Sicily, but after several well-heeled Italian business owners had told me it was one of their favorite places in the world, I decided to make the journey to Pantelleria.
There is really no feeling of anything remotely Italian on the island, despite the area being frequented by the most famous Italian names in the world. Giorgio Armani fell in love with the island and still owns his summer villa there, and other well-known names like Truman Capote, Sting and fashion photographers have retreated there. The rough, windswept landscape with its jagged lava cliffs, is filled with ancient ruins and historic stone dwellings known as dammusso. You get the feeling you are somewhere lost in remote Africa, rather than on one of the most unique Italian islands.
This island had its share of drama in the past, once the home to Phoenicians, Romans, and Carthaginians, it was well battled for possession including during WW II when the allies took control of the island as a base for its assault on Sicily. These days, the only drama on the island is which restaurant to choose from, among some of the finest gourmet options in the region.
The island is perfect for cultivating cotton, figs, and olives and is the ingenious rooftops of the buildings designed to collect rainwater. The heavily nutrient rich soil on the island helps the farmlands flourish, and also includes hot springs and hidden caves as well as a natural sauna.
I was told about a brand new luxurious resort created from an ancient dammuso, that had opened on the island and was eager to visit. I arrived at the stunning Sikelia Luxury Hotel and was met by the most amazing woman who radiated such energy and love from her heart.
Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti is a former professional basketball player and now the owner of Pantelleria’s most luxurious retreat. Her energy is coupled with her unique style, one-day wearing fur trimmed flip flops, another large jewelry draped around her neck and highlighting her enormous mane of silver hair.
After entering the huge brass doors, reflecting the Mediterranean Sea below, Giulia became the perfect hostess for several brilliant and memorable days. She owns a winery that we visited at the gorgeous Coste Ghirlanda, very near her resort which is famed for its Zibibbo and Grenache wines.
The stunning vineyards of Coste Ghirlanda also feature a unique way of spending romantic overnights in their ancient dammusi’s, with candlelit gourmet dinners to celebrate special occasions. Guests can also spend enchanted evenings at the beautiful Wine Laboratory where a variety of gourmet food selections are paired with their fabulous wines. Giulia showed me how the vines of trees and vines are weighted down to create a low profile from the constant winds. The resulting effect is a landscape of miniature trees and bushes all with dramatic effect and creating an amazing array of output from grapes for their famed dessert wines, to capers which are in almost every dish on the island.
My favorite was her Silenzio Wine served nightly in Sikelia’s magical Thema’ by Gagini restaurant, accompanied by spectacular meals from the very handsome Executive Chef Diego Battaglia. All of the meals include distinct flavors of Arabia, Africa, and Southern Italy. The chef combines fresh fish and shellfish with Pantelleria’s well-known capers, as well as oregano and courgettes from the Sikelia’s vegetable garden. Arabic fish couscous and desserts with Sicilian caponata, Pantelleria potato salad or Bitter Ravioli are all created in spectacular fashion.
While bartender Luca Visconti whips up first rate Cadillac margaritas for me and pink pepper martinis for my friends, the bar and lounge become an exclusive and relaxing place to spend long evenings of conversation.
The 20 suites at the resort are all unique and created by the owner’s fine taste in linens and art. Whether facing the courtyard, the artistically inspired pool or the sea, they are all unique and special. Renowned artist Gennaro Avallone’s paintings, pieces of furniture and decorative objects have also been introduced to the communal spaces as well as some suites. Giulia’s niece Katherina Pazienza Gelmetti helped to convert and design the new resort. In fact, the resort has become so popular, that they are already expanding on its success by adding an adjoining spa as well as a majestic hillside yoga platform next year.
Giulia took us on a tour of the island in one of the areas commonly used Fiat Panda cars. We were accompanied by my good friend, hotelier Tommaso Marchiorello (Jashita Tulum), who also owns a dramatic villa on the island. We passed the Arco dell’Elefante, naturally created out of rock and looking like a reclining elephant in the sea, the Benikulà Cave natural sauna, and also the famed Lake of Venus’s Mirror which had hosted many fashionable photo shoots, including Madonna when she bathed in healing mud. But it was a very special invitation from Mr. Giorgio Armani himself that had me visit his large villa for the afternoon.
Armani’s villa at first approach is surrounded by a massive collection of palm trees creating an entire forest in stark contrast to the desert hillside. Mr. Armani has owned this minimalist style villa on the island’s northeast coast since he purchased it in 1979. He now spends every summer at the villa, arriving with his superyacht and a bevy of beautiful friends and models.
Armani’s villa compound includes seven separate dammusi, all furnished in traditional Armani style. The enormous swimming pool seemingly fades into the distance as if surrounded by a sandy shore with dramatic effect.
The two-feet thick stone walls were made from volcanic rock, and the white domed roofs create a natural insulation from the elements. Armani personally crafted his surrounding Oasis garden filled with Tiaré trees, magnificent rose bushes, jasmine hedges, rare cypress trees, and 300-year-old palm trees imported from Sicily.
Armani worked with famed architect Gabriella Giuntoli, a long time resident of the island, who was able to create something natural and elegant while also maintaining the sense of the area.
It was fun to explore the island at night and visit many of the most popular restaurants, which are often found in remote spots as well as in town. Eating like a local is what one does when visiting Pantelleria. All of its restaurants serve local cuisine with a major focus on the island’s crops of aubergines, olives, tomatoes, and capers as well as fish shipped over from Sicily and the famed Passito di Pantelleria dessert wine.
The best dining options on the island include the much praised La Nicchia, and when film producer Umberto Massa decided to turn his house into a restaurant, last year he opened Osteria degli Artisti in the islands small town of Scauri, where he features many fish specialties from his hometown of Napoli. Just below the restaurant is his fabulous little bar overlooking the port called “Curnutazzi Bar,” where the locals spend many hours recalling the events of the day. Also check out La Favarotta, located in the middle of the island and surrounded by vineyards, best known for its rabbit dish and their aubergine.
But my favorite part of the island is that you really have no plans and are free to just relax and enjoy great conversation with friends on such a magical and secret island, far away from the hordes of tourists that visit Sicily. As Armani says “the island still retains that untouched wildness and beauty, which reminds me of that moment when I first bought the house. I live outdoors when I’m there. It’s the only place where I truly feel I can “switch off” and escape from the stress and wear and tear of working life.”
I am so blessed to have made such great friendships during my short visit and will definitely be revisiting its welcoming shores again soon to live La Dolce Vita. More