Andiamo…to the island of Sicilia. We’ll begin where I was a short time ago: Catania. It’s the perfect starting point (with an easy airport) to explore places like Siracusa, Taormina, and the Aeolian Islands (all of which I am heading to on a Country Walkers trip–so stay tuned).
For many years guidebooks discouraged spending time in Catania, giving it the same treatment as Naples: “ a city in decay, depressing, dangerous, etc.” It’s now actually a vibrant, youth-filled city (with a prestigious university), and a Baroque-a-palooza historic center, that’s recently been scrubbed up and restored. Mount Etna rising in the distance provides a dramatic backdrop. And like Naples, Catania is absolutely theatrical–with lots of hands-flying-through-the-air and amore action on the streets.
A Golden Day here begins at the market (Mon-Sat, 8-2), which covers the blocks behind the Elephant statue in the Piazza Duomo. It’s a sensory bombardment—at first the smells of peppery aged cheeses, sweet peaches, booming operatic voices of dark eyed men selling giant gleaming eggplants, bowling-ball sized heads of purple cauliflower, succulent cherry and plum tomatoes, barrels of olives.Then come the skinned bloody lambs (still with their heads on) hanging from hooks, huge slabs of horse meat—-and of course butchers in expert action with cleavers.
Center stage is FISH–stalls and stalls–baskets of squirming snails, clams of every size, shining sardines, buckets of octopi, and ah, the pesce spada: swordfish–displayed on rickety wooden tables like trophies. Leather-skinned tan men with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths weigh the catch of the day on old fashioned scales, sculpted muscular guys in t-shirts stroll about, their arms overflowing with bunches of parsley for sale. …It’ll put you in the mood for lunch.
Adjoining the fish market are two restaurants, side by side–one cheap and not so great when I tried it: Paglia (ornery staff, sloppy service, yes the fish is fresh and simply prepared, but nothing special)–and the other a gem: Osteria Antica Marina (Via Pardo 29, 095 348 197, MUST reserve OR you may have a chance at 2:30 pm seating as a walk-in). It’s more upscale than Paglia, it’s the one the natives told me to go to, moderately priced and the perfect match to the market. You can opt for an antipasto misto and though the waiters may offer to choose for you, I suggest you head up to the counter and point out six that you like which they’ll deliver to you on small plates–from beautifully prepared mussels, smoked swordfish, fried calamari, to artichokes. An excellent primi is the housemade pasta with saffron and shrimp. And though you may feel full, go for the lemon cake dessert.
After lunch, a 10 minute walk away, you’ll discover Catania’s Greco-Roman Theatre and Odeon (Via Vittorio Emanuele II 266). Actually, you could very well miss it, as it’s hidden behind a 17th century facade, with only a small sign to announce it. The complex wasn’t excavated until the 1950’s–modern homes had been built right on top of it. In fact, one still remains–the Casa Liberti that was inhabited from 1848 to 1932 by the Liberti family. Inside it the rooms have been restored with some of its original furnishings, and there are photos of the family–a boy in a sailor suit posed on a miniature painted Sicilian cart, men with thick twirled mustaches, women with their hair swept up in puffy buns. It’s amazing to imagine what life was like for them living over this historic sight!
Catania is a hot spot for delicious pastries. A great place to sample almond cookies or cannoli for an afternoon pick-me-up is I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza (Piazza San Placido 7).
In the early evening, you can join in with the flow of young and old Catanese for the passegiata on Via Etnea–a shopping street that also is home to the wonderful Pasticceria Savia (Via Etnea 302/204). Do as the natives do–order up arancini at Savia–a ball of deep fried rice delight–that comes either stuffed with tomato sauce and cheese, spinach, or cured meats. Whatever you choose, it’ll fill you up well for the night.
Then, if you’re up for it, you’ll enjoy joining the younger set at the clubs and bars that come to life from 10 to 3 in the morning, with action spilling out into the alleyways and curving vias of the old center, around Piazza Bellini.
Or, you may opt for the more classical route and check out what’s happening inside the Teatro Massimo Bellini. This exquisit baroque theatre pays homage to Catania’s native son composer, with a season of opera and concerts that runs year round, except for July and August.
Very entertaining any time of day is the opportunity to sit and enjoy people watching while sipping a caffe, wine, or cocktail at the Caffe del Duomo (Piazza Duomo). It’s surprisingly inexpensive (4 euros for prosecco)–considering its prime location. A Saturday night in spring or fall is a perfect time to perch there, as this is the time for many brides and grooms to have photo shoots–making it a magical site of happy natives amidst Catania’s centuries old baroque splendor.