Food notes from Catania

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Sicily’s second city Catania has a wealth of restaurants, food markets, chocolate and fine Sicilian wine. By Nick Welch

Catania, Sicily’s second city,  is on the eastern coast, slightly overlooked by the hoards of tourists that pour into Palermo,  but  well worth a visit in its own right.

Catania is, first and foremost, a real living city and a big one. But it also has a delightful historical centre, a  less frenetic atmosphere than Palermo, and  a food culture that is relaxed, universal and un-selfconscious. On a recent visit, we ate out in a number of restaurants in and around Catania and didn’t have a bad meal in any of them. It’s a bit like France in the old days, when you could find decent food almost everywhere. No fanfares, no gimmicks, no haute cuisine, just a meal cooked by people who knew how to do it, who benefit not only from an old culinary tradition, but also from fantastic ingredients which are all vibrantly on display in a central market


Reasonable restaurants we found in Catania

These are not food destinations, but are  places where you can have something decent to eat without worrying. All restaurants are about £20-£30 a head with wine. It is at present, an unreconstructed restaurant scene, so get it while you can…

Antica Marina

thumbnail_View from the Antica Marina

A fish based trattoria that is actually in the fish market, and the staff will go out and get fish while you are eating. Perfectly decent, but oddly it does not offer a spaghetti vongole, despite being surrounded by the little blighters (www.anticamarina.it)

Il Maggese

Charming and basic café/trattoria in a lovely square. Nothing special, but relaxed and perfectly edible food in a nice location. Good spaghetti vongole, pizzas, according to Trip Adviser, apparently not brilliant (www.ilmaggesehouse.it)

Casa Linga

Slightly more refined cuisine and a good wine list. But again, not flashy just good solid cooking – the caponata and antipati were much admired (Via Biondi, 19, 95131 Catania CT, Italy)

Ristorante Royal Ceres

Another slightly up-scale trattoria, but still singing very much off the same traditional hymn sheet, fine antipasti and a particularly nice octopus salad (Via S. Giuseppe Al Duomo, 5, 95124 Catania CT, Italy)


Restaurants outside Catania

Trattoria Goloso, Piazza Armerina

This was the nearest we came to finding a new wave restaurant in the oddly named Piazza Armerina, which is the town adjacent to the Roman villa at Casale with its fabulous mosaics. Tiny, with an on-trend open kitchen, a possibly bearded chef with a couple of lady accomplices dished out genuinely superior versions of the traditional canon. The Arancini, stuffed fried rice balls were superb. Well worth a visit (Via Garao, 4, 94015 Piazza Armerina EN, Italy)

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti, Corso Umberto, Modica

In Modica, a fine old town squished into a valley, we found the almost invisible Osteria dei Sapori,  a large and workmanlike restaurant which served a different selection of food. The clue is in the name, ‘forgotten tastes’, and lentils, chickpeas and beans are predominant. The menu is written in dialect, so Primi Piatti comes out as Primu Piattu, but they do offer a translation, with pictures. Again, merit le detour (Corso Umberto I, 228, 97015 Modica RG, Italy)

A hidden shrine to Chocolate

Modica seems to be a town that likes hiding things away, (including itself) and up a little alley with modest signage is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. It looks like a serious old pharmacy, with nice uniformed ladies handing out the chocolate prescriptions. Wooden cabinets and shelves display an array of different chocolates, which are all made in the kitchen visible behind the serving girls. Chocolate of Modica, made in its own way is protected, like Melton Mowbray pork pies, and comes apparently from an Aztec recipe, which was introduced to Sicily by the Spaniards in the 17th century (www.bonajuto.it)


Two great volcanic, wines

We didn’t look very hard, but again good wines seemed to be all around us. We particularly liked these two, both reasonably priced. Firriata turns out to be a newish, much respected  winery, and Nerello Mascalese is a deeply fashionable grape variety. It’s nice to find there is some substance to one’s ignorant whims…

White

Calaventana Alcamo Firriata

Very nice light white with a bit of flavour. 100 per cent Catarratto grapes, a Sicilian stalwart.

Red

Nerello Mascalese Cantine Paoline

Easy red with grown up notes. Nerello Mascalese is a much admired, but little known Sicilian grape variety, likened sometimes to Pinot Noir.


5881029546_bc88369f76_bEating in, in Catania

We stayed in a hotel, but possibly the best way to enjoy the food in Catania is to rent an apartment with a kitchen, and get stuck into the market which even in February is brimming with goodies. These will change a bit through the seasons, but it remains a real market, for real Catanians. It is compact, and easy to navigate and within an hour you will have all you need to commence a gastronomic exploration of what Sicily has to offer.

The core is the fish market, which is a shouting, ribald explosion of silent fishy witnesses to loud fishy people. Squids, mussels, trays of Vongole, hunks of tuna, razor clams, split sardines, seaweed (algae), fishes of every kind, you name it, if it lives in the sea they’ve got it, possibly apart from salmon.

The meat stands are equally dramatic, huge cuts of beef and pork, with chickens, boiling fowls and  capons. Slabs of liver, as well as mysterious frilly items of internal provenance but also refined prepared cuts, from escallops, to rolled and breaded items, beautifully stuffed and larded, not to mention a huge selection of sausages.

Then there are myriad cheeses, salamis, hams and olives, there are fresh herbs, spices, dried beans, lentils and chickpeas, and that is before we came to the fruit and veg stalls which  are beyond colourful, great rollicking heaps of purple cauliflowers, artichokes of every size, thin sprue asparagus, and everything else in between.  Peppers, fine cabbages, even cardoons if you can be bothered, stacked on stalls and on the back of mad, three-wheeled Piaggio trucks. And then the fruit: we missed the blood oranges, but, melons, lemons limes and the hugely mysterious Citrons, or cedri are all much in evidence. If you enjoy food and produce at its real and basic level it is a place to go to.

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