by Jeremy Dummett
Sicilian food comes with the strong flavours of the southern Mediterranean and is based upon a unique blend of influences from the island’s complex history. The ancient Greeks introduced the Mediterranean diet and in their day the Syracusan table was famous for gourmet eating. Syracuse had the first school for professional chefs and the first recorded cookbook was written by Mithaecus, a Syracusan, in the fifth century BC.
The Arabs, who later ruled Sicily, added a new level of sophistication. They brought rice and pasta, oranges and lemons, aubergines and cucumbers, as well the cane sugar used for making the very sweet cakes and desserts.
Ortygia’s street market
Syracuse still produces a wide variety of high quality food. A walk around the street market in Ortygia gives a rapid idea of what is on offer. Stalls are piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables in brilliant colours, the sunlight diffused by awnings that cover melons, peaches, tomatoes, zucchini, red and yellow peppers, strings of garlic, slices of watermelon and bunches of herbs.
Specialist stalls display sacks of sun-dried tomatoes, barrels of olives, bottles of olive oil, packets of almonds and capers, together with the local cheeses caciocavallo and pecorino fresco.
The fish stalls are the most dramatic with their large tuna and swordfish being sliced up surrounded by a great variety of smaller species including sea bass, prawns, octopus, calamari, sardines, eels and local fish such as arricola and lampuca, depending on the season.
The market is located in Via Emanuele de Benedictus, which is to the left of Piazza Pancali, just over the Umbertino bridge into Ortygia. The first stalls are visible from the road in front of the Temple of Apollo. Opening hours are 8.00 to 14.00, Mondays to Saturdays.
At the far end of Via de Benedictus, on the left by the square facing the sea, is Fratelli Burgio, a quality grocer and producer of local specialities, selling bread, fresh ham, salami and cheese, as well as wine and packaged food, including chocolate from Modica. In the summer a range of appetising snacks is on offer in front of the shop.
For anyone self-catering, there is the opportunity to try a whole range of fresh local produce. Examples of dishes that are easy to cook back at the apartment include fish steaks of tonno (tuna fish) and pescespada (sword fish) or gamberoni (large prawns), fried in their shells in olive oil, then finished in a pan with garlic, lemon juice and parsley. Tuna with peppers (tonno alla siracusana) is a typical local dish. The peppers can be bought in the market already grilled. They just need cleaning and then cooking in the pan with the tuna.
For wine, as well as local produce such as jam and limoncello, try Mangano, who has two shops, one in Via Cavour on the corner of Via Amalfitana, close to Piazza Archimede, and the other at the far end of Via Cavour in an alleyway called Ronco al Bottai. Here you will find quality wines including the local Nero D’Avola (a robust red), Lamùri being one of the best; the sweet Moscato di Siracusa; and Grillo, the white wine favoured by Inspector Montalbano in the novels by Andrea Camilleri. The range of Sicilian wines produced by Planeta is also to be recommended.
For ice cream, visit Voglia Matta, just out of Ortygia on the corner of Via Moscuzza and Corso Umberto. They offer ice-cream in a whole range of flavours and types as well as desserts such as tiramisu and zuccotto, all made on the premises.
Restaurants & trattorias
There are many excellent places to eat in Ortygia, from smart restaurants to inexpensive trattorias, with new ones appearing every year. The speciality is fish of the season which comes in antipasti, with pasta, with couscous (of North African origin) and as a main dish. A characteristic antipasto consists of thin slices of smoked pescespada (swordfish) with fresh anchovies marinated in lemon juice. The famous sweet Sicilian desserts are also on offer.
Everyone has their favourite place, depending upon the occasion. Here are a few suggestions:
Don Camillo, Via delle Maestranze, 96 (T: 0931 671 33)
Reputedly the smartest restaurant in town, a well established favourite among visitors with an elaborate menu.
Darsena da Ianuzzo, Riva Garibaldi, 6 (T: 0931 61522)
Facing the inland waterway with outdoor tables, it offers a buffet of antipasti together with high quality local dishes.
Taberna Sveva, Piazza Federico Svevia 1 (T: 0931 246 63)
Located at the tip of Ortygia near the entrance to the Maniace Castle, this is a relative newcomer fast making a reputation for being among the best restaurants in Ortygia.
Al Mazarì, Via Giovanni Torres, 7/9 (T: 0931 483 690)
Close to Piazza Duomo, this has an intimate atmosphere in an attractive indoor setting. Imaginative dishes with impeccable service.
Il Veliero, Via Savoia, 6 (0931 465 887)
Attractive establishment, not far from the Temple of Apollo, offering a sea view and range of local dishes.
L’Ancora, Via Perno, 7 (0931 462 369)
Speciality fresh pasta, seafood and fresh fish of the day, located towards the far end of the street market.
Antica Locanda, Via Vittorio Veneto, 189 (T: 0931 66343)
Busy family trattoria, to be found at the start of Via Veneto, offering a range of antipasti and fish dishes.
Osteria da Mariano, Vicolo Zuccolà, 9 (T: 0931 67444)
Situated in a narrow lane off Via Capodieci, not far from the Arethusa Fountain, this trattoria offers a change from fish with robust dishes from the Hyblaean Mountains.
In Syracuse there are bars of every size and type, concentrated in Ortygia and around Corso Umberto, from the intimate corner bar to the large establishment with outdoor tables. Most of them offer food as well as drinks and ice cream. Here are some personal favourites:
Gran Caffè del Duomo, Piazza Duomo, facing the entrance to the cathedral.
Enjoy a drink while taking in the view of one of Italy’s most spectacular piazzas, equally impressive by day or night.
Bar del Ponte Cristina, Piazza Pancali, facing the entrance to the open market.
A convenient stopover when visiting the market, Bar Cristina offers everything from morning coffee to aperitivi, a wide variety of snacks, pastries and ice cream. Pasta and rice dishes are available to take away. Look out for arancine (literally little oranges) which are deep fried rice balls with a meat or cheese filling.
Marina Caffè, Foro Vittorio Emanuele, shaded by ficus trees, this bar faces the Great Harbour where the yachts are moored. It is a good place to watch the sun go down behind the hills on the far side of the harbour.