The Sights and Smells of Sicily’s Second City

They love eggplant, or melanzane, in Sicily. It’s a staple of local cuisine, which became apparent in my eating adventures across the city. North of Piazza del Duomo at Pasticceria Savia, I had a great arancinu catanese (2 euros), a cheesy, saucy fried rice ball dotted with splotches of fresh eggplant. They also did a creamy pistachio cannoli (2.40 euros), which I enjoyed with a 90-cent espresso at the bar. I went for a little stroll around Giardino Bellini park across the street to walk off the heavy food.

One afternoon I walked into Pausa Pranzo, where I was introduced to the Sicilian way of doing lunch — no menu, just choose from several options. I had a small plate of mixed vegetables as an appetizer (5 euros) followed by a juicy, garlicky spaghetti alle vongole (7 euros). The situation was similar at Il Principe (incorrectly listed by Google Maps as permanently closed) — various vegetable antipasti (3 euros) followed by a dish of fried whole sardines, a Catanian specialty (6 euros).

What really shone, though, were the markets, where you can find seasonal, high-quality ingredients. This was apparent at the fish market near Piazza del Duomo, which overwhelms with fresh clams, mussels and other seafood, and particularly at the large Fera o Luni market in Piazza Carlo Alberto di Savoia, which doubles as a flea market (Catania’s big markets are closed Sundays).

The latter market was vast and labyrinthine, with vendors selling everything from fresh fennel and cauliflower to knockoff designer handbags and shoes. I dug through a pile of clothing and picked up a button-down shirt and sweater for one euro apiece, and a bag of fresh green and black olives mixed with pickled carrots and cauliflower (one euro). My bad Italian led me to accidentally buy way more pepato stagionato — a powerfully salty sheep’s milk cheese that resembles pecorino Romano — than I intended, picking up more than a pound. At 6.50, it was still a good deal, and I enjoyed it with a crusty white roll I purchased from a local baker for 25 cents.

A local I met at the San Nicolò Benedictine Monastery, Carmelo Sidoti, was a fierce champion of his city, and quick to distinguish Sicily from the rest of Italy: “We had 17 civilizations here. We are unique in our position,” he said. “The motto of Catania is ‘Melior de cinere surgo’: From the ruins, I emerge stronger.” He was hardly incorrect: it felt to me as if Catania, where the past meets the present, is getting ready for its moment.