On the sixth day, when He had finished His work, delighted to have created such beauty, God took the Earth in both hands and kissed it. The place where He placed His lips, is Sicily. (Renzo Barbera)
Sicily really is an earthly paradise. It’s a place whose mild climate and volcanic soil have made so fertile that the island seems overgrown with the most perfect produce. Even in winter, you are pursued by the fragrance of citrus fruits whose orange and yellow hues augment and echo the colour of the sun. I am no poet, but it’s hard not to write poetically about this island: even if all the poetry in the world wouldn’t be enough to describe it.
In Sicilia si mangia bene
In Italy, si mangia bene (you eat well) everywhere. But ask any Italian where in Italy si mangia bene and nine out of ten of them will say, ‘Sicily’. All Italian regions have local specialities, some of which you only find there. But so vast is the list of local specialities in Sicily, that they seem to have invented the word. And they change dramatically from town to town.
Catania is the second largest town in Sicily after the capital, Palermo. It’s located on the opposite side of the island and seems to be proudly turning its back on that city, gazing wistfully towards Greece, where the founders of most of the Eastern Sicilian cities came from. It occupies the space between the sea and Mount Etna—known locally as ‘a Muntagna or ‘u Mungibeddu—one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
A volcanic city
As well as the real thing, you see evidence for the presence of Etna everywhere. Many of the buildings, as well as the curb stones themselves are made from tufa, volcanic rock. Even the city’s emblem, an ancient statue of an elephant—known locally as ‘u Liotru—today placed in the square outside the cathedral, is made from black volcanic rock. And of course the sand and ash from the volcano have made the area extremely fertile.
Catania is an ideal destination for foodies. It has two fabulous markets, the Fera o Luni in Piazza Carlo Alberto and the pescheria (fish market). The latter sells not only fish but vegetables, meat, cheese, and street food. It also has some stunning restaurants, gelaterie, café bars, and street food vendors.
There are numerous specialities which are typical to Catania itself and not found, for example, in Palermo which has its own rich culinary tradition, starting of course with cannoli. Unless otherwise stated, the following list is of specialities specifically from Catania, all of which you have to try if you visit.
In Italy there is confusion as to whether Sicily’s famous rice balls are feminine (arancine) or masculine (arancini). In Sicily there is no doubt whatsoever: in Palermo they are feminine and in Catania masculine. They also look different. Arancine are round like the oranges from which they get their name; arancini have a point on the top, like Mount Etna—or as I was told by a Catanese, like something else masculine and pointy.
In case you don’t know, arancini are balls of rice, deep-fried in breadcrumbs, with various fillings at the centre. The most traditional is ragu (meat sauce) but other combinations exist (my favourite is pistachio).
Want to try them? Serafino Arancini Espressi is a popular arancino store right in the middle of Catania.
In Catania you see these everywhere. They consist of pastry rolls stuffed with mozzarella, cooked ham, and olives. The fillings peek out from each end of the pastry, promising a delicious mouthful in every bite.
CIpollina differs from the cartocciata in two ways. Firstly, it’s made with puff pastry, and secondly, as the name suggests, it has onions as well as the mozzarella, ham, and tomatoes (cipolla means onion). The onion adds a richer, fuller, slightly tangy flavour to the dish, which is why, it’s my personal favourite.
This is a hard, sheep’s cheese which has black peppercorns inside it. This adds a spicy kick (not to mention a crunch) which pairs perfectly with the smooth-textured cheese.
Caciotto a pera
I was slightly disappointed to discover that this cheese doesn’t contain pear but gets its name from the shape, which resembles that fruit. It looks a bit like caciocavallo but has a milder taste.
Bake ricotta cheese takes on a yellow hue and a more intense taste which pairs well with dessert wine. There’s a dispute as to whether to use this cheese or salted ricotta (ricotta salata) with Pasta alla Norma.
Want to try them?The market around the pescheria (fish market) area in Catania is full of stalls selling high-quality local cheese.
Pasta alla Norma
Composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) is one of Catania’s most famous sons. The main theatre in the centre of the city is named for him. He had international success within this lifetime as an opera composer. What he would have achieved had he lived more than 33 years is anyone’s guess.
Arguably his most famous opera is Norma (1831) from which the instantly recognizable Casta Diva comes, and which achieved instant success in Milan. The dish, invented in Catania years later, is supposed to have got its name when someone, tasting it, said, ‘Wow, this dish is a real Norma!’ (meaning an instant success).
It consists of pasta, often rigatoni, cooked in a tomato and basil sauce, with fried eggplant. Then a generous amount of grated ricotta salata (salted ricotta cheese) is dumped on top. Tomato, plus eggplant, plus cheese is an instant umami burst. Delicious.
Want to try it? It’s harder than you think to find Pasta alla Norma in Catania. But the Trattoria Be Quiet does an excellent one best accompanied by a glass of local Etna Rosso wine.
Arrusti e mangia
Walking round Catania you are often greeted with the smell of grilled meat. If this happens, you are sure to be near someone selling arrusti e mangia (literally grill and eat). This is meat cooked alla brace (on a grill) and served in a sandwich. It’s a very traditional street food in Catania. Be warned that the Catanesi enjoy eating horse meat, which is a delicacy in many European countries. If this bothers you, check carefully what is on the grill before buying.
Want to try it? Re Carlo V is a popular joint for eating arrusti e mangia and is always full of locals.
Minne di Sant’Agata
Sant’Agata is the patron saint of Catania, after whom the cathedral is named. She’s very popular and her feast day, 5 February, is occasion for carnival style festivities in the city. Agatha was supposed to have been a local girl, martyred in 251AD during the persecution of the Christians by the Roman Emperor Decius.
Legend says Agata was tortured by having her breasts cut off but then saved from being burnt at the stake by an earthquake. She was imprisoned, where Saint Peter appeared to her and restored her breasts. Unfortunately she later died in the same jail.
Minne di Sant’Agata are cakes made in the form of Sant’Agata’s breasts. They consist of sweetened ricotta, with chocolate chips, encased in a marzipan dome, covered in icing sugar and with a cherry on top. They are available throughout the year but traditionally eaten during the February festivities.
Want to try them? I Dolci della Nonna Vincenza is an historical shop in the centre of Catania that produces excellent minne. Top Tip: Unfortunately, because ricotta cheese is technically a paste, you can’t take minne or cannoli through airport security in hand luggage. To get round this, Nonna Vincenza has a collection point airside in Catania aiport: buy in town and collect after security.
Iris was invented in Palermo but the Catanesi took it up like a rugby ball, ran with it, and have made it their own. It consists of a deep-fried bun, stuffed full of ricotta cream, crema pasticcera, or chocolate cream. The choice is yours.
Want to try it? Bar Lanzafame have been serving their light fluffy Iris since 1920. Experience means they know what they are doing.
A friend of mine who lives in Acireale, just outside Catania, told me that the granita in Catania was good but the granita in Acireale was even better. Who am I to argue? So, I found myself starting the perfect Sunday with a granita di mandorle (almond flavour) and a brioche bun hot from the oven, in sunny Acireale, and all to the accompaniment of church bells. Granita, is basically a kind of Sicilian slushy which you eat with a spoon. It comes in various flavours. Lemon is great on a really hot day but the Catanesi prefer it sweet, made with local almonds, and a shot of espresso poured on top.
Want to try it? The historical Café Cipriani in Acireale has outside seating, on the sunny side of the street, near the beautiful Basilica Collegiata di San Sebastiano. And their granita really is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Crespelle di riso
Also known as zeppole, crespelle di riso are traditionally served for the feast of Saint Joseph on 19 March. This doubles as Father’s Day in Italy. They consist of rice which has been cooked in milk, mixed with flour, yeast, sugar, and citrus rind, shaped into fingers, and then deep fried. They are served bathed with a mixture of honey and water, sprinkled lightly with cinnamon and icing sugar.
Want to try them? Any pasticceria will serve them, particularly in the period between the feasts of Sant’Agata (5 February) and San Giuseppe (19 March). My favourite plate to find them is at Bonaccorso (Via Pardo 4/6), right in the heart of the fish market.