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Otto Geleng: Dinner at Sicily’s Most Exclusive Restaurant

Restaurant of the Week: Seating 16, a table at Grand Hotel Timeo’s Michelin-starred restaurant is in hot demand.

By Emma Al-Mousawi

It’s late May and I’m perched at one of just eight crisp white draped tables at restaurant Otto Geleng on the demurely lit balcony at the 150-year-old Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel in Taormina. Fuschia blooms in terracotta pots lead my eye outwards to Mount Etna which surveys Naxos Bay in the moonlight. I feel like I’ve been transplanted into a painting or a movie set, or even a novel. And in a way, I have.   

Here, at Sicily’s most storied hotel, it is said that DH Lawrence found his inspiration to pen Lady Chatterley’s Lover, soon to be followed by Truman Capote who checked in for two years to write Breakfast at Tiffany’s. During the Golden Age of cinema, it was here that Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Federico Fellini stayed for the annual Taormina Film Festival hosted at the Greek Theatre next door.

However, it was a young German painter named Otto Geleng who made Taormina, and the hotel, the destination it was to become. In the 1860s the artist, so inspired by the landscape, rented a room in the hotel which was then a guest house. On his return to Germany, his watercolor paintings of Taormina were presented in Berlin and Paris. To his dismay, they flopped. The critics couldn’t believe a location so beautiful could exist and put Geleng’s artworks down to exaggerated fantasies.

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Otto Geleng is located is located on the terrace of Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel / ©Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel

To prove his depictions were true, he bought a page in a newspaper setting his critics and writers of the time a daring challenge: come to Taormina to see for yourselves. If they didn’t find his landscapes, he would pay for their trip out of his own pocket. However, if he was proven correct (spoiler alert: he was,) they would not only purchase at least one of his artworks and write new reviews of his work but also write about Taormina as a destination itself. It turned out to be an ingenious PR stunt and that same year, Taormina burst onto the radar of Europe’s high society as the place to be seen, with the newly renamed Hotel Timeo the place to stay. 

One-hundred-and-forty-five years later in 2018, the restaurant that bears the artist’s name opened at Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel and gazes across the very scene that so captivated Geleng. As with the Parisian art critics who were anything but disappointed when they laid eyes on Taormina, the restaurant critics were quickly impressed with the eight-table restaurant, awarding Otto Geleng a Michelin star a year after it opened. 

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Chef

The view of Taormina is enough of a reason to visit Otto Geleng but it is definitely not the only reason, or in fact the most impressive element of the restaurant. Dinner is a showcase of the island’s produce crafted by Sicilian-born chef Roberto Toro. Toro assembles and fuses fine local ingredients to create dishes that are both contemporary but authentically southern Italian. 

Chef Roberto Toro
Chef Roberto Toro / ©Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel

“My homeland boasts such extraordinary natural produce and, when you have such great raw materials, you don’t need to alter the ingredients. You just need to know how to enhance them,” says Toro. 

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Born into a family of farmers in nearby Palagonia, it is no surprise that Toro is uncompromising in his selection of produce. The chef credits the memories of his childhood as his biggest influence, drawing inspiration from time spent in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother and the colorful fruits and vegetables grown by his father in Sicily’s rich volcanic soil. 

Menu

As nature intended, Otto Geleng’s menu renews with the seasons. Toro’s three seven-course tasting menus include reinterpretations of traditional dishes such as saffron risotto with zingy grapefruit and tuna belly, which is locally caught and accompanied with olives and almonds – two of the island’s most beloved ingredients. 

My visit to Otto Geleng coincides with the Flower Festival in the baroque town of Noto, an hour south. For the occasion, the chef has created a tasting menu inspired by flowers. Instead of pairing the limited edition menu with some of the 400 labels on the wine list, Toro and the restaurant’s knowledgeable head sommelier Veronica Bonelli have chosen a special selection of Krug champagnes. 

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artichoke and licorice dish
Globe artichoke with licorice and wildflower / ©Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel

Bonelli is on hand to warmly expand on each pairing. This begins with smoked globe artichoke – its bud delicately opened with its crispy petals taking on a barbecue flavor and sweetly complimented with licorice and aromatic wild fennel flower. It is paired with Krug Grande Cuvee 171st Edition, light and golden with aromas of fresh blooms. 

Next arrives a vibrant green al dente risotto with dandelion extract, topped with finely sliced cuttlefish, lime gel and sunshine-hued petals. It is paired with a crisp yet rounded Krug Vintage 2011. 

The star of the evening is perfectly cooked red mullet served on sauteed baby fennel, the gentle aniseed enhancing the flavor of the meaty fish. It is finished with a sprinkling of crisp fried scales, chervil and dainty pink and white flowers. This is accompanied by Krug Rose 27th Edition, a deep blush champagne that has a balance of honey and citrus on the palate. 

Dessert is light and comes as a pretty spherical creme fraiche parfait with flavors and textures of tangy rhubarb and hibiscus.

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cuttlefish risotto
Risotto with dandelion extract, topped with finely sliced cuttlefish, lime gel and petals / ©Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel

Interior 

Though the view at Otto Geleng will undoubtedly grab your attention, nothing is overlooked on the restaurant’s tables. 

Silver Christofle Paris cutlery is embellished with a Baroque-inspired design and the gold motif china is fit for a grand Sicilian villa, while dinner is lit by white ceramic oil lamps handcrafted by local master craftsmen.

Just like Toro’s dishes, the simplest details are thoughtfully curated to create an aura as timelessly elegant as Taormina itself. 

Otto Geleng, Grand Hotel Timeo, a Belmond Hotel, Via Teatro Greco 59, 98039 Taormina, Sicily, Italy, belmond.com

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