The countryside of Ragusa, Sicily, is characterized by rolling hills and large patches of farmland divided by stone walls -- reminiscent perhaps more of Scotland than an outsider's impression of Sicily. But the stone of Modica has a solid history throughout the region, and companies such as Avola Stone of Modica have specialized in extracting and processing this material.

The stone of Modica is a calcareous material -- referred to by the company as a limestone -- that is very difficult to process because of its high level of hardness. Armando Minaudo, general manager of Avola Stone, compared it to French limestone in terms of strength and durability.

The stone is essentially taken from the land in the form of rough, flat boulders, and it is cut to size as needed, depending on the finished product. Avola Stone has a staff of stonecutters who carry on the old Modicain tradition, but they also have expanded the use of the material. Over the years, because the stone was so difficult to cut and shape, Modica stone was primarily used for exterior paving, wall bases, pavers, staircases and other elements with basic dimensions. But with modern machinery and skilled workers, Avola Stone can process Modica stone into architectural pieces such as benches, sophisticated cladding panels, balustrades, arches and other three-dimensional pieces. Of course, the company still also processes the stone into paving and staircases.

Modica stone can take a full polish, and it is also offered in etched and textured finishes, including a split-faced format that is popular for wall cladding. In addition to the basic Modica stone, which has a white/beige tone, Avola Stone also has a site for Petrol Stone, which has fossilization and a rich, darker tone. This stone has been of particular interest for high-end applications, and it was even specified for the design of a villa for a member of the Fendi family.

The company produces a total of 215,000 square feet of material per year, of which 20% is exported to markets such as the U.S., Australia and England.