catania, sicily (plus a little florence)

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Espresso.  Granita.  The Catholic Church.  Scooters.  Lemons.  Oranges.  Bellisima.

I did not go to Catania simply to travel and make a guide, however, I spent a lot more time there than I thought I would, so here is a little guide of some places to go to.

This trip was my first to Italy.  I am usually not the type of person to believe the hype.  Ever since I can remember Italy has been hyped up, nearly everyone goes there for vacation and everyone loves Italian food.  I now understand why.  The majority of my time was in Sicily with a couple of days in Florence, so my experience is not all of Italy but there is really something amazing about the food in Italy no matter what part you are in, everything is so good.  They really care about their food, about where it comes from and how it is prepared.  Especially wine and cheese.  I still don’t understand how the simplest dishes can taste so good, and so much better in this country.

Before I rave about Sicily, here is my experience on mainland Italy – Florence.

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Florence was so touristy!  But it is worth it.  If you go to Florence, go to the other side of the river and wander around also, it was super chill there.  And it really is a breathtaking place, I feel like if I would have spent more time there I would have seen the different sides through the tourist parts.  It is so classy.  It’s classy without even trying to be classy, they like invented class.  It’s culture and beauty and life.  Around every corner awaits something old and beautiful and there is this ease in the people and their way of life.  I would go back.

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A lot of restaurants in the city are only open for lunch or only for dinner.  In general the food in Florence is heavy, the most famous being the Florentine Steak.  When you are here, eat local.  Don’t eat seafood, because it probably comes from Sicily (unless you are not going to Sicily, then eat it, it’s not that far away), but their specialty is meat, using all parts of the animal.  Drink Tuscan wine.  And we always went for the paté.

Here are some favorite places:

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Le Volpi e l’Uva – I marked this place after seeing it on Emiko Davies’ blog.  And I am pretty sure we had the best wine here from our whole trip.  Everything they have there comes from really small wineries, where they don’t even have to say they are organic or natural, you just know it is the real deal.  They also have little plates of food, and it is kind of hidden from the touristy parts.

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Fiaschetteria Nuvoli – Fiaschetteria means wine shop, and there are lots of these little eateries everywhere.  I don’t remember how we found this one, but we liked it so we went back a second time.  It is not just wine and it is pretty close to the main square.  It is simple food, quick service.  We had some tripe that was slow roasted with vegetables and some delicious herb sauce, I didn’t think I would like tripe (I’ve only had it in soup and tacos), but they prepared it in a way that was delicious.  Like many places in Italy, courses matter, here it was a bit more laid back which we appreciated that.

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Piazza Santo Spitio – a plaza on the other side of the river that was super chill and cute, a great place to have a espresso or a Spritz.

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Trattoria Del Carmine – In general we liked trattorias, it’s more family, home cooked type of food, not fancy.  This place was old school.  If you don’t order courses you are looked down upon.  Our waiter only spoke Italian and I was having trouble making up my mind looking at an only Italian menu, and he seemed to be a bit annoyed.  I was also trying to not eat so much meat, which was stupid because that is what you do when you are in Florence.  He suggested the rabbit and I regret it to this day I didn’t get it, I bet it was delicious.  The steaks are super affordable, get a steak, if not here look for another small trattoria that is only open for dinner.  This place was open more often and that is why we ended up there.  We were in Florence during a Sunday and Monday, which are not good days for restaurant hopping.

Now on to Sicily.

Ok before I went to Sicily I must say I read a really strange book called Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini.  It kind-of imprinted in my mind what Sicily is without even using too many words.  It’s short, I recommend to read it if you go (maybe even on the plane), you will have a more unique experience.

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My first walk on Italian soil was Catania.  As the small plane from Frankfurt made it’s way to the island you could see Mt. Etna, the volcano that defines Sicily and especially Catania.  In some ways Catania is a dirty little city.  The Baroque buildings scattered around the city actually look dirty, and that is because Catania was built on a volcanic eruption.  But that is also what makes it unique.  Catania is the second largest city in Sicily (some say it is bigger because a lot of people live more outside the main part), but it still feels like a small town.  You start to see the same homeless people, you see a guy walking eating a danish and then later see him selling something on the street.  We walked around and ended up walking in circles because it’s just not that big.  I am not sure if we would have like Catania as much without our French tour guide.  My fiancé was taking care of some art stuff while we were here and we had a French man who lives in Sicily as our guide unexpectedly.  He loves Sicily and actually hates France, especially Paris.  And he knew all the best spots.

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When in Sicily you eat local which means seafood, oranges, fennel, artichokes and much more.  And Sicilian wine, it is strong, but because of the volcanic soil it is complex and abundant.  Eat dessert, Sicily is known for it’s dessert, like granita, marzipan and we must not forget, the holy cannoli.

Here are some of my favorite Catania spots:

First is breakfast.  Breakfast in Sicily is a pastry, and then cappuccino (or espresso).  You only have a cappuccino in the morning, so that afternoon drink has to be espresso.  Cappuccio in Italian means hood, and cappuccino means small hood, thought to have been inspired by capuchin monks (who wear brown hoods). The pastry can be simple, but it will most likely be filled with cream or jam, some even eat a brioche with gelato.

Pasticceria Savia – This place is old school, as many of the pastry shops are. There are a number of newer ones though that are a bit fancy.  Sit here and have a nice little breakfast and head over to the the park right across the street.

Then what to see? Go to the fish market and the main square.  Right across from the main Cathedral is another small church that you can go to the top of, do that, we spent probably 1 hour up there watching a funeral procession for a firefighter and just enjoyed the view along with some German tourists who parked up there for a card game.

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Just wander around. Get a bibite, an Italian soda, at one of the little stands.  And another espresso of course. Go to the University area, a nice place to stroll.

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Catania is totally Sicily.  It’s raw and it’s rough. Sicilians are a little tougher, they are intense, but can be very nice at the same time.  They might look at you like who are you and what are you doing here.  If there is still a big mafia influence we didn’t see it, no need to worry about that anymore it seems.  There are flee markets, where immigrants sell bootleg clothes, or just thrift items.  People drive not dangerous but without a real order.   It’s not your typical tourist place.  I heard the monastery is nice, we didn’t make it because we were busy with other things.  The beaches have little walk ways, and are nice in the summer.  And you must go to Mt. Etna, another one we didn’t get to. Overall Catania is a real place with real people.  So if that is your thing, then it’s a really cool unique place.

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Where to eat:

People go out later in Sicily, it’s always better to go earlier if you think it will be a crowded day.

Tratorria La Norma – This was our hosts favorite place.  They knew him well when we went, and the people were so nice!  They are a bit more relaxed again when it comes to ordering courses.  But the portions are not huge, they are just enough so get a little of everything, it’s fresh and simple.  Their table wine is very good, it comes a bit cold and is super fresh, and so is the olive oil.  Also my favorite dessert was here.  Just a simple lemon cake and almond and pistachio semifreddo.  And they gave us the most amazing homemade coffee liquor at the end of our meal, I mean, I gotta learn to make it, I’ve never had anything like that, so good!

Trattoria Da Nuccio – The kind of place you look for: simple, locals, fresh, the owner serves you.  Again, having a guide was nice because sometimes these places only have things written in Italian, but who cares, go anyway.  Order whatever fresh fish they have, table wine and some pasta.  You can’t go wrong when there is a table of 8 Sicilian men in the back having a good time.

Al Vicolo Pizza & Vino – This place has a wait, but it is so very good.  We were there during Easter and there is a small church up the street people visited, and there are chairs all along the sidewalk.  It is only open for dinner, and when you walk by during the day you might not even notice it.  Get pizza, any kind is good and maybe some Nero d’Avola.

And before you leave go to:

Enoteca Regionale di Sicilia – This little unassuming shop is awesome.  We wanted to take back some local wine and olive oil, because they just do it better in Sicily.  At first we walked past but then came back and decided to go into it.  The woman who owns this shop is so passionate and beautiful.  Go and ask her questions and she will tell you all the wonders of Sicily and what to get.  Such a treat on our last day.

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Overall, Italy is great, it is refined it is seasoned, it knows it’s good.

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Sicily is great because it has a little bit of everything.  It has mountains and beaches and dry areas.  It has small little villages tucked in here and there.   It has space for something still, and that is always exciting.

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