Category Archives: Sicily

Mortadella Below Mount Etna

More Proof that Love is the Best Ingredient

I’ve been trying to spend some time in Catania for years, but it has always eluded me.  I had come close last Spring when I spoke briefly at two conferences on venture capital in Palermo and Catania, but that time didn’t count – we had driven through town on our way to a spectacular hotel and convention center in the northern suburb of Aci Castello.  I had the joy of a quick hour spent in barefoot and in dark blue suit looking across the Messin straits before the conference and a quick dash to the airport.  My only consolation for the missed opportunity was a little jar of Bronte pistachio pesto from Nonna Vincenza.

Last friday was another hit-and-run trip to speak at a conference in eastern Sicily’s unofficial capital, but this time the flight schedule in and out of Naples were clement and I had enough time to dip my toes into a sea of potential discoveries, which was not easy because in Italy’s smaller cities even the cathedral is closed for lunch between 1 and 3 pm.  Food for the eyes and soul will have to wait for another visit.

Not so for food, on advice from a friend I had myself dropped off in front Savia, a famous pastry shop and café where I grabbed an amazing aranicino alla catanese (fried rice ball with eggplant, cheese and I believe tiny pieces of prosciutto cotto ham) and strolled slowly down via Etnea towards the Duomo (Cathedral) and university at the other end, taking in shop windows and sicilian baroque facades.

The tiny streets surrounding the covered Sant’Agata covered market between the Duomo and the elevated train tracks towards the sea are a foodie’s paradise:  seafood in a rich variety of colors, shapes and sizes (the tuna and swordfish called out to me saying “grab a big lemon and a knife and just come to me!), local cheeses, butcher shops specializing in lamb, carts full of local produce.  Little eateries were carved small nooks along the stone wall in fish market…but I wasn’t ready to eat just then.

Eventually my wandering took me up the slow slope of Via Garibaldi because I had heard there was a castle up that way (I‘m a sucker for castles) and stumbled upon one of Catania’s many under-appreciated gems: Piazza Mazzini.

Piazza Mazzini’s is a small square sliced into quarters by Via Garibaldi and Via Auteri.  Each corner had an a simple sicilian-style arcade supported by what appeared to ancient greek and roman columns that were a bit worse for wear The winter sun was warm and three of the corners had restaurant-bars with tables outside and a few people milling about.  I chose the Vineria e Trattoria Da Vincenzo because the heavy wooden tables outside were different shapes and colors and spread out like scratched treasures at an old neighbor’s garage sale.

After a bit of give and take with the waiter (the only person working that day) I was talked into a mortadella sandwich with a touch of olive oil, fresh hot pepper and herbs to transform a cold cut that is usually special only up around Bologna (in fact, its poorer, inbred cousin is what we call Bologna – or Boloney – in America).  I had him suggest a glass of white wine from the slopes of Etna because I love the mineral tones of white wines grown on volcanic soils.  But what really blew me away was the panino’s bread – dense, just moist enough, slightly yellow as tough durum wheat and traces of finely ground corn flower had been woven into it.  The bread itself was a full meal and the dough a blend of milled grains.  The waiter told me he had tasted breads for weeks before choosing this bread and it’s bakery.  He also uses it for olive-pate toasted crostini.  He spoke of the bread as though he was telling me about choosing the perfect puppy to take into the family

He also told me that the columns in Piazza Mazzini were taken from ancient ruins when the square was build, long before cars.

 

 

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For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

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Deep Fried Balls of Sunshine

Palermo Has Changed for the Better, and the Arancini are Still Awesome

Over twenty years ago during college I spend a few weeks traveling in Sicily by train and ferry. It was just before All Saints day and there and the first cool autumn rains were signaling that, even on an island just of the coast of Tunisia, Summer does end. I was in Palermo for only three days on that trip and my views then were mixed. So much of the city was breathtaking, a swirl of ancient Greece, Arab domination, Norman invasion and dozens of other chapters of human history permeated the streets of the city.

Maybe it was incessant drizzle or maybe it was the “unconventional” business climate that so many of the shopkeepers were working under, but I did not always feel that welcome when I went into the shops looking for something to eat. But even if the sellers were often surly, sometimes their aranicini made me feel welcome anyway.

Arancino ragout at Bar Alba, Palermo

Aranicini, basically fried, filled rice balls, can be found in street food places up and down the boot and they can be tasty elsewhere, but somehow I’ve never found one as good as any of those I ate during that trip, with the sole exception of the ones I’ve had coming back to Palermo two decades later.

In my three trips back this year Palermo has given me completely different sensation. People are engaging everywhere, even taxi drivers, and every downtown neighborhood seems to have an area where you can enjoy hanging out at night. I’ve found good pizza and rediscovered amazing almond and ricotta based pastries, but I’ve been longing for arancini.

The most traditional arancini are filled with either a meat and sweet pea ragout or béchamel and prosciutto, but you can find store specialties with other fillings. They can be small, like the ones I had as appetizers at the Foccacceria San Francesco a few months back, but the softball-sized ragout arancini are still my favorite. I think you can only fully grasp the importance of eating real Sicilian arancino if you hold it in you hand and bite in. Popping one into your mouth is too similar olive ascolane (which much better in their Ascoli Piceno birthplace or in Amatrice than anywhere else) to have their own magic.

A Great Fried Ball, Bar Alba, Palermo

Last week at my insistence Italo took us to the Pasticceria Alba on our way home. Alba is a full-service bar and pastry shop with an elegant glass corner with table service. There were other distractions – even a sweet basil pesto arancino – but we were able to stick to our goal and I had my long-awaited ragout Sicilian arancino (and a glass of Nero D’Avola red wine). Part of their secret is that they usually made them every few hours.

I was happy, but being from Palermo, my guide had other motives for choosing Albe – their ice cream is, well, dreamy sandwiched inside a brioche bun. But I’ll write more on Palermo’s frozen treats later on.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

Pasticceria Alba http://www.pasticceriaalba.it/newpasticceriaalba_en.html; also http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=86980155573&v=wall&viewas=0

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