While 5 days in Sicily was certainly not enough to experience all the deliciousness the Italian island has to offer, I went prepared (and hungry!) and was able to taste lots of local gourmet foods and dishes – enough to fill many notebook pages with recipe ideas to make at home. Here’s a pictorial of my best and most delicious discoveries.
Pesce e Frutti di Mare (Fish and Seafood)
This one should be obvious since Sicily is an island, but I didn’t expect fish and seafood to be such a staple. I actually wonder if even one of the meals I had in Catania didn’t have fish or seafood in it. I loved it, especially since it gave me the opportunity to try many new things and because it’s so hard for me to get my hands on a variety of fresh seafood at home.
Of course, I visited Catania’s famous fish market, La Pescheria, which is set up daily (except Sundays) in and around the city’s central Piazza Alonzo, just a couple of steps down from the well-known Piazza Duomo. Arriving at the market from the top of the stairs just takes your breath away–the atmosphere is buzzing with activity, it’s rowdy, and you can hardly walk around because there’s so many people; merchants all fight to get their message to your ears first (which means that they scream their daily offer loud, very loud), and the freshness of the colorful fish, seafood, and produce is simply amazing.
Visiting open-air markets is always one of my favorite activities abroad, and what I loved especially about Catania’s Pescheria is that it sprawled through many streets, which all led to the central piazza, like arteries to the heart. I walked through the crowd in a daze, trying to take in all that there was to see. Thankfully, Alberto, who acted as our guide but is really a Sicilian restaurateur, hotelier, and olive oil producer, walked with me and narrated the visit, stopping here and there to buy something that he wanted me to taste. The visit lasted an hour tops, but it left me with lively souvenirs.
Glisteningly fresh fish (I forgot what species it was…!):
Fishermen expose fish heads to prove their product’s top quality and freshness (tuna and swordfish, in this case):
More delicious fish and seafood dishes I enjoyed:
A light lunch: Sea snails, octopus and fresher than fresh shrimp. With lots of lemon, of course.
Spaghetti alle vongole, a superb Italian pasta dish in all its simple glory:
Pesce spada – grilled swordfish with wilted greens and super-flavorful olive oil as a sauce:
I took one step in Catania and I knew that it was the start of orange season. The golden fruit was simply everywhere! Many times per day, I indulged in spremuta d’arancia (freshly squeezed orange juice), facing the hard choice of whether to have regular or blood orange. Both were equally juicy, fresh, and bright choices. I came back with the resolution that from now on, I’d always squeeze my own orange juice (yeah, we’ll see how long that promise is going to last…).
Sicily also loves to incorporate oranges in savory dishes. I got to taste a variation of insalata di arance, a simple and fresh orange salad, which was served with shaved fennel (which was also in season – heavenly!), marinated tuna, and a fresh sardine fillet. It was, of course, spectacular. I took note of an easy, vegetarian version of that salad that I will make many times over the summer I’m sure: orange segments, shaved fennel, pitted green olives, fresh Italian parsley, olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper all mixed together and served alfresco. Heaven, I tell you!
A small bar serving freshly squeezed orange juice in Syracusa:
Left: The man who lovingly squeezes hundreds of oranges (with that small machine!) for our delicious pleasure;
Right: Blood orange or regular?
Oranges at the market:
An man selling oranges and mandarins along Catania’s fortifications – he was literally unloading the fruits out of his trunk:
I couldn’t help but mention lemons because it is my favorite fruit, bar none. Seeing lemon trees everywhere – on the sidewalks or in backyards, on the side of the road or in random places where nobody harvested the fruits, I’m sure – made me question why (oh why!) I live in a Northern city where these yellow nuggets of happiness won’t ever grow. I simply got lost in contemplation every time I saw lemon trees (and took an insane amount of pictures of them). Just look:
Isn’t that balcony pure Italian poetry? I was able to taste a bunch of sweets made with lemon, including refreshing granita and soft almond cookies with candied lemon zest.
Arancini (Fried Rice Balls)
Arancini is an Italian savory delight that is said to have originated in Sicily in the 10th century. They are essentially fried rice balls, filled with thick meat sauce, green peas, and sometimes cheese. The name of the dish comes from the fact that arancini are small and orange in color, reminding you of… oranges, of course! In Catania, they were often shaped like pointy cones. While the meat sauce version is most common in Sicily, they can also be filled with spinach, mushrooms, eggplant, or pistachios.
Inside, rich ragù sauce and melting cheese await:
Another kind of arancini, much smaller and filled with spinach:
Ah, the joy of a fresh cannolo… It’ll chase all your worries, I swear. My friend Eleonora had told me that they were invented in Sicily (yes, them too!), so although I’d had very good cannolo elsewhere in Italy, I couldn’t wait to taste this sweet where it was first created by people who were clearly culinary geniuses.
How can combining fried, crunchy dough with lusciously creamy and sweet ricotta be anything less than heavenly? The very best cannolo I had was at the friendly and well-situated Prestipino Cafè, right by the Duomo. The cafè has a lovely terrace, and it offers an extensive choice of pastries and sweets, although the real reason why you should go there is nothing else but their cannolo. It was fresh and crunchy, and their filling was the creamiest I had in Sicily.
A linguistic note: Although “cannoli” is commonly used to refer to the pastry (one single serving) outside of Italy, “cannolo” is the correct, Italian way to name the pastry in the singular form.
Altre Dolci (Other Sweets)
Sicily is a true paradise for sweet lovers! If you favor sweet over savory dishes, I’d simply advise to try anything and everything that comes your way! I certainly did and was never disappointed. A few examples:
Chiacchiere: Fried (or baked) dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. A classic.
Sicily makes lots of pistachio-based cookies, such as these pistachio balls.
Savia is certainly Catania’s most famous pastry shop, opened over a century ago.
Savia’s pastry and cake display:
Right next door to Savia is Spinella, another pastry shop. They have a great outdoor terrace facing the city’s elegant 19th century Bellini Park:
Spinella’s pastries are just as gorgeous as Savia’s. In fact, I preferred Spinella’s!
Coffee (and pastry) break at Spinella:
Inside Bellini Park:
More Sicilian Specialties
Here are more dishes that should be on your “to try” list, should you ever be lucky enough to visit Sicily:
- Caponata: A thick eggplant “ratatouille” that is served on grilled bread. Here’s how to make it at home.
- Pasta alla Norma: Perhaps one of Sicily’s most famous pasta dishes. It’s simply short pasta (usually macaroni) with eggplant in a light tomato sauce, served with ricotta salata (hard, grated ricotta). This dish is best over the summer when eggplant is in season.
- Pasta con le sarde: Pasta (bucatini or spaghetti) with sardines, wild fennel, anchovies, lemon zest, and pine nuts.
- Sfincione: Stuffed-crust Sicilian pizza. Its form and ingredients vary from region to region, but it’s never the same as Italian-American Sicilian pizza, which is most often a square, thick-crust cheeseless pizza.
- Gelati, gelati, gelati: Yes, Sicilians invented gelato too! Since they grow lots of pistachios on the island, pistachio gelato should be at the top of your list. Have it as often as you can, whenever it’s offered (which is all the time). You’ll never forget it, and you’ll need to be weaned once you come back home.
- Cassata: A sponge cake moistened with liqueur, layered with ricotta cheese, candied fruits, nuts, and a chocolate or vanilla cream. In Catania, there is a small, individual version of the cake that is named in honor of the city’s patron, Saint Agatha (Cassatella di Sant’Agata). The cake is made to resemble a woman’s breast as an allusion to the Saint’s fate: the story relates that her breasts were cut off by a frustrated suitor, who tortured her because she refused his advances. I’m sure the cake is delicious, if you can get that grim story out of your head!
- Prestipino Cafè
Piazza Duomo, 9
- Pasticceria Savia
Via Etnea, 302
- Pasticceria Spinella
Via Etnea, 300
Many thanks to Eleanora, culinary tour guide and blogger at Aglio, Olio e Pepperoncino, who helped me plan the gourmet side of my trip to Sicily, to Iula Casale at the Trade Promotion Office of the Consulate General of Italy in Montreal, and to the Chamber of Commerce of Catania, for generously inviting me to discover Catania, a beautiful and delightful city.