Granita is one of the greatest gastronomic joys of Sicily, a tradition dating from Arab dominion and the "nevari" snow dealers, who hauled blocks of snow to the city from the slopes of Mount Etna. The translation "ices" is inadequate, sounds so insignificant for such an incredible treat. There are different styles-more or less granular, more or less slushy, that depend on location and whim, but most experts agree that granita is at its best on the eastern part of the island. Almond and coffee granita are found all year, and they're often served together, usually in a glass, along with an eggy brioche bun, meant to scoop up the granita. It's the Sicilian take on a cappuccino, icy but not frozen, the most perfect warm weather breakfast, and, like cappuccino, served in the morning. Other flavors are consumed the rest of the day, although there are no hard and fast rules. After all, this is Sicily. After 26 centuries of history, what's a rule? Lemon granita is available all year long, but other fruit flavors are seasonal.
There are many contenders for the greatest granita in Sicily. Alfredo on the Aeolian island of Salina is amazing, outdoor tables in a wide piazza, special pulpy almond granita, powerful coffee granita with a jolt, seasonal fruit flavors. Bar Roma in Sciacca, on the southern coast, is a local hangout in the harbor--fishermen stop off for a lemon granita before heading out in the early morning, and although there's a bin of strawberry, it's only for tourists--everyone else has the superb, slushy, tart lemon granita. Owner "Zio" Aurelio, who prepares and serves his granita seven days a week, enhances the experience. (Note: visitors to Sciacca shouldn't miss the Castello Incantato Bentivenga outside town). Don't bother with the brioche in either place. For me, the greatest granita experience in Sicily is at Caffe Sicilia, in Noto, worth a pilgrimage not only for lovers of Sicilian Baroque. Corrado Assenza, assisted by his brother Carlo, makes fantastic torrone, infused honey, Sicilian fruit preserves and traditional pastries including the island's best brioche (the downfall of most places). I focus on the granita, simply divine, the finest I've ever encountered, silky, with intense, true flavors. Look for Noto almond, fantastic coffee, chocolate and seasonal specials Noto wild strawberry, black mulberry, peach, blood orange, sour cherry, mandarin orange, moscato grape and even new-wave spicy fig. All served in individual white porcelain bowls, never a glass. The only flavors that can be combined in a bowl are almond and coffee. Corrado is a purist.
Da Alfredo, Lingua, Salina, tel. 090-984-3075
Bar Roma, piazza Dogana 12, Sciacca, tel 0925-21239
Caffe Sicilia, corso Vittorio Emanuele 125, Noto, tel. 0931-835-013
-July 2009 link to article published in The Atlantic Magazine