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Catania - the flavours of Siciliy

The market in Catania was glistening with colour, taste and smell, and the bustle of Saturday morning could not be stopped even by the unusual heat for the beginning of June. Each product is announced with a thunderous shout in the ear, and the atmosphere is far more lively than in the loudest Dalmatian markets. We came to Catania, located on the east coast of Sicily, by sheer luck. A few days ago, the volcano Etna, at the foot of which stands this city, decided to show its strength and stopped air traffic. The power of nature is experienced at every step, and the surprises do not stop here. The city of black facades and magnificent churches hides one of the best Italian gastronomy. The villains would say that this is not Italy, neither in language, nor in mentality, nor in food. It is difficult to decide on the identity, but it is certainly true that only in Catania you can try delicacies such as arancini, cannoli, Pasta alla Norma, horse dishes, and certainly seafood!

Catania is the second largest city in Sicily, after Palermo, and among the ten largest cities in Italy. It is located on the east coast of Sicily, at the foot of the active volcano Etna, and overlooks the Ionian Sea. Catania was founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC. The city experienced multiple geological catastrophes: it was almost completely destroyed by the catastrophic earthquake of 1169. A large eruption and lava flow from Mount Etna almost flooded the city in 1669 and it suffered severe devastation from the earthquake in Sicily in 1693.

During the 14th century, and during the Renaissance, Catania was one of the most important Italian cultural, artistic and political centers. It was the site of the first university in Sicily, founded in 1434. It was the birthplace or adopted home of some of the most famous Italian artists and writers, including composers Vincenzo Bellini and Giovanni Pacini, and writers Giovanni Vergo, Luigi Capuano, Federico De Roberto an,d Nino Martoglio. Today, Catania is the industrial, logistical and commercial center of Sicily. Its airport is the largest in southern Italy. However, the central "old town" of Catania has a lush late Baroque architecture, inspired by the earthquake of 1693, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It all starts and ends in Piazza del Duomo, a spacious square in front of the Cathedral of St. Agatha. This saint was born in Catania in the third century and was martyred by local Roman Catholics. Everything in Catania is somehow connected with Agatha, so churches, streets, squares, shops, restaurants are named after her…

Along with it, the symbol of the city is the elephant. The symbol of the city is u Liotru, or Fontana dell'Elefante, composed in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. It depicts an ancient elephant, and at the top is an Egyptian obelisk from Syena. Legend has it that Vaccarini's original elephant was neutered, which the people of Catania perceived as an insult to their manhood. To soothe them, Vaccarini conveniently attached elephant testicles to the original statue. The Sicilian name u Liotru is a phonetic change from Heliodorus, a nobleman who, after unsuccessfully trying to become the city’s bishop, became a magician and was therefore condemned to the stake. Legend has it that Heliodorus himself was an elephant sculptor and that he magically rode him on his fantastic journeys from Catania to Constantinople. Another legend says that Heliodorus managed to transform into an elephant. Today, paleontologists say that an elephant did live here, but most elephants are associated with Arabs who lived happily in Sicily for several centuries and left a strong mark on the island.

In the City of the Elephant, this animal is not eaten, but perhaps the greatest specialty of Catania is that it offers horse meat. Just a few steps from the main square you can find butchers and small snack bars where you can eat a good horse sandwich. Vegan palates are fleeing them like fom the plague, while the same stores are attracting omnivores. Horse meat is more than a Catanian dish: it is the taste of Catania, its tradition, its soul. In all sizes and in all shapes - from meatballs to sausages - it is the queen of baking and eating, the main street food.

And if even the thought of sinking your teeth into sweet horse meat is a thousand miles away from your intentions, one evening indulge in a walk through the Via Plebiscito, the street that surrounds and borders downtown Catania, for a true and unique cross-section of this city’s folklore. Although vegetarian and vegan restaurants are gaining momentum, spreading a healthy halo over the city, Catania is still very carnivorous, with spicy, soaked and roasted slices and types of meat for all tastes. If you are one of those who love animal proteins that drip fat and goodness, Catania is the place for you!

Asking where you can go to eat in Catania is a bit superfluous because the answer is: everywhere! In fact, if something is missing in Catania, these are just extra places to eat. Restaurants, snack bars, trattorias and kiosks nest in the corners of squares and in the ravines of the streets, putting (literally) the best of local recipes on a plate. It is best to first go to the small restaurants around the fish market, where you can try great seafood dishes early in the morning and late in the evening.

Catania street food par excellence and the king of the place is arancino, perhaps the most famous Sicilian food in the world. It is traditionally fried, in the shape of a hat and stuffed with rice and meat sauce, and is eaten strictly by holding it with your hands from the long end. Today, the light version in the oven is also quite successful, and classic arancini stuffed with meat sauce or butter has been added over time by arancini with tender hearts of pistachios, eggplant, spinach and ham: dozens of variations on the theme are the original Catania breakfast experience.

It is best eaten in the immediate vicinity of the Castello Ursino, a 13th-century medieval pearl that served as the royal court of the Kingdom of Sicily and was later the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. The surrounding streets meander down towards the fish market, and the somewhat inconspicuous facades of this part of the city still become a valid backdrop to the south, with old people sitting in front of their houses and children playing among clothes drying in warm weather. Italy and the Mediterranean as from movie scenes!

If you belong to that little branch of unhappy humanity that sees food as a pure means of survival and not as one of the privileges of this crazy world, be prepared to change your mind. If there is a food with the scent of mysticism, it is the Sicilian cannoli. To pay homage to its divine fruit par excellence, Sicily has invented dozens of variations, and Cannolo Catania is one of the most popular with its filling of freshly sweetened sheep ricotta, plentiful pistachio grains at both ends and the inevitable sprinkling of powdered sugar. As simple as it is refreshing and rich, this is a real blend of the Mediterranean and the Middle East!

It is enough to visit Pescheria, a fish market in Catania, early in the morning, to understand how wide the offer of seafood is, which is exhibited on the stands of fishermen. Oysters, shellfish, various fish ... fresh seafood is served raw, as the good Lord made them, or in combination with some of the excellent pasta dishes. In the evening, Pescheria is filled with tables of fish restaurants that offer beautiful and fresh specimens of swordfish and grilled tuna, excellent sardines al beccafico and characteristic seafood, as well as a rich offer of shellfish and crabs that will not leave you dissatisfied. A few more days in the city of Etna will be a unique opportunity to taste other very tempting dishes, such as pasta with squid, pistachios, swordfish and seafood.

There is nothing more special for Catania than Pasta alla Norma! “Pasta” is actually called just like this in Catania. The art of turning a simple dish of dry pasta (usually macaroni, but also spaghetti) into a masterpiece of goodness is thanks to the topping that relies on the most delicious ingredients of the Mediterranean diet: tomatoes, basil, fried eggplant and generously sprinkled with ricotta. Coming to Catania and not tasting pasta alla Norma is a waste of time! All this is further flooded with local wines: Vittoria red and Etna white, which are proud to bear a feature of geographical origin.

Catania is therefore a paradise for all types of gastronomes, from those looking for fatty meat to fish lovers to vegetarians. A special feeling of the Italian south in a city that reveals its antiquity but also the hospitality of the people, remains with every tourist who does not run around the city in search of who knows what inspiration. Direction - Catania!

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