Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Sicily Capitolo 4: Ciao a Noto & Catania

We wrapped up our time in Sicily with two days of indulgence: copious amounts of gelato and arancini and wandering around beautiful Baroque buildings. On our penultimate day, Alex and I spent the afternoon exploring Noto more fully while the rest of the family drove Bri's boyfriend to the airport. 

Having tried Caffé Sicilia earlier in the week, the time had come to taste the offerings of its arch-rival, Dolceria Costanzo (also touted as the best gelateria in Italy). Here the flavours are decidedly tamer, sticking to tried and tested Italian favourites with lemon, chocolate, yoghurt and so on. Nonetheless, they're incredibly delicious, with a wonderfully smooth and creamy texture. Alex and I shared a dreamy brioche filled with hazelnut and pistachio gelato. Best. Breakfast. Ever. 

So who am I backing in the ice cream battle? No one, actually - it's a big fat tie. Caffé Sicilia undoubtedly has the most exciting ice cream flavours I've seen anywhere in Italy (I sometimes dream about the chocolatey orangey genius of Montezuma), while Costanzo takes the classics and does them really, really well. I reckon these gelatieras will be locked in a stalemate for years to come...

Let's take a step away from the gelato competition for a second and consider the cafés themselves. I'd recommend Caffé Sicilia as a place to sit and watch the world go by - it's got a lovely, airy atmosphere and the place is suffused with light (whereas Costanzo seemed a little darker and stuffier). Where Costanzo has the edge, however, is in the savoury food stakes; its arancini, above, were to die for. We chose cheesy ham and spinach variants; Costanzo also do a delicious ragù version, which we tried on our final day.

By midday, the August sun and heat in Sicily is relentless. Diving into an air-conditioned building (or a particularly airy church!) is pretty much key to avoiding heatstroke. We opted for the 18th century Palazzo Nicolaci, its undulating wrought iron balconies designed to accommodate the hooped skirts of ladies' dresses. 

Each of the rooms had its own special purpose or colour theme - this one, with a little Chinese courtier painted on the ceiling, was clearly for tea. 

The main room is devoted to the arts. Historically it was used for giving concerts and performing plays (with a sweet anteroom for the performers, identifiable by a music-themed ceiling fresco), a function that persists today alongside its use as a space for contemporary art exhibitions. 

No sooner had we ventured out on to the streets than the heat forced us back inside for our second icy treat of the day: lemon and apricot granitas at Caffé Sicilia. Granitas are the ideal thing to snack on when it's so hot, and these were honestly the best granitas of the holiday - they genuinely tasted like real fruit. We returned to Caffé Sicilia the very next morning for our final breakfast in Noto: cream pastries, more brioches stuffed with gelato and a truly fantastic ricotta cannolo. And of course I had to have one last scoop of Montezuma - using a miniature shovel, of course. I mean, what other way is there to eat icecream? 

We ordered a giant tray of arancini from Costanzo and hopped in the car to Catania, where Alex and I bade farewell to my family for one last evening in Sicily. 

Catania, situated to the east and north of Etna, has a markedly different flavour from Palermo or any of the immaculately kept Baroque towns of the south. True, we explored the city at night, but I think it's fair to say that it has a much darker atmosphere than other Italian towns I've visited, thanks in part to the abundance of black volcanic building materials present in the pavements, walls and so on. Churches jostle with big fast food joints on the city streets and even Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania's opera house, is covered in graffiti. And yet...I love it. The city exudes a coolness that springs from its roughness, the dirt, the market square above littered with fruit and vegetables from the day's proceedings. And needless to say, there's a great food scene. 

Our AirBnB hosts had recommended FUD for a taste of modern Sicily, and I was so glad they did. As we arrived, I saw promising signs everywhere: amazing smells emanating from the open doorway, a buzzing queue stretching down the street, and only snatches of Italian conversation to be overheard. 

We arrived at around 8ish and noticed that the diners around us were speaking a mixture of non-Italian languages; by nine o'clock they had been replaced by Catanian locals. Italians really do like to eat late!

These veggie croquettes reminded me of arancini and were ridiculously moreish.

Next up: my first taste of an Italian burger. Yes, not the most typically Italian pick, but when in Catania, do as the Catanesi do! This baby was so huge I had to slice it up to eat it. Hanging my head in shame. 

Unsurprisingly, these were so giant that they ended up defeating us. 

A night time stroll took us past the cathedral and up the stairs of our palazzo to our sweet little AirBnB, where we wrote our postcards before collapsing into bed with exhaustion.

So how did we spend our last morning in Sicily? Like old Italian nonni (grandparents): we bumbled around the little gardens and streets of Catania and breakfasted at a pasticceria on the street in true Sicilian style. Cafe Prestipino, off the university square, is an old-world Italian establishment, where I had a pistachio granita and Alex ordered a cappuccino and a cake shaped like a breast (obviously). The cassatella di Sant'Agata is a traditional Catanese marzipan dessert, its resemblance to a boob referring to Saint Agatha's fate. Her breasts were cut off with pincers. Er, yum...

And that concludes my trip to Sicily! I hope you've enjoyed my Sicily series and that these posts might be helpful to any of you planning to visit Sicily. It's definitely a foodie's paradise, and packed full of places sure to delight one's inner historian or artist. A wonderful holiday with wonderful people. I'm definitely feeling withdrawal pangs for the dolce vita - somebody take me back! 

If you're looking for more Sicilian inspiration, catch up on chapters one (Palermo), two (Siracusa, Etna, Taormina) and three (Noto, Modica, Ragusa)

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sicily Capitolo 3: Noto, Modica & Ragusa

On the third leg of our trip, a heavy raincloud came to rest menacingly above the golden Noto. We paid it no heed, weaving our way past the pinkish stone buildings in search of lunch at the Trattoria del Carmine, a place that had come highly recommended by two reliable sources: the good old Lonely Planet guidebook as well as Alex's sister and brother-in-law. 

And boy, did this place deliver - in fact, it was easily one of the best meals we had in Sicily. Tucked away from the more touristy places near the Cathedral, this unassuming-looking restaurant on Via Ducezio serves up honest, delicious fare that understandably has the place teeming with locals. I thought this would be exactly the kind of place Inspector Montalbano would come for a bite to eat if he ever dropped by Noto to investigate a murder case...

Appreciative murmurs were heard from the Bri-Freddie side of the table over the amazing-looking antipasti, half devoured by the time I had a chance to whip out my camera.

Alex and I shared this wonderfully fresh salad (mozzarella, sweetcorn, lettuce, olives and tomato!) which I was rather taken with, and ordered the very next day at a different establishment - though it wasn't nearly as good, probably because the mozzarella bocconcini were of such high quality here.

The best caponata - doused in fantastic Sicilian olive oil and absolutely bursting with flavour.

Salsiccia and potatoes - again, with fantastic seasoning. (As I write this, all bundled up in jumpers against the onset of British winter, I'm thinking this would be a perfect dinner...)

Per me: a remarkable spaghetti with clams, mussels, prawns and fish, topped with crushed pistachios. 

A mixed seafood grill for the sister.

And to finish, two life-changingly good cannoli. I will one hundred per cent return to del Carmine next time I'm in Sicily - the food was just excellent and very reasonably priced too. 

Walking off our lunch, we were tempted into Anche gli angeli, seduced by the winsome combination of books, wine bottles and art visible through the doorway - as well as that perfect example of a groin vault (just me? Okay.) So cool, and just another reason why Noto is such a wonderful town.

While thumbing through books in translation - Aforismi by Oscar Wilde and Il cardellino by Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch, which I happened to be reading at the time) those rainclouds I mentioned earlier finally burst - and like all good Italian things, the ensuing rainstorm was fierce, passionate and hyperbolic. The steep Noto streets flowed with water as a temporary fast-moving river was created (I understand my sister and her boyfriend were absolutely soaked as they didn't have the good fortune to be under cover when the heavens opened). 

We were effectively trapped in Anche gli Angeli. Which suited me just fine. Stuck in a bookshop that's also a bar and art gallery during a freakishly heavy rainstorm? That's basically paradise as far as I'm concerned...

The downpour eased off and we completed our wander through Noto in the best way possible: with gelato at Caffe Sicilia. It's well known that's it's a toss-up between this place and its neighbour Costanzo for the best ice cream in Italy. And I can see why. Not to sound too sycophantic, but the flavours here were extraordinary. We tried mandorla/cannella (almond/cinnamon), fiori di spezie (which I thought was fruits of the forest, but turned out to be a delicately spiced, citrusy concoction), a delightfully fresh basilico (basil), torrone (nougat) and my favourite, Montezuma (a chocolatey, cinnamony, orangey delight. Basically a posh version of Terry's Chocolate Orange. Classy flavour parallel, no?)

We pretty much all fell in love with this adorable Italian macchina. I'd actually learn to drive if I had a cute little number like this to zip around in. Probably.

The next day we decided to explore the other neighbouring towns in the south-east: Modica and Ragusa. We started off in Modica, famous for its chocolate - apparently made in the same way the ancient Aztecs made their chocolate, it's crumbly and delicious.

Modica doesn't only do excellent chocolate, it does mouthwateringly good cakes too. We bought one of these tartufo al pistacchio (a sort of semifreddo, alcoholic-tasting ice cream cake. So much to love in one little green hemisphere.) 

Over a late breakfast of espressos and icecream, I had this granite di mandorla tostata, perfect for consumption on the street as the Sicilian day began to heat up. I'd never had anything like this before - basically a sorbet flavoured with toasted almonds which rapidly became a nutty soup - and loved it.

Next on the journey: Ragusa, split into two towns divided by a ravine due to rebuilding after the 1693 earthquake, and a shining example of High Sicilian Baroque architecture. We spent our time in Ragusa Ibla, the lower town, rebuilt along the medieval plan of the city, its passages all the more wonderfully winding and maze-like for it.

This is what I love about Italy, and particularly Sicily - swing round pretty much any corner and you'll be greeted by the most startlingly charming church. Swing round a corner in London and you'll be greeted by the most startlingly alarming vom on a pavement. (Just joking, London, I still love you.)

I practically squealed with glee upon walking up the Salita Duomo and spotting San Giorgio at the end, which I recognised from Montalbano. Basically I binge-watched the entire series in preparation for going to Sicily (and also because it's fantastic) and this stretch is often used for filming in the TV series; the Commissario and his buddies often hang out here for a coffee. Sorry guys, I'm a detective show geek...

After all the uphill strolling, it was time for a spot of lunch. For some reason we were all ravenously hungry so didn't take long deciding to eat at the nearby Ristorante La Piazzetta, which apparently serves the Montalbano crew food when they come to film around here. I'm afraid I'm easily swayed by tidbits of information like that. 

While not bad, this meal wasn't nearly as brilliant as the lunch we'd had the day before at the trattoria in Noto (see the mozzarella and sweetcorn salad I said I ordered the next day? There it is, above...) and so doesn't really bear talking too much about. The only interesting dish was Alex's carbonara alla pesce di spada - a beautifully thick tagliatelle-style pasta coated in a creamy carbonara sauce with chunks of swordfish. 

Upon grabbing the bill, we wandered down to the Giardino Ibleo, but above our heads loomed those sinister-looking clouds again.

We dashed to the car as the first huge raindrops hit the cobbled streets, only to realise that my mother had left her glasses on the table in the restaurant. So it was that I found myself sprinting through Ragusa Ibla in the pouring rain, lightning bolts flashing and thunder booming above. I was soaked through, and it was the most exhilarated and alive I'd felt in ages. I'd never have thought it, but for me this was one of the highlights of the trip.


We drove away from the storm and back into summer, to the wetlands of the Vendicari Nature Reserve. Here we picked figs, peered at herons and jumped off the rocks to swim in the sea with tiny, glinting rainbow fish.

A word of warning: best to pack diving shoes if you want to swim around here! There's no sandy beaches in the nature reserve, only rocks, and it's pretty easy to cut your feet - pretty much all of us did. And my sister got stung by some unknown object - not a jellyfish, but possibly the seaweed. It is a really lovely spot to swim, though - so warm and peaceful, with very few people around.

We towelled ourselves dry and made our way back to the car as sun set over the Vendicari. These open skies, dancing with colour and cloud, get me every time. So very different to the skyline of home, cut up by concrete and glass.

The sunset after a storm is always incredibly beautiful. As we drove back to Noto we were all glued to the windows to watch this one, glowing and rubescent, as it disappeared behind the hills, leaving only pink clouds behind. 

Sometimes the most basic, elemental memories - like running through a rainstorm or watching a fiery sunset - are the very best. Well, I think so, anyway! I hope you enjoyed this post, even though it's been a long time coming. I'll wrap up next time with a goodbye to Noto (and a comparison between the products of the gelato rivalry between Caffe Sicilia and Costanzo!) and a quick stop in the buzzing city of Catania. Arrivederci e buona settimana!

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