For those who want a crash course in local cuisine when visiting a new place, there’s no better primer than taste testing your way through a city with a food tour.
We wanted to squeeze in Catania on our already-packed Sicily itinerary. What better way to see a city than through our stomachs?
Sometimes you don’t want to commit a whole meal to experimental foods. Food tours offer a taste of many local flavors without overcommitting. If you happen to do it early in your trip, you’re that much better prepared to know your local preferences when ordering off the menu.
After our experience with Streaty – a food tour company we highly recommend – we are making room for more food tours on future trips.
We landed on Streaty’s Catania Street Food and Fish Market Tour, which lasted about three hours. Joining with other like-minded, food-focused travelers added to the fun and education as we swapped travel tips.
Catania is Sicily’s second largest city after Palermo. It’s the industrial and commercial center of Sicily and home to southern Italy’s largest airport.
Catania’s historic center features plenty of architectural gems built after a 1693 earthquake decimated many of its buildings. The city is one of eight towns in southeastern Sicily designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, thanks to their efforts to rebuild in the baroque style of the day and their innovations in town planning and urban building.
Eating up Catania
While food is the star attraction, the walking path through town gives a good city overview.
Here’s our play-by-play food journey through the bustling city of Catania.
After navigating through the city’s main market where competing fish mongers jockeyed for air time as they yelled their daily specials, we landed at a fruit stand. We watched as the vendor carefully peeled the spiny outer layer of the prickly pears for us to sample.
I was an instant fan of this cactus fruit. My husband was less enamored.
The flavor is hard to describe. It really doesn’t taste like anything else I’ve eaten. The seeds are significant, but edible. I’m one who usually shies aways from grapes with seeds, but these seeds are not bitter so they were easy to tolerate.
Seltz lemone e sale
I love lemonade, but the idea of substituting salt for the sugar had me scratching my head. It so worked! I never would have guessed it would be such a refreshing drink on a hot day.
This drink is a staple in Catania and is sold in kiosks around town and at the beach. I read it originated in 1896. Now it includes various mixes including black cherry, strawberry, mandarin, coffee and tamarind. Of course, Aperol is another adult-version mixer option.
The recipe is simple. Squeeze the juice of one whole lemon directly into the glass. Add a cup of very cold sparkling water and mix with a half teaspoon of sea salt. Top with ice and presto, you have a glass of sunny refreshment.
Fried calamari, shrimp and anchovies
Our next stop took us to deep-fried fish goodness at Scirocco. The restaurant is a self-described fish lab adjacent to Catania’s famous fish market.
We tried a sample of the fried calamari, shrimp and anchovies. It was a great sampler that had just the right amount of breading and crispness to keep the fresh fish at the forefront of the culinary experience.
They certainly have the freshest fish to draw upon just a stone’s throw away. Another secret to its tastiness is their exclusive use of “sunflower oil with added natural antioxidants extracted from rosemary for a crispy, light and tasty deep-fry,” according to its website.
Arancino with ragu
At Antica Rosticceria Catanese, we got another dose of Sicilian fried delicacies heavier on the breading. The place was bustling with locals ready for a quick bite for lunch.
Paired with a pale lager from Messina, Birra Dello Streetto, we first tried the arancino with ragu.
The original arancino recipe includes rice mixed with saffron, shredded veal, peas, carrots, onion and fennel. It is then rolled in breadcrumbs or flour and fried in lard.
We learned that there is a serious difference between the western fried rice balls from Palermo and the eastern version from Catania. It comes down to the shape and vowel at the end.
In east Sicily, their fried risotto balls are round and called arancina (named after arancia, the Italian word for orange). Head west and the shape turns conical like a volcano and are called arancino. We have been warned not to confuse the two.
Siciliana with tuma cheese, olive and anchovy
Our next tasting at Antica Rosticceria Catanese was Siciliana with tuma cheese, olive and anchovy.
Tuma cheese is mild and has a similar flavor to mozzarella. It melts beautifully in this lovely pillow of bread. While I loved it with the olive, the anchovy was a bit overpowering for me.
Bar Mazzini offered us a taste of cipollina, which is a puff pastry stuffed with stewed onions, tomato sauce, mozzarella and ham. It’s a treat for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
It was a solid choice with a good local following.
Sweet finale: almond and pistachio granita with brioche
It doesn’t get more Sicilian than granita and brioche. We made our final stop at Sgroi Bar for a taste of the good stuff.
We were given two flavor choices, so I opted for almond and pistachio. To me, it’s the perfect nutty combination. Other common granita flavors include coffee, chocolate, lemon, orange and strawberry.
Granita and brioche are commonly eaten for breakfast in Sicily, but the combination can be enjoyed all day long. We certainly did.
The yeasty brioche bread is topped with an extra ball of pastry called a tuppo to represent the traditional low bun that Sicilian women used to wear.
Some also pair the granita and brioche with a side of whipped cream. Let’s face it, everything is better with whipped cream.
The Sicilian tradition of granita goes back to the middle ages, when snow would be collected from Mount Etna, stored in caves and brought down during the summer months to sell as an icy treat. When the Arabs came, new ingredients like lemons, sugarcane, honey, herbs and spices were added to the specialty.
Bonus: A side of history
If you have time before your tour, squeeze in a visit to see the Museum of the Allied Landings in WWII. The museum does a great job showing how the allies got their foothold in Italy through Sicily in 1943. It also has a great collection of memorabilia, wax figures and graphics to help you better appreciate the time and challenges.
The exhibit left us with these parting words (translated from Italian): “Peace is the supreme good. Forgetting it is truly madness.”
We highly recommend this lesson in history combined with a tasting tour of Catania. If you have a limited time to see this intriguing city, it is a great way to combine the light, hearty and serious.