The beauty under the mighty volcano
As observed by Strabo, the location of Catania at the foot of Mount Etna has been both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, violent outbursts of the volcano throughout history have destroyed large parts of the city, whilst on the other hand the volcanic ashes yield fertile soil, especially suited for the growth of vines. The fertility of the land is certainly what strikes the visitor the moment he sets foot at the area: citruses, olive trees, vines and above all my beloved Sicilian pistachio, grow in abundance in huge organised orchards but also scattered here and there among prickly pear cacti.
The ancient indigenous population of the Sicels named their village Katane, which means "rugged or rough soil". The Greeks who settled here in the 8th century BC called their prosperous-to-be city Katánē, which is the name that has survived till today, though, the Arabs, when Catania was part of the emirate of Sicily, called it "The City of the Elephant". The elephant is the symbol of Catania even today, because of the lava sculptured Elephant over the fountain in Piazza Duomo, a talisman that was reputedly powerful enough to protect the city from enemies and to keep away misfortune, plagues, or natural calamities.
The architecture of the city is glorious, impressive and homogeneous as it was rebuilt in the Baroque style after the city was completely destroyed in 1693 by a heavy earthquake and its aftershocks. Obviously, the elephant charm did not save the city this time as it did in 1669 when the city's surroundings suffered great material damage from an eruption of Mount Etna, but the city itself was largely saved by its walls that diverted most of the lava into the port.
• Catania was founded as a Greek colony named Κατάνη (Katánē), of Chalcidic origin, under the guidance of a leader named Euarchos, in the 8th century BC.
• The 5th century BC was a period of great prosperity for Catania, as well as for the Sicilian cities in general. This ended with the great Athenian expedition to Sicily (part of the larger Peloponnesian War), when their allies, the Athenians, invaded the city. Catania became the headquarters of the Athenian armament throughout the first year of the expedition, and the base of their subsequent operations against Syracuse
• Catania had the misfortune of being on the side of the losers after the defeat of the Athenians and the Syracusans, as winners and undisputed masters of Sicily, in 403 BC plundered the city and sold its citizens as slaves.
• Τhe city fell into the hands of the Carthaginians, in the early 4th century BC.
• In the First Punic War, Catania was one of the first among the cities of Sicily, which made their submission to the Roman Republic, in 263 BC. The city rose to a position of great prosperity under the Roman rule.
• Catania was sacked by the Vandals of Gaiseric in 440–441. After a period under the Ostrogoths, it was reconquered in 535 by the Eastern Roman Empire, under which it remained until the 9th century. It was the seat of the Byzantine governor of the island.
• Catania was under the Islamic emirate of Sicily from 831 until 1072, when it fell to the Normans of Roger I of Sicily.
• Catania was one of the main centers of the Sicilian Vespers revolt (1282) against the House of Anjou, and was the seat of the coronation of the new Aragonese king of Sicily, Peter I.
• In 1434 King Alfonso V founded here the Siciliae Studium Generale, the oldest university in the island.
• With the unification of Castile and Aragon (early 16th century), Sicily became part of the Spanish Empire. It rebelled against the foreign government in 1516 and 1647.
• In 1669 the city's surroundings suffered great material damage from an eruption of Mount Etna. The city itself was largely saved by its walls that diverted most of the lava into the port. Afterwards in 1693 the city was then completely destroyed by a heavy earthquake and its aftershocks. The city was then rebuilt in the Baroque architecture that nowadays characterizes it.
• Catania was one of the vanguards of the movement for the Sicilian autonomy in the early 19th century.
• In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi's expedition of the Thousand conquered Sicily for Piedmont from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Since the following year Catania was part of the newly unified Italy, whose history it shares since then.
• After heavy fighting across eastern Sicily, Catania was eventually captured by the British 8th Army on 5 August 1943.
Amphinomus and Anapias
Few associations connected with Catania were more celebrated in ancient times than the Legend of the Pii Fratres (fratres Catanenses), Amphinomus and Anapias (Ἀμφίνομος & Ἀναπίας) ), who, on occasion of a great eruption of Etna, abandoned all their property, and carried off their aged parents on their shoulders. The Gods were so moved about this action and made the stream of lava itself to have parted, and flowed aside so as not to harm them.
Statues were erected to their honor, and the place of their burial was known as the Campus Piorum; the Catanaeans even introduced the figures of the youths on their coins, and the legend became a favorite subject of allusion and declamation among the Latin poets, of whom the younger Lucilius and Claudian have dwelt upon it at considerable length. The occurrence is referred by Hyginus to the first eruption of Etna that took place after the settlement of Catania.
Catania lives under the shadow of Etna. Wherever you are in the city, it is impossible not to see the mighty silhouette of the volcano. Halfway between Messina and Syracuse, Catania is the most important city on the eastern part of the island and second only to Palermo in the whole Sicily.
Via Monsignor Ventimiglia and Via Francesco Crispi cross the city from north to south, connecting the port with the highways to the north.
Corso Italia, Via Umberto I, Via Vittorio Emanuele II, and Via Antonino Di Sangiuliano connect the coast to the east with the inland to the west.
Via Etnea is the most important street in the city and connects all worth visiting attraction of the old part of the city. This miles-long legendary street provides the frame through which one has the best views of Etna.
"ALIBUS" run by AMT (AMT) is the main means and the cheapest to go from the airport to the city. The line serves 15 stops. You can buy the ticket, which costs 4 €, at the airport or onboard the bus and for next 90min you can connect to any other urban means of transportation.
Taxis are available at the airport and for 20-25€ you can go anywhere in the city.
AMT runs all buses in the city. A single ticket (valid for 90min allowing transfer to other lines) costs 1€, while the “giornaliero”, an unlimited day ticket, costs 2.5 €. Tickets in Catania can be found at any Tabacchi Shop and have to be validated upon entrance on the bus. So, one can say “great…so cheap!”. Yes, very cheap and convenient if there was not a big problem with public transport: reliability. Buses are really not trustworthy at all and you may end up waiting for a whole day for your next bus. At most bus stops there are passenger information systems, but they do not announce all buses, or they announce a bus which never comes as it gets lost in a time-travel wormhole!
Of course, I always advise fellow travelers to use the moovit site //moovitapp.com/ or their application made both for android and iPhone (iPhone? what is this? Who uses this?) smartphones. But even this is not good enough for Catania, because they application is fed with the scheduled times, which may change for any possible and impossible reason. But, let’s not be very moody: Catania is a small city and almost everything can be reached on foot. Get some good shoes on and there you go….
Around the city, next to main bus stops, there are beautiful kiosks, which are supposed to me staffed with employees to help commuters and give all the necessary information. Alas, all of them are empty! I do not know exactly what happened, but as I am Greek, I can imagine it is one of the many corruption and malfunction examples of the public sector.
In the late 1990s the first line of an underground railway (Metropolitana di Catania) was built. The underground service started in 1999 and it is currently active on a route of 8.8 km, from the station Nesima (West of town), passing through the stations of San Nullo, Cibali, Milo, Borgo, Giuffrida, Italia, Galatea, Giovanni XXIII, to Stesicoro. The existence of a metro line is useless for the visitor…so forget its existence… besides, even locals have forgotten the metroline which does not operate on Sundays and holidays!!!
Pliny the Elder attributes the origin of the triskelion of Sicily to the triangular form of the island, the ancient Trinacria (from the Greek tri- (three) and akra (end, limb)), which consists of three large capes equidistant from each other, pointing in their respective directions, the names of which were Pelorus, Pachynus, and Lilybæum. According to another notion, the three limbs refer to the historical three valli of the island, the three different administrative regions the island was divided into during the Muslim rule on Sicily: the Val di Noto in the southeast, the Val Demone in the northeast and the Val di Mazara in the west. The ancient symbol of Trinacria is the head of Medusa (a gorgon with a head of snakes) overlaying three legs conjoined at the hips and flexed in triangle and three stalks of wheat.
The flag of Sicily bearing the trinacria was first adopted in 1282, after the successful Sicilian Vespers revolt against the king Charles I of Sicily. The Trinacria came to be on the Sicilian flag in 1943 during World War II when Andrea Finocchiaro Aprile led an independence movement, in collaboration with the allies. Their plan was to help Sicily become independent and form a free republic. The separatist behind the movement used a yellow and red flag with the Trinacria in the center of it. When World War II ended, Sicily was recognized as an autonomous region in the Italian Republic. The Trinacria symbol has also been adopted by the modern Sicilian government (2000) and appears at the center of Sicily's flag. The red color on the Sicilian flag represents Palermo, while the yellow represents Corleone. Palermo and Corleone were the first two cities to found a confederation against the Angevin rule.
One of the best-known symbols of Sicilian folk iconography, the cart (carretto siciliano) was created as a means of transport that responded to practical needs, but went on to be transformed into a vehicle for cultural transmission. Sculpture and painting were applied its various constituent parts to represent moments from the island’s history, or from epic stories or popular religion, creating valuable constructions that were genuine traveling works of art.
The Sicilian Carretto is made in several provinces in Sicily each with their own style. Carretti made in the province of Palermo have more of a square box design, those made in Catania are made with more elaborate 'keys', and then there are the carts made in Agrigento which have their own distinctive style. The craft of making the carts is handed down from generation to generation, through the training of apprentices. Carts are known for being covered in carvings and brightly painted scenes from Sicilian history and folklore as well as intricate geometrical designs. These scenes also served the purpose of conveying historical information to those who were illiterate. The colors of Sicily's flag, yellow and red, feature prominently on the carts, along with details in bright blues and greens. The animals pulling the carts are often elaborately adorned as well.
Miniature carts, or Carrettini Siciliani, are often sold in Sicily (or in Italian shops and restaurants in other countries) as souvenirs. Today, similar, distinctive Sicilian painting is used on cars, vespas, product packages, etc. For example, the brand Dolce & Gabbana, uses this kind of decoration on many products: household appliances (i.e. Smeg “Sicily is my love” collection), food packaging, tin boxes (i.e. the iconic Fiasconaro panettone), etc.
Teste di Moro
The art of Maiolica pottery was brought to Sicily by the Arabis who taught Sicilian how to create these wonderful objects of art. In the 13th century, the Spaniards of Aragon were the first who referred to colored Sicilian ceramic objects as “maiolica”, because the firing and glazing techniques used to create these pieces were similar to those used in the Island of Majorca. There are many different types of items that can be crafted, distinguished by their color patterns, the shape and the motifs painted on the pottery. But, without any doubt, the most popular and fascinating ceramic objects are the Moorish Heads or Teste di Moro.
The legend of the Moorish head goes back in the 11th century, during the Moors (a term used to describe the Medieval Muslim inhabitants of Sicily) domination in Sicily and as in most legends, is once again Eros to be blamed for this. One day, a beautiful and honorable young girl living in the Kalsa, the arabic district of Palermo, was taking care of plants and flowers in the balcony of her house as she was used to. Suddenly, a Moor merchant who was passing by, fell in love with the beautiful girl who immediately returned his love. They started having a love story until when she discovered he already had a wife and children waiting for him in his native land. She went suddenly crazy of jealousy and one night, while he was sleeping, she thought of a way to make him stay with her forever! She therefore cut off his head and cleverly decided to use it as a vase to grow her beautiful basil plant. People walking down her balcony started looking at her flourishing plant of basil and became jealous of how bloomed her plants were, so they began to forge colorful clay heads pots wishing to have the same magic green thumb.
Today there are several varieties of ceramic heads, but the traditional ones show a black man and a beautiful girl. True or not, romantic or creepy, today these Mori represent the Sicilian ceramic art all over the world, thanks also to Dolce&Gabbana, and the controversy their 2013 collection of jewelry (and fabrics) inspired by the Moorish Heads caused. The controversy had to do with the question: are these iconic emblems of colonialism and slavery, reminiscent of an era of Western history most people are trying to forget, or folk art to be valued? Domenico Dolce, as a Sicilian himself, has been inspired many times from his native land, and tried to explain that for Sicilians these colorful echoes of decorative arts are merely part of the culture of their country.
Sicilian cuisine shows traces of all cultures that have existed on the island of Sicily over the last two millennia. Although its cuisine has a lot in common with Italian cuisine, Sicilian food also has Greek, Spanish, French and Arab influences which makes Sicilian cuisine a veritable melting pot of flavor. Typical ingredients of Sicilian dishes are: pasta, tomato, aubergines, pistachio, olive oil, fresh fish & seafood, ricotta cheese, ragusano cheese, pecorino Siciliano cheese, almonds, horse meat, wine, citrus fruits, raisins and saffron, basil, garlic (“aglio rosso di Nubia” is a local garlic variety), pine nuts, etc.
The 5th century BC Sicilian cook Mithaecus (Μίθαικος) is credited with the first cookbook written in Greek, therefore he was the earliest cookbook author in any language whose name is known. It is said that Mithaecus brought knowledge of Sicilian gastronomy to Greece. Specifically, according to sources of varying reliability, he worked in Sparta, from which he was expelled as a bad influence and in Athens, where he earned an unfavorable mention in Plato's dialogue Gorgias. Only one very brief recipe survives from his cookbook, thanks to a quotation in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. It is in the Doric dialect of Greek (appropriate both to Greek Sicily and to Sparta) and describes, in one line, how to deal with the fish Cepola macrophthalma, a ribbon-like fish here called tainia (known in Italian as cepola and in modern Greek as κορδέλα): gut, discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and olive oil. The addition of cheese seems to have been a controversial matter; Archestratus is quoted as warning his readers that Syracusan cooks spoil good fish by adding cheese! When I read about this, I had a good lough with my fellow travelers, because just the previous day we were discussing the adding of cheese on fish in modern Sicilian cuisine. For us, in Greece, this is very inappropriate! But, obviously this “incompatibility” goes very back in time.
Pasta alla Norma
Catania itself, it shares the Sicilian cuisine tradition, but has also a unique cuisine. Dishes such as Pasta alla Norma are from the city. Pasta alla Norma (it’s called Norma after the nineteenth century opera of the same name by Bellini, a true child of Catania) is a pasta dish made out (usually) of macaroni-like penne, tomato sauce, largely sliced aubergines, and often topped with salty ricotta (ricotta salata). If I could eat pasta alla Norma every day for the rest of my life I’d be a happy guy!
Sicily is the oldest Italian and Western location on record where pasta was part of the local cuisine after being worked into long and thin forms, dating back to around the 12th century. This is attested by the “Tabula Rogeriana”, reporting some traditions about the Sicilian kingdom. The Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi'khtirāq al-āfāq (translated as "the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands"), most often known as the Tabula Rogeriana, is a description of the world and world map created by the Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, in 1154. Al-Idrisi worked on the commentaries and illustrations of the map for fifteen years at the court of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, who commissioned the work around 1138.
Pasta con le sarde
If pasta alla Norma is the perfect vegetarian Siclian dish, then pasta con le sarde is the fishy equivalent. Fresh sardines, salted anchovy fillets and wild fennel are made into a sauce with distinct flair thanks to the addition of pine nuts, raisins and saffron, before being stirred through bucatini, pipe-like spaghetti. Sometimes white wine or almonds added as well.
Sicilians love street food (Cibo da strada), but nothing here compares with the street culture of Napoli! One of the most famous street food treats in Napoli is arancine (a form of deep-fried rice croquettes). But the truth is that arancine are a Sicilian delicacy. Here in Sicily, arancine are bigger than the ones in Napoli. Arancine are fried or (less often) baked rice balls usually filled with ragù (meat sauce), tomato sauce, mozzarella or peas, and then coated in bread crumbs. Of course, there are more “gourmet” fillings, like pistachios, avocado, etc. Arancino means Little orange, for of its shape and color (because of the saffron used).
Traditional Sicilian pizza is often thick crusted and rectangular, and less often round and similar to the Neapolitan pizza. It is often topped with onions, anchovies, tomatoes, herbs and strong-taste cheese such as caciocavallo and toma. Other versions do not include cheese. The Sicilian methods of making pizza are linked to local culture and country traditions, so there are differences in preparing pizza even among the Sicilian regions. The sfincione (sfinciuni in Sicilian) is a very common variety of pizza that originated in the province of Palermo. Unlike the more familiar Neapolitan pizza, it is typically rectangular, with more dough, sauce and cheese. An authentic recipe often calls for herbs, onion, tomato sauce, strong cheese and anchovies. The sauce is sometimes placed on top of the toppings to prevent it from soaking into the thick dough. In the province of Siracusa, the pizzòlu is a kind of round stuffed pizza. In the province of Catania the traditional scacciata is made in two different ways: a first layer made of dough covered by a local cheese (tuma) and anchovies or by potatoes, sausages, broccoli, and tomato sauce. In both cases a second layer of dough brushed with eggs covers everything. Also in the region of Catania, a typical pizza siciliana is a fried calzone stuffed with cheese and anchovies. In the province of Messina, the traditional piduni is a kind of calzone stuffed with endive, toma cheese, tomato and anchovies. There is also the focaccia alla messinese, prepared with tomato sauce, toma cheese, vegetables and anchovies. In the United States, "Sicilian pizza" is used to describe a typically square variety of cheese pizza with dough over an inch thick. It is derived from the sfinciuni and was introduced in the United States by the first Sicilian immigrants.
In some places (I had some at a restaurant in Ace Castello) they serve something called "Sicilian bread". This is something like a huge Bruschetta: a slice of big loaf, toasted and topped with incredients only your imagination can limit. The bread is not baked with the topping on, which are usually raw.
During my stay in Catania, I had several types of pizza, mainly bought from bakery shops (panificio or ). Certainly it is a matter of taste, but nothing is compared with the pizza I had in Napoli.
Arguably Sicily’s most famous culinary export, caponata is now seen on menus across Europe. But it’s the perfect example of external influences over the island’s cuisine. The recipe can change from household to household, but it must always contain aubergines, pine nuts, raisins and plenty of vinegar. Served at room temperature, usually as an antipasto, the fried aubergine is turned into a stew with celery, onion and tomatoes, before being flavored with capers, olives, pine nuts and raisins. The sweetened vinegar finishes it off with a lovely tang.
Cioccolato di Modica
Chocolate made its way into Europe - through Spain - during the sixteenth century. The granular chocolate made by the Aztecs bore little resemblance to the emulsified product developed in England by John Cadbury in the nineteenth century, but it was the Aztec chocolate that was introduced in Spanish Sicily. The Spaniards ruled the Kingdom of Sicily from the War of the Vespers (in 1282) until the 18th century. Sicily's chocolate-making center was (and still is) Modica, near Ragusa. It was probably a Castilian admiral, Frederick Enriquez, the one who introduced chocolate production in Sicily, as his travels took him to Americas. The process used here is a "cold" process very different from Cadbury's, which used heat. To this day, Modican chocolate adheres to the original Aztec recipe and has a very granular texture. Another Aztec characteristic is the addition of flavors such as vanilla and hot red pepper. Another "condiment" added to Modican chocolate is dried orange rind. Today Sicily is one of the few places where Aztec-type chocolate is made (a firm in Spain has also preserved the tradition). Made from pure cocoa powder, it contains less of the natural fat (cocoa butter and chocolate liquor) and none of the additives of "modern" chocolate except sugar. It its purest form, it is invariably dark and contains no milk. Modican chocolate is readily ground or crushed for flavoring milk or pastries. Grated Modican chocolate is also sprinkled over caponata. If you're a chocolate connoisseur you owe it to yourself to try Modican chocolate at least once. I did… but, to tell you the truth, being used to typical chocolate, at first I thought the chocolate bar I bought had gone off!!! Certainly it is not for me.
Granita, a popular flavored sherbet, is believed to hail from the city too, even though there is no evident proof that it hails from any particular Sicilian city. It is a semi-frozen dessert of sugar, water, and flavorings originally from the island. The most common flavorings are almond, lemon, pistachio, coffee, chocolate. Related to sorbet and Italian ice, in most of Sicily it has a coarser, more crystalline texture. Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten says that "the desired texture seems to vary from city to city" on the island. Both granita and ice cream in Catania are usually served with warm brioche (granita con brioche). The brioche is served on a separate plate, but also popular is the awkward idea of a sliced brioche filled with the ice-cream! Granita con brioche is especially welcome in the baking heat of summer, and you'll often see cafés full of people enjoying this wonderful combination as breakfast before getting ready for the day ahead.
The "Cassata Siciliana" is a traditional Sicilian cake which consists of round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruit, a filling also used with cannoli. Cassata has a shell of marzipan, pink and green coloured icing, and decorative designs. The roots of the cassata date back to the Arab domination in Sicily. The Arabs introduced sugar cane, lemon, bitter orange, mandarin, and almond. Together with the ricotta, which was produced in Sicily since prehistoric times, all the basic ingredients of the cassata were thus brought together, which at the beginning was nothing but a wrap of short crust pastry stuffed with sweetened ricotta and then fired. It will then be put in the freezer for a few hours, to serve as an Ice Cream Cake. Cassata may also refer to a Neapolitan ice cream containing candied or dried fruit and nuts.
Cannoli, the the Sicilians’ pride and joy
Cannoli come from the Palermo and Messina areas and were historically prepared as a treat during Carnevale season, possibly as a fertility symbol. The dessert eventually became a year-round staple in Sicily. Cannoli are very popular in the Italian-American cuisine. Cannoli consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. They range in size from "cannulicchi", no bigger than a finger, to the fist-sized proportions typically found south of Palermo, Sicily, in Piana degli Albanesi. In Italy, they are commonly known as "cannoli siciliani". Cannolo is the singular, meaning "little tube", but in English, cannoli is usually used as a singular, and cannolo is rare. Some similar desserts in Middle Eastern tradition include Zainab's fingers, which are filled with nuts, and qanawāt, deep fried dough tubes filled with various sweets, which were a popular pastry across the ancient Islamic world. The dish and the name may originate from the Muslim Emirate of Sicily.
A zeppola (also known as frittelle) is a pastry consisting of a deep-fried dough ball of varying size but typically about 10 cm. This doughnut or fritter is usually topped with powdered sugar, and may be filled with custard, jelly, cannoli-style pastry cream, or a butter-and-honey mixture. The consistency ranges from light and puffy, to bread- or pasta-like. It is eaten to celebrate Saint Joseph's Day, but of course today can be found and enjoyed every single day of the year.
A Buccellato is a Sicilian circular cake, which contains dry figs and nuts. It is traditionally associated with Christmas in Sicily. It is not to be confused with the distinct, but similar traditional Lucchese cake of the same name, the buccellato (di Lucca), although both are ring-shaped sweet breads that contain candied fruit peels.
Frutta di Martorana
Candy in Sicily was heavily influenced by the Arab candy makers in the 9th century, and Sicilian candy has preserved more of that influence than almost any other place in Europe. Marzipan fruits (Frutta martorana ) may have been invented at the Convent of Eloise at Martorana in the 14th century.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many Sicilian monasteries produced candies and pastries, some with sexual or fertility themes. The only surviving convent to follow this tradition is the Monastery of the Virgins of Palermo, which makes breast-shaped cakes in honor of St Agatha of Sicily.
Cassatella di sant'Agata
The cassatella di sant'Agata is a traditional catanese dessert, which is made during the feast of sant' Agata. The cassatella is in fact a small Sicilian cassata in the shape of a breast, made with sponge cake soaked in rosolio (a type of Italian liqueur derived from rose petals) and stuffed with ricotta, chocolate chips and candied fruit.
On the outside it is covered with white frosting and finished with a candied cherry on top. Most probably, the feast originates in the Isis cult, where a sweet shaped like the bosom of the goddess Isis (a mother goddess) is mentioned. Another parallel is found in the cult of the Eleusinian mysteries, where on the occasion of the Demeter rituals, sweet buns whose appearance reminded the breasts of the goddess (protector of the harvest and also a mother goddess) consumed.
Both the cults are documented in Catania by written sources and by archaeological findings. These cults have influenced the religious festivals of Sant’ Agatha, so the little cake representing the fertility of the mother earth assumes the symbolic value of the act of martyrdom of the saint, whose breasts were amputated.
Crocetta di Caltanissetta
The Crocetta di Caltanissetta is an old sweet produced in Caltanissetta until the end of 1908, then forgotten and recently rediscovered. The Crocetta di Caltanissetta and the “Spina Sacra” are two sweets known as the Sweets of the monastery. They used to be prepared for the Holy Crucifix festivity by the Sisters of the Benedectine Monastery.
This was situated next to the Church of the Holy Cross, from which the sweets take the name. The pastry chef who rediscovered them (plus four women of the neighborhood of the Holy Cross) are the only people who know the recipe of these sweets. The rediscovery was possible after 20 years of research that began with a person living in the neighborhood who remembered how the traditional recipe was passed from mother to daughter over time. The ingredients of the Cross of Caltanissetta are typical of the area of Caltanissetta at the beginning of the last century. They are: almonds, sugar, sweet lemon puree, oranges or other fruit typical of the area, pistachio and powdered sugar. The Crocetta is produced in two variants. One is lemon flavored and covered in powdered sugar. The other one is orange flavored and it has pistachio grind on top.
Cotognata, or Sicilian quince paste, is a modest treat today. But, this preserve, with its high sugar (an extremely expensive commodity at the time) content, was very much a status symbol and luxurious banquet item in medieval Sicily.
The nuns who traditionally boiled these knobbly fruits down to a firm and aromatic paste would often leave them to set in terracotta moulds with crests or religious symbols on them. The word Cotogna (quince fruit) is from Ancient Greek κυδώνιον. Cotognata is made in automn, during the short quince season and once it used to be among the most awaited gifts that Sicilian children would get for “all souls day”.
Pistachios di Bronte
Sicilians are crazy about pistachios (so am I) and they grow their own variety on the rugged lands of Bronte, which grows nowhere else in Europe. It is only here that this huge component of Sicilian gastronomy, the pistachio, acquires such a brilliant emerald green color and such an intense, resinous and full fragrance.
Perched on the steep roads between the Etna volcano and the Park of Nebrodi, Bronte's livelihood depends on pistachios: the people of Bronte grow them, sell them and turn them into sweets, creams and sauces. The pistachio tree, produces its nuts one year and rests the following one: it is during the latter period that the farmers remove the few buds that have sprouted on the branches so that the plant can store all its energy and literally explode with fruits during the following season.
After a two-year wait, the harvest is a crucial time. Between the end of August and the beginning of September, the town is literally empty: everyone works in the "loci" (the local name for the pistachio orchards): women, children and even the elderly. The operation is almost acrobatic: balanced on blocks of lava and holding onto the branches with one hand, with the other they pick the pistachio nuts one by one, dropping them into a canvas bag tied around their necks… Well… all these are good to full the tourists with a romantic soul…but, the reality is that today Italy’s needs of pistachio are largely covered with imports from Iran and Iraq!
The most popular pistachio-based products are the typical “pesto” and the sweet cream (spread). The former is used as a seasoning for pasta or fish (try tasting it with grilled swordfish!), while the latter as a delicious treat, best enjoyed when spread upon a slice of local bread or, at Christmas, for making a green-colored “panettone”. Other delicacies include pistachio ice cream flavor, as well as biscuits, cannoli filling, pistachio-flavored chocolate from Modica and cold cuts. Pasta al pesto di pistacchi is a dish I honored a lot during my stay in Catania.
On its website, GROM, my favorite Italian gelato chain, compares the price of the pistachios to that of “fine jewelry.” No wonder. The beautiful little nuts grown around Bronte is of a variety called Smeraldo, meaning emerald.