Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sicilian Vespas

Well it wasn't actually a Vespa, it was a BMW but I couldn't resist the title. The story begins on a fine morning in Catania, where Roberta and I had just checked out the fabulous vegetable market and wished - not for the first time when visiting a strange city - that we'd rented a little apartment so we could scoop up all that wonderful produce and cook up a storm.

There were great pale green zucchini that looked like writhing snakes, wild strawberries like little splashes of blood, apricots with sunset streaks, polychrome peppers artfully arranged on wire trays in fours and fives, olives in all colours, shapes, sizes and marinades - and venerable scales with brass pans and weights.

The fish market, under the viaduct with trains rumbling overhead, went one better: we marvelled at massive gleaming tuna, coveted calamari at 7 euros a kilo (the week before in L'Escala, Catalunya, I'd baulked at paying 33 euros), saw shrimp of all conceivable sizes (only raw) and fancied mackerel with iridescent, hologram-like skin - all at prices so absurdly low by any standards that it must almost be worth packing your chill bag and boarding a low-cost flight to Catania just to stock up on some of the best, most succulent, freshest fish ever.

By now we were getting peckish. We called up Claudio, a local journalist contact, for tips on where to eat. 'How many of you - just 2?' he asked. 'Meet me at the Piazza Mazzini in 20 minutes, I'll be on my bike - it's a BMW.'

We hung around trying to look nonchalant, discreetly scanning the horizon for every potential journo on a bike with room for two more. Claudio (shaved head à la Agassi, brilliant smile, mwam mwam) hove into view, a single spare helmet on his arm. 'Hop on', he ordered. We clambered aboard, Claudio leading from the front, me in the middle like the prosciutto in the panino (senza helmet - I figured I was safely sandwiched), helmeted Roberta bringing up the rear. We sped off. My stomach stayed in Piazza Mazzini for a few blocks, then caught up with me and I began to enjoy the ride.

Twenty minutes later, after weaving our way through the labyrinthine Catanian streets, we ground to a halt before an anonymous doorway fringed by a beaded curtain. We dismounted and pushed through the beads to find a tumultuous greeting (for Claudio, a regular) and a courteous welcome (for us two hangers-on).

In the kitchen was a bevy of women cooks - la nonna, her daughter and granddaughter and lots of other smiling ladies. We joined our fellow workers (painters in overalls, builders with dusty shoes, businessmen in ties), already tucking into their lunch, at a huge refectory table. At a word from Claudio it started raining antipasti: raw anchovies with herbs and olive oil to which we were permitted to add a squirt of lemon - 'lemon only at table', admonished Claudio, 'otherwise you lose the taste of the sea.'

There were flash-fried fresh sardines, infant red mullet not much bigger than the sardines, shrimp so sweet and succulent that they've certainly spoiled me for shellfish ever after, roasted green peppers in fruity oil, a toothsome caponata with aubergines, potatoes and peppers, all of it served with hunky bread.

Claudio warned us off the brutal house wine ('there are great wines in Sicily, but not here') but when glasses of Zibibbo were pressed upon us by our table neighbours (to go with some of those sunset-streaked fresh apricots), it seemed churlish to refuse. The naturally sweet, pale amber wine was nectar: fruity but not cloying, with wonderful marmalade-y overtones. A real discovery.

I couldn't tell you where we ate - and besides, Claudio swore us to secrecy - beyond the fact that it was flanked by a horse meat butcher and a bathroom fittings shop, opposite a place where they fix punctures and in a 'quartiere molto popolare'. I'd go back tomorrow if I could find it, if only to try the bean soup, or the the fusilli with capers, or even the garlic-laden chunks of roast meat. They'll have to be just a memory, a promise unfulfilled. Better that way.


copyright Sue Style 2006