Palermo isn’t really merda even though it looks like someone in Catania thinks one of their sports team is. But this made me giggle as I picked up on a little bit of rivalry between Catania and Palermo, Sicily’s two biggest cities. Palermo is on the north coast of Sicily towards its western edge; Catania is on Sicily’s eastern shore close to the tip of Italy’s boot. As we drove into Catania, my boyfriend and I were feeling a LA vibe, most likely from the mountains, the sun, the sea, the wide swath of smooth highway we drove in on, bridged by overpasses and flanked by houses perched on hills. As the sun was setting we pulled into our hotel. We checked in and headed to our room. It was disappointing. Or we can just call it gross. The smell coming from the sink drain was so merda that we had to keep the stopper pulled tight so the fumes didn’t leak out and choke us as we slept. We kept the bathroom door closed for extra protection. The positive of having an absolutely grim hotel room is that it forces you to never be there, instead you explore the city until exhaustion forces you to return, pass out in your bed while not looking too closely at anything your body touches.
In the morning, we ventured back out to explore Catania. First stop – its famous fish market. To get there, we headed down Via Etnea until we came across a large piazza with a Duomo and a large statue of a somewhat anatomically correct elephant. The story is that the statue was built without any anatomical correctness. The local men found this to be such an affront (such a great word) to their virility that the statue was amended to be anatomically correct. But the fix doesn’t look wholly correct – maybe I know nothing of elephants? (I will not google what an anatomically correct elephant looks like.) At the east end of the piazza, a fountain with a statue of Neptune signals the entrance to Catania’s fish market. Also, the congregation of old Italian men with bags of fresh provisions also signaled that a market was near. There’s more than fish here but that’s the main draw. You can get everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, to every kind of meat and offal. It’s packed with people, there’s tons of shouting, everything being sold is eye catching: it’s totally thrilling.
This is the pit of the fish market. These fishmongers mean business. I was a bit intimidated to step into the thick of it thinking that a tourist like me (and my camera) wouldn’t be too welcome. I’m obviously not there to buy, just to browse. But everyone was, of course, friendly and let me snap away; a Buon Giorno! and a smile go a long way. This pit held maybe about half of the fishmongers. There were more fish vendors under the arch and through to the other side of the building and even more fishmongers continued around the far corner of the building. Eels, skates, octopi, squid, swordfish, mackerels, mullet, and so many odd little sea creatures I couldn’t name were all for sale.
The market snaked off onto side streets and alleys. Fruit and vegetable stands, so many of them, full of eggplant (melanzane), peppers (pepperoni), oranges (arancini), cauliflower (cavolfiore) but purple! (porpora!), and tomatoes (pomodori), were crammed next to butchers of all kinds. Tripe, intestines (I think), and other long, drapey, innards hung from hooks at butchers’ stands. Some vendors were hyper specific, like the lemon guy. That’s all he sold and why not with all the fish for sale and Italians’ penchant for simple flavours especially with seafood. There was the parsley boy. He was young, about 10 or 12. He weaved around the fishmongers stands, approaching their customers so politely, asking if anyone wanted fresh parsley (prezzemolo). He was so polite I was almost inclined to buy some from him. Maybe it would have freshened up our stinky hotel bathroom.
A bridge marks the most eastern edge of the market; the vendors keep to west side of the bridge. We ventured past the bridge and found guys selling stuff out of the back of their cars. Check out the loot this guy was selling from the trunk of his car. These are not knock offs. A random guy walking out of the market was giving this guy some serious accusatory heat, like this guy was selling stuff illegally outside the market gates (that’s my theory anyway since I didn’t understand what they were yelling about). If they were to fight, my money would have gone on octopus guy. That eight legged tentacled thing would be a reckoning if used as a weapon.
That guy in the corner? I had the same look on my face as I took this picture.
After the fish market, we kept exploring. We strolled back up Via Etnea to Vincenzo Bellini Park. Long, wide steps led us to the top of the hill in the park. I thought that would be the end of the park but it extended along meandering paths for a few city blocks. Some of the pathways in the park looked like this, a mossy green, black and white mosaic underfoot:
This mosaic was one of my favourite things that I saw in Catania. I loved that something so artful was was meant to be tread on, that whoever created it thought that visitors to the park deserved to have something so pretty just to walk on. There was a section of the park that had tons of statues of Italian notables. I turned to my boyfriend and said “let’s see how many we know.” I was looking for an opportunity to show off how Italian I had become. I didn’t recognize a single notable. Three months in Italy does not an Italian make.
Time for lunch. The thought of a big lunch didn’t do anything for us. I read about a little place called Millefoglie, a vegetarian restaurant. I am so not a vegetarian and initially I thought there was no way I was wasting a meal at a vegetarian restaurant but after so many big meals my body begged me to at least check it out. I popped my head in. It was completely charming. Inside were only about ten tables, some tables were longer than others and meant for communal dining. There was no menu, just the daily specials listed on a chalk board. Flyers for art and music shindigs were plastered all over one of the walls. This looked like a place I would love to have in my own neighborhood. Fresh baked goods for dessert, on pretty cake stands, were lined up on the counter. The tables were all full of locals (not a tourist in sight!) but there was a spot for two at a communal table. We squeezed in and found ourselves sitting next to Giacomo, a local graphic designer and artist, who spoke excellent English. He eats there everyday and is treated like a dear friend by the owners. You should have seen the friendly but fierce tussle when Giacomo tried to pay for his lunch. Giacomo designed some of the flyers for art and music events that were hanging on the wall. The owner didn’t speak English very well so he entrusted Giacomo to walk us through the menu on the wall. My boyfriend had the pasta with broccoli rabe and cherry tomatoes and I had a couscous with a squash and chickpea stew that had a nice spicy kick. For dessert, a chocolate pear cake and a couple of espressos. Tutto delizioso!
After Giacomo helped us navigate the menu, our chit chat turned to Catania. How do we like it? What have we seen? We like it very much. It’s so lively! We told him about the amazing fish market and our stroll through Vincenzo Bellini Park. Giacomo lit up when I mentioned the park. He asked me if I saw the beautiful mosaic pathways. Before he could properly finish his sentence, I jumped in and said Yes!! So beautiful! I took photos – have a look! We looked through my photos together (like the one above), oohing and ahhing. Jaciomo mentioned that the whole park was lined with these mosaic paths but most were ripped out when the city got money from the EU for ‘improvements.’ We, now Kindred Spirits over these mosaics, were both vexed by lousy bureaucrats who took money for ‘ so-called improvements’ and had no appreciation for public art.
Before we left Millefoglie, we asked Giacomo if he could recommend a place for dinner that night. He told us about a place MM!! in the fish market. He made the logo for the restaurant and is friends with the owners. He was worried that we wouldn’t get a table since we didn’t have a chance to make a reservation yet. But, he said, since it’s a Monday and if you go early enough, you shouldn’t have a problem getting a table. So….what’s early enough? Giacomo told us to go around 10pm. My boyfriend and I start laughing – that’s pretty late for us. When you said early we thought we should go around 7pm. He said, half jokingly, that eating at 7pm is really just a late lunch. We sucked it up and waited until 10pm to have dinner. It was worth the wait.
MM!! was an old butcher shop (macelleria) that now houses a restaurant in its converted storefront. (The same family still owns the place.) The walls are marble and there are meat hooks still hung around the room. They know meat and make their own sausages. They know fish, too. That famous fish market is literally a few feet from its front door. The owners select fresh seafood daily from their neighboring fishmongers. The husband cooks in the back and the wife serves customers out front. There’s no menu, the wife lists off what they have that day. I understood the meat selections. I understood most of what the fish specials were. Except one. I ask in Italian what it is in English. She hesitates. I start listing off some fish names in English. She shakes her head no at each one. Ah! It comes to her. Red Mullet! When she finally remembered the right word and I understood her, I could tell she wanted to do a fist pump. I’ve been there – floundering in a foreign language and lo and behold, my brain comes through and I can communicate. I should have high-fived her success. There were a few freshly made sausages. We picked the simplest one – just ground pork with salt and pepper. The sausages were so flavourful even though they only had the most basic three ingredients for a sausage. From the fish selection, we picked the grilled red mullet. The fish was served whole, with garlic, parsley and lemon. I loved this meal.
I might not know any historically notable Italians from my three months in Italy but I have learned a bit of what makes Italian food so amazing: the best ingredients treated simply. An abundance of flavour doesn’t need to come from piling on stuff. These dishes were so flavourful because the ingredients were quality and fresh.