I was inspired by a museum in Palazzuolo Acreide about the Grand Tour--young, upper-class Europeans, traveling for months in search of art, culture and the roots of western civilization, mingling with nobles. Only the most adventurous made it to Sicily. Times have changed but travel still isn't easy, and Sicily is huge, with way too much to see and eat, and plenty of old nobility and new entrepreneurs with interesting stories. My Sicilian journeys focus on culinary and enological traditions but there's always time between meals for archeological sites and museums. So I'm writing a six-part series, my very own Grand Tour.
Catania is a charming city, easy to stroll, outdoor archeological ruins, lots of Baroque palaces and churches, but almost museum-less. Check out the Elephant Fountain in piazza Duomo, ornate fountain designed by architect Vaccarini (clearly inspired by Bernini's elephant treatment in Rome) in 1736, topped with Roman lava elephant (called u Liotru in dialect), Egyptian obelisk on his back. I stayed at the UNA hotel, conveniently located on via Etnea, the main drag, with a view at the end of the street of everyone's favorite active volcano. The city's markets are exciting, hawkers screaming in Sicilian. Purple cauliflower looks extraterrestrial. Just-picked olives (to be preserved) are the size of small plums. Fish and seafood are shiny, vibrant, a vender slaps an octopus for me and it changes color and moves. That's fresh! Swordfish with sword, tiny red mullet, shrimp with heads and antennae intact. Nearby, there's Antica Marina, my favorite restaurant in the city, well served by the fish market outside its front door. Say hi to Salvo. Ask for fish that speaks Sicilian.
Savia has the city's best granita, gelato, almond and pistachio pastries. The shop is one of my first stops in the city. I need one of their world-class arancini, softball-sized, golden brown, delicious, just to let my digestive system know I'm in Sicily. Savia is also a must for a breakfast, coffee and almond milk granita with brioche. Their marzipan frutta martorana is the most beautiful I've ever encountered, I always purchase--this year chestnuts and prickly pear, but never taste.
My friends at Savia recommended a nearby trattoria, Don Turiddu 2, simple, family run, with fresh fish and simple cooking. They didn't steer me wrong. (Via G.De Felice 18, closed Mondays)
I read about a Catania tradition, crispelle, made only in the evening at fry shops. After asking around, I headed for "La Casa delle Crispelle", supposedly the best in town, and purchased a few-fried dough with ricotta or anchovy in the middle, not really worth the calories. I balked at the dessert versions made with rice--one too phallic to even consider. (Via Plebiscito 478/480)
Next stops on the Grand Tour, Sortino and Palazzuolo Acreide, with monothematic museums, archeological site, unknown form of pizza, cool restaurant, B&B, and cannoli-mania...
Link to map to see the trip!
-November 2009 link to the article published in The Atlantic Magazine