My bulging suitcase when I returned from Catania.
Although Catania is not a rich town, it seems to be the progenitor of many classic Sicilian dishes. The rich volcanic soil, balmy weather and ideal growing conditions make it a foodie paradise. Here below is a listicle, we all know internauts love them, of edibles and drinkables that you should try if you visit Catania. My story on the town and the volcano can be read here at The Malcontent.
1. Barbequed artichokes. Everywhere in Catania seems to be smoking hot, not just the active volcano Mount Etna, rumbling in the background. Definitely one to try on my Big Green Egg. It would be lovely with a chipotle and butter dressing or as they do them here, stuffed with parsley and garlic.
2. Roasting chestnuts, large, mustard coloured and softly sweet, being crammed into street chimneys off the back of a truck.
3. The fish market, la peshcharia, is a must: it's street theatre with faces from a medieval painting, joking, selling, calling out. You'll see sword fish, the heads on display so shoppers can check for freshness, tins of salted anchovies, silvery eels curled into spirals, carmine chunks of tuna. I felt sorry for the guys selling parsley, how do they make a living? Maybe they make 10 euros a day, max? Do the food tour with Alessandra of StreatCatania for in depth information. You do also get the odd bloke selling a sword fish out of the back of his car.
4. The Street Drinks: Art Nouveau booth 'Costa's Kiosk', which sells home-made syrups and seltzers known as 'sghicciu'. Italians, like the French, are obsessed with their digestive processes and after lunch, you'll see people asking for lemon with salt and soda water to help them process their lengthy repasts.
5. Pasta alla Norma, rigatoni with an aubergine and tomato sauce, my recipe here, named after the opera by Bellini, topped with...
6. Ricotta salata, another Catanese speciality: pressed, dried and salted ricotta cheese.
7. Other cheeses: there are lots of other cheeses, such as the Provolone tied up above, or a smoked version, Pecorino made from sheep's milk, Canestrato aged in baskets, the slightly rubbery Vastedda, and the sharper Cacciocavallo, this brings me back to the original use of cheese as portable milk.
9. Cassatini: inspired by Saint Agatha's breasts, cakes formed on the demi sphere, covered in ricotta icing and topped with a cherry. Some lurid green marzipan seems to form part of her 'breasts' too. Available in all good pastry shops and restaurants like Trattoria Casalinga, a cheap and friendly local trat.
10. Cavolfiori fugaretti or 'strangled cauliflower': steamed purple cauliflower stir fried with garlic cloves, olives, anchovies, pecorino, red wine.
11.Cipollina/e pastry: laminated dough mixed with onion. A bit like a savoury pizza croissant.
12. Granita is thought to be originally from Catania: try lemon or almond granita.
13. The wine from Mount Etna is excellent. Vineyards are planted on 45º slopes, on volcanic soil. Because of the high altitude of some parcels and the intense sunlight, Catania has good red and white wines both. I generally ordered the house carafe which cost very little and which I enjoyed greatly.
14. The tripe: ugh this is utterly disgusting but a local speciality. Bleurgh.
15. The pickles: you often get them as an aperitif in traditional restaurants.
16. The olives and olive oil: primarily from the olive Nocellara Etnea, which is crunchy, new and green tasting and buttery inside.
17. The citrus: blood oranges, enormous fragrant lemons. You can buy essences of citrus at an old fashioned shop, Drogheda Pavone, on Via della Lettera 16-18. I also bought a bottle of pure alcohol and am going to make my own flavoured spirits.
18. Mostarda: weird disks of hardened wine musk. Often stamped with carvings. You just chew on it. Think of it as a giant wine gum. Edit: they are called Mostarda Siciliana and are a typical gift in November. More information on this at this link.
19. Almond liqueur: gorgeous, pale creamy, sweet and alcoholic rather than Amaretto.
20. Pistachios: the very best and greenest pistachios come from Bronte, a village under the eaves of Mount Etna. Make pistachio pesto or pistachio ravioli.
Shopping baskets hanging down so that local stores can easily deliver, is a common sight in Southern Italy.