The extreme act of eating in Sicily
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
There was blood everywhere. Pooled on the ground and into buckets. Crusted on fishermen's boots and in their fingernails. Swirling in curving trails around butchered fish.
Tuna heads and eyeballs lay on piles of ice. Skinny, silvery fish were shaped into tire-like circles on too-small tables. Swordfish bills plunged into the sky, and shouting Italians came to watch the show.
I'm not talking about the day that the fish of the ocean finally staged a violent uprising against the human race and lost. I'm talking about the famous fish market in Catania, Sicily, which I visited during my week-long trip to the one-of-a-kind island.
La Pescheria, like many places in Sicily, is pure chaos. Loud, gesticulating fishermen wield everything from giant tuna to tiny sharks in attempts to reel in the many observers ogling from above and below.
I felt a little violated walking through the crowd, soaking my shoes in puddles of fishy water and getting slapped in the arms by octopus tentacles as vendors call out to me, "Bella, bella! Sarde, pesce spada!" waving their hands over shimmering arrangements of sardines and swordfish.
"Do I look like someone who's here to buy a big ol' predatory fish?" I wondered.
And then I thought, "Well..."
So, in full-on romantic vacation mode, I decided it would be fun to buy some fish (you know, like a local), and cook it at my Airbnb. I'd pick out a simple tuna steak, rub it with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, sear it really briefly, and eat it with a cool and crispy salad.
I bought the fish and headed optimistically back to my apartment off Catania's main street, Via Etnea. All was going according to plan until I discovered that my Airbnb had no pepper, the olive oil was rancid, and I couldn't figure out how to turn on the stove.
Alright! Determined not to let the tuna go to waste, I cubed up the dark pink fish, sprinkled it with a little salt, and ate it raw in the stark white apartment. I mostly enjoyed it but felt a little unsure about the safety of it all.
Most of my dining experiences in Sicily went like this — that is to say, memorable in one way or another, never unremarkable. I remember every single thing I ate during my north-to-west-to-south stint on the island, from Palermo to Catania to Ortigia to Modica.
Take breakfast, for example. The most important meal of the day in Sicily is no joke. The cornetti and pastries are so dense you could do bicep curls with them, and many Sicilians start their day by dipping brioche buns into what is essentially a slushie.
I was skeptical of Sicilians' traditional summertime breakfast of granita con brioche at first — Sugary ice and bread for breakfast! The gluttony! — but the first time I had it ended up being one of my favorite food moments of the trip.
At Caffè Adamo in chocolate-famous Modica, I deliberated between classic granita flavors like lemon, almond, and mulberry when I noticed a few containers of cremolata. Cremolata is made with the same ingredients as granita (sugar, ice, and fruit or nuts depending on the flavor), but in different ratios; larger percentages of fruit or nuts give it an extra creamy texture. I'll go for creamy over icy nine times out of 10, so I ordered a combination of pistachio and ricotta and knew as soon as I received my glass that it was the World's Best Decision.
Speared with cannoli shards and sprinkled with chocolate chips and pistachio bits, my first-ever cremolata tasted like nutty, creamy snow. Dipping pillowy bits of brioche bun into the slowly melting ice as I stared at the town's sun-bleached buildings, I thought of absolutely nothing — besides how delicious it was and how badly I wanted to eat it again.
That was in the small Baroque city of Modica, which is best explored through slow, sloping walks from low valley shops to high-up churches — with many dessert breaks in lovely cafes in between.
The best way to see busy Palermo, on the other hand, is by eating with your hands in the street. To ensure an adequate sampling of the raucous city's many fried delights, I signed up for a Palermo street-food tour, which provided some extreme dining experiences.
We (which is to say, six 50-something companions and I) walked the entirety of the famous Mercato del Capo, sampling familiar foods with new context. For instance, both arancini, which are Sicily's famous fried rice balls stuffed with anything from cheesy ragu to spaghetti carbonara, and panelle (rectangular chickpea-flour fritters eaten solo or stuffed into a sandwich) are believed to have been developed by Sicilian Arabs as handheld snacks that were easy to eat on horseback. I personally have never eaten anything on horseback, but I definitely wouldn't mind snacking on a crispy arancina aboard a gently trotting noble steed.
Other tour moments were a little more unexpected. The most surprising was an alien-green drink called autista, which means driver. Our guide said that truck drivers used to drink them to help digest all the heavy food they ate on the job. What gives an autista its special digestive powers? In addition to its already fizzy base of sparkling water with lemon juice and green mandarin syrup (which gives the drink its unmistakable color), the autista is capped off with a touch of baking soda that causes a violent eruption. Fascinating!
To properly drink an autista, you have to degrade yourself a bit by positioning your agape mouth against the lip of a big glass, quivering with anticipation for the waiter to add the sodium bicarbonate, and chug — without stopping until at least half of the drink is gone.
My fellow tour takers and I bellied up to the bar like a bunch of losers, taking our turns against the foamy, mighty mess that is the autista. Disappointingly, I was unable to outrace the speedy beverage, which is unsurprising since I could never shotgun a full beer in college.
Riding the wave of a carbonation-induced high, we ended our tour on a courageous note by sampling perhaps the most disturbing thing I've ever eaten: pani câ meusa, a traditional cow spleen (and sometimes lung) sandwich. Boiled, fried in pork lard, topped with lemon juice, and tucked inside a puffy roll, the meat had a mushroomy texture and an offputting aroma that made me want to pour a granita on my face. But, boy, am I proud of myself for trying it; it makes my preferred panino lampredotto (cow stomach sandwich) feel like a turkey on wheat!
I loved eating 1-, 2-, and 3-euro dishes — both the delicious and disturbing ones — of filling food while taking in Palermo's gritty bits, like the crumbling rock and cracking paint on residential buildings (most of them have uneven levels that jut out or back, like someone made a stack of cardboard boxes without lining up the edges), trash left behind from vendors at the signature markets, and the ever-looming lack of safety I felt when walking the streets alone at night — all beautiful in their own strange way when contrasted with the distant mountains and clear blue skies of Sicily. It just felt so right.
The rightest I felt was at an overpriced but lovely restaurant in Ortigia, a tiny and delightful island connected by bridges to the city of Syracuse in the east of Sicily. Having seen spaghetti ai ricci (pasta with sea urchin) on a million Sicilian menus, I decided to get it for myself during a long, wine-generous lunch at Ristorante Cortile di Bacco.
My mom loves to make known what she calls her "Italian sense of well being" whenever we're in Italy. (She usually feels her best after a few sips of wine at an outdoor restaurant, and who can blame her!) That's how I felt eating that silky spaghetti ai ricci. Made with only sea urchin, garlic, and olive oil, it was a beautiful, simple, perfect plate of food. Every strand of spaghetti was coated in what I can best describe as the taste of floating face-up in the sea, when you're breathing in its special salty smell with the sun shining on your face. I ate that pasta slower than I eat most things; I never wanted it to end.
To eat in Sicily is to feel an impressive range of emotions that ranges from disgust and humiliation to utter happiness and inner peace. I'd say I felt all of these things. I had a celery-heavy caponata so acidic I could barely eat it without making a face. I had snails so tiny I could only pry the olive-size bits of meat from about a third of them. I was lucky to try crunchy, spongey, unabashedly sugary cassata for the first time from what surely makes the best in the world, Pasticceria Cappello in Palermo. And I'm equally sentimental about each of these moments.
But maybe I could have done without the spleen.