Tommaso Pantè has worked with Rick Steves' Europe for years — first as a local guide in Taormina, then as a Rick Steves guide for the entire Best of Sicily tour. Tommaso redefines the word "passionate" — he is a vivacious promoter of all things Sicilian, and he is extremely knowledgeable and just plain fun to work with. Tommaso is also typical of a trend at Rick Steves' Europe: When we find home-grown experts who impress us as capable guides, we jump at the chance to bring them on board to play a bigger role.
Have you always lived in Sicily?
I was born and raised on the Island of Salina, just a few miles offshore from the main island of Sicily in the south Tyrrhenian Sea. Then I lived overseas for nine years, working as a tour guide (in Australia, New Zealand, France, Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina). Since 1999 I have lived in Sicily, where I work as a licensed tour guide.
How did you become a tour guide?
My passion for traveling inspired me to become a tour guide. Ever since I was young, I have been a backpacker exploring the world. My first trip was to Brazil the day after I turned 18. Over the years I have taken many courses in archaeology, languages, botany, etc., including a tough government examination to be licensed as a guide.
What is the best season to travel to Sicily?
Every season offers something special. However, I love Sicily in the spring. The weather is moderate, and Mediterranean wildflowers bloom everywhere, a beautiful show for all to appreciate.
What does Sicily offer that you can't find in other parts of Italy?
People who have traveled on the Italian mainland will find Sicily to be full of pleasant surprises. The uniqueness of the island has not been promoted as much as a region like Tuscany. So it is less expensive, warmer, friendlier, and more exotic. Everywhere are the influences from the Greek, Arab, and Norman cultures that once called Sicily home: It's Italy with a totally different flavor.
Some scholars say Sicily has the best-preserved Greek ruins in the world, and certainly this is true. Our Greek temples and theatres date back 2,500 years but are still in excellent condition. The beauty of our mosaic-filled churches, showing the skill of many Arab craftsmen, equals that of other famous Italian churches. Plus, do not forget the golden beaches surrounding the island!
Italy is renowned for its cuisine and wine. So what is distinctive about Sicily's?
Our cuisine is wonderful. The combining of the many different flavors and spices from the Greek, Arabic, and Italian settlers has helped Sicily to develop its own specialties.
Sicily's wine industry is improving every year. While the island's weather provides excellent conditions for growing grapes, only recently has Sicily developed sufficient expertise in bottling and exporting wine. For example, the nero d'avola grape grows only in Sicily, and while many wine drinkers compare it favorably with the syrah, it remains relatively unknown. In my opinion, perhaps somewhat biased, Sicily produces wines equal to those in Tuscany and at a much better value.
What are the most common misunderstandings, particulary among Americans, about Sicily and Sicilians?
In the past, Sicily was very poor, with much emigration (especially to the US), but conditions have changed. Sicily has become very prosperous, and now people are immigrating to Sicily. The economy is very diversified, and Sicily has many exceptional services that sometimes surprise but please travelers.
Another misunderstanding concerns the Mafia. While some travelers worry how they might be affected, such experiences — for sure — will not occur. You will see no signs of the Mafia, only the monuments that have been erected to honor those who have worked to end its influence. In fact, Sicily has one of the lowest crime rates in Italy. Travelers who do visit Sicily discover how false the stereotypes are.
What do you enjoy most about leading tours of Sicily?
I love all of Sicily, and I love to take people around the island — especially to places where we can find the "true and unspoiled Sicily." I want travelers to leave with an increased knowledge and appreciation of Sicily: a combination of flavors, colors, and fragrances unique in the Mediterranean. As we say in Italian, "Provare per credere!" — "Try it to believe it!"