Friday, March 27, 2009

comfort food in Catania

Its name is Cristaldi and although it is somewhat of an institution in Catania, it is a new discovery for me. No surprise there, for like most things about this place, it takes me time to find mine own way. 

Cristaldi is a speciality market that carries international and hard to find food items, including an all American section. We're talking Aunt Jemima pancake mix, brown sugar and even cans of Campbell soup!

Here are some of the other highlights that caught my eye during my first visit.

The UK section: an impressive array of nice biscuts and real English tea. I was especially excited about the entire wall of loose leaf teas of all types.

The large Asian food section, including the full range of Indian spices. I was having a hard time just finding cumin up until now.

Unusual fresh produce: my hunt for cilantro (for my homemade guacamole fix) is what brought me here to begin with. I was very unlucky as it wouldn't be delivered until later that day. (See that picture above? That is what I am dreaming of making for my next meal. Recent attempts minus the cilantro just aren't doing it for me. I know I should just get some seeds and grow my own).  

What came home with me: Despite the lack of cilantro, I did not go home empty handed--brown sugar, corn tortillas, tobasco sauce, a small packet of cumin and walker's shortbread quickly filled my basket. 

And I finally found cream of tartar, not at Cristaldi but at the organic Bio market I've been shopping at for months in Catania! Some how I missed it all this time. Now I have to figure out a buttermilk substitute to make some scones. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Roma eats

My sister and her family will be visiting Italy this summer. For her two boys and husband, it will be a first and they will be making must see stops in Florence and Rome before heading down to Sicily. Of course I offered to help with their itinerary and have been enjoying doing some research and keeping a lookout for good finds. 

So, I was excited when I came across this NY Times article about Roman trattorias. It has been awhile since I lived in Rome and it is great to discover new places.  And although I did live there for four years, the places written up in the article are all new to me. Our own neighborhood trattoria, which was very much like those described in the article, sadly closed down soon after we moved there. 

Any romans out there want to add their two cents about the restaurants reviewed in the article or to give a new entry to the list of best Roman trattorias?

P.S. The photo was taken from the roof terrace of our apartment in Rome and is a view of basilica San Giovanni in Laterno.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

marzo pazzo

This is a typical sky these days in the month of 'crazy March'--thick clouds moving swiftly across the sky, patches of light and dark creating dramatic contrasts, crystal clear views across the sea to the tip of Siracusa. Marzo pazzo means you never know what the weather will be from one minute to the next. Fickle and unpredictably beautiful.  

Friday, March 20, 2009

Indoor play fun in Acireale

A new place to bring the little one to play. Indoors. Its name--Cocomambo--implies that and much more. In fact, it  can also be rented out for birthday parties, has a space used for latin and caribbean dance lessons for grown ups, and serves food and drink.

The basic setup is a typical Italian bar out front, with a large, high-ceilinged, sock-only space in the back filled with soft, bouncy play equipment. That's the area I was happy to learn about through this word of mouth discovery. 

Included in the 2 Euro for 15 minutes, 3 Euros for 30 min, 4 Euros for an hour price is a nice young lady who will play with your kid. If my little one was older he might have been very happy playing with this young 'teacher' like the other little girl we met that day, while her parents were in the cafe relaxing with a cup of coffee. Since adults are not allowed on the play equipment, my little one was fine with me cheering him on from the sidelines while the 'teacher' and other little girl lead him through the mazes, up and down the slides, on the trampoline, you get the idea---a lot of running, laughing, screaming and climbing. Pure soon-to- be 2 (years old) energy release. 

Great fun for the little one, a little break for mommy, and a new place to add to my things to do with kids in the area list. Especially on a rainy day.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Catania cool

photo credits: light line

Date night.

Dinner at the Japanese restaurant Oxidiana for some decent sushi made by two young Japanese chefs. 
Hip, crowded scene. 
The sound of English speakers (this place is popular amongst the Sigonella crowd I hear and the restaurant manager is American as well). 
Am I really in Sicily?

After dinner drinks at Bonu'. They call themselves a design bistro with lunch, brunch, happy hour & store.
This was a first. Hubby had been taken here on a solo visit years ago and he suddenly remembered it.
Modern high rise. Steps going down into a long outdoor corridor filled with tables, candlelight, smokers. 
Inside a series of connected rooms, all different, all funky. Long bar, artsy chairs, buffet treats, another scene. 
And scattered throughout this funky interior are funky things to buy. A little boutique in a bar. 
We browsed, we sat, we sipped, we chatted (I'll have to go back for some buying). 

Felt like old times. Just the two of us. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ognina 2

The beautiful weekend weather gave us an opportunity to make another family trip to the Ognina seafood market on Sunday (more info about this area here). We had the usual fun walking along the port, taking in the gritty sites and smells, and listening to the entertaining shouts of the fisherman hawking their catches in loud competing slogans: "anchovies for only 5 euros a kilo, costs less than a packet of cigarettes!", to which an equally feisty onlooker responded, "yeah, and they won't kill you!"

I am happy these hard working men manage to have a sense of humor, as in this context there is clearly nothing romantic about making a living as a fisherman. The man I captured in the photo above was thrilled to see me take out my camera and proudly held up his impressive catch for me to see with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his clear blue eyes. It was a nice moment.

We also found some new territory away from the crowds, puddles and fishy smells and ended up spending most of our time in this cozy extension of the main port, just under the overpass. Here we had a visit from the Ognina ducks, close up views of a small octopus brought in by a fisherman, and explored the sandy shoal packed with small fishing boats, more fun for toddler climbing than any jungle gym. 

I was able to sneak away from bambino and admire two examples of the intricately painted boats that I love so much and stood out from the crowd of the more usual blue and white painted boats. I know nothing about the tradition of Sicilian boat decorating, but am curious to find out more. Who does these paintings? A group of talented fisherman? From the few I have seen, the edges of these more elaborate boats are usually trimmed with variations of the same geometric patterns based on stripes, triangles and dots in reds, greens, yellows and blues, and the prow of the boat usually has a mermaid figure blowing a horn on one side and a figure of San Giovanni on the other. This one also has an eye (an evil eye perhaps?) and a bouquet of flowers. They are usually dated (this one was painted in 1982).

We also walked under the overpass to the not special but still entertaining playground in front of the pretty little Ognina church. And before we knew it, it was time to go home for lunch. 

I should mention our purchases that would be our lunch--two types of sea snails that were absolutely delicious (the small ones were sauteed with oil, garlic and parsley, the large ones were cooked in a tomato sauce with garlic and parsley). On the weekends there is usually a man with a large grill set up on the side of the road in Ognina and this Sunday was no exception --we picked up grilled artichokes and peppers, and a chicken roasted on a wood fire. Another wonderful (and easy!) Sunday feast.  

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Capomulini for a Sicilian lunch

Capomulini is another one of those perfect little fishing villages that dot my stretch of the Sicilian coast. It is among the nearby towns that we frequent often, mainly for family lunches at the wonderful seafood restaurant, il Porticciolo, which, based on my father-in-law's knowledge of the best seafood restaurants in the area, I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a meal of frutti di mare in an idyllic, relaxed setting right on the water.

Capomulini (tranlsation, 'the windmill cape') itself is tiny and feels secluded since it is reached from a very narrow road that shoots down to the coast from the SS114. Few houses, several restaurants and a lovely little port with a small stretch of sandy beach, a cement parking lot and large lava boulders is what awaits you, with the highlight being the crystal clear water and spectacular view of the Ciclopi and Lachea islands viewed from a different angle than what we see from home. 

Yesterday's lunch was a welcome treat with our newly arrived sunny, yet still coolish days making any chance to sit near the water and take in the lovely views a joy. The food was wonderful and typical for such gatherings with my in-laws--sea urchins eaten in many forms (raw straight from the shell, as a bruschetta topping, and as a sauce for spaghetti), abalone and scampi also eaten from their shells, and little shrimp and 'neonati' (newborn fish) dressed with olive oil, lemon and red pepper flakes, and finally grilled lobster followed by fresh wild strawberries. Yes, they are gluttons for seafood and after many such lunches, I too have become one!

About three hours later my sore bottom and full belly were crying out for a walk along the water. The slight breeze and cool air did me good and gave me a chance to snap a few pictures from my cell phone (how could I have forgotten my camera?), the best of which you see above.
And yes, that is lovely Mt. Etna that you see in the background, looking absolutely perfect on this sunny day with its white snow cap still seeming large. 

I should also mention that although we left our little one at home (he naps when others lunch), this restaurant is not a bad place for kids since there is plenty of room for roaming and fun to be had down by the water during moments of restlessness. That said, we got home just in time to scoop my son up from his afternoon nap. The rest of the day felt a bit longer than usual (a little wine goes a long way with me!) but it was well worth it for the Capomulini experience. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ionian Turquoise

The sea is such a spectacular color today I had to take a picture. Normally the water along this part of the Sicilian coast is a deep blue. Rarely have I seen it look so crystalline and turquoise and it is just amazing! I feel lucky to be able to see the water from my house and I climbed up to the roof to get as much blue in the camera as possible. The air is crisp and breezy, the sun is shining and almost warms you up enough to take off the coat, the sea is flat and sparkling. Spring is definitely arriving! If only my son's never ending cold would go away so we could start out on some long-awaited spring adventures...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Mainland

Some days more than others I really feel like I am living on an island.

The incredible view we caught to the north this past weekend was a simple reminder of this fact. In the picture above you can clearly see the craggy outline of Taormina on the left which appears to be meeting the toe of Italy, otherwise known as Reggio Calabria, on the right. I am always surprised to realize how close these two masses of land really are, as we don't usually get such views from where I live.

I do find living on an island to be special, which must have something to do with all that coastline, views like the one I saw this weekend, crazy island winds and the like. Come spring, I also find the scent of the air on an island to be special too. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

discover beautiful Giarre

The first time I was driven through Giarre on the way to somewhere else, I had one of those moments in which I asked myself why I had never been here before. It just looked so inviting and worthy of exploration. Even from the highway I could see Giarre has a lovely atmosphere created by a well-preserved historic character, some unusual old churches, piazzas, and Art Deco architecture, numerous appealing shops selling eye-catching hand crafted items like wrought iron, pottery and antique furniture, and long avenues that frame incredible views of the sea to the east and Etna to the west (as in the photo above). 

This desire to see a bit more of Giarre is what made us go there for my first visit to the place one afternoon some months ago for one of our spontaneous lunches senza bambino. We had no idea where to go and had to ask at a local bakery for some advice. We discovered there were slim pickings at Giarre; even though it seems like a big enough and busy enough town, apparently it is not a place for restaurants. 

We were told we had just two choices. The first one was in a modern section of the city and based on superficial appearances alone, did not even tempt us to get out of the car to look at a menu. The second one was more of what we had in mind, a small trattoria, La Tavernetta, located just off the main road in the center of town. It serves traditional local dishes in a low key environment and filled up to maximum capacity within 10 minutes of our having sat down. At the time we took this as a good sign, even though it may simply have been because this is the only inviting restaurant in town.

Needless to say, we did have a good, basic lunch with a notable house appetizer plate and excellent fresh macaroni pasta. However, I feel obliged to mention a negative review a dentist living in Giarre has given of the place after the fact.  Maybe I wouldn't make a special trip to Giarre to eat at this restaurant again, but if I did find myself hungry in Giarre neither I nor my truly Italian husband would hestitate to go back for another meal.

My second visit to Giarre happened this past weekend and we did not go for food, but for a family outing to the town's aquarium. I have to thank Jill of Sicilian Simplicity for having written about the aquarium in her blog. I had no idea it existed despite my numerous efforts to find kid friendly activities in the area. My husband as well as other long time Catanese residents we call friends also had never previously heard about the place. Am I not getting creative enough in my attempts to find fun things to do with kids? Do I know the wrong people? Or is this just a case of poor advertising? 

Don't know the answers to my questions just yet, but what a great discovery! The aquarium is small but sweet and was so much fun for all. We had the place entirely to ourselves which was fantastic for our son who could run around as he pleased. It has two floors full of small and large fish tanks, with the local mediterranean water life a particular highlight. It was interesting to be able to examine and fully appreciate the sea creatures we normally see when snorkeling in the controlled environment of a fish tank. And there were even mori eels, lobsters and an octopus! The aquarium has a functional website that gives detailed information about everything you can find inside and more that should be checked out by anyone interested.

Just the right amout of time later for toddler time (under an hour), we were done with the aquarium. But, to our surprise, our trip didn't end here. Driving through Giarre in order to get back to the highway, we lucked out and discovered a gorgeous landmark establishment, Fabbrica Finocchiaro, that has been specializing in the art of making chocolates since it opened in 1914. The building's Art Deco interior is exceptional and there are numerous nooks including an outdoor garden for enjoying a tea or coffee or a sampling of their chocolates (we brought a box home and have been in chocolate heaven since). Afer the fact, I found their website (unfortunately only in Italian) which will make anyone in the area who has not been their yet want to make a trip to Giarre, and they even serve breakfast and have occasional piano concerts in the evenings.

The final quick stop we made on the way home was to purchase a terracotta piggy bank we noticed on our way in, an eye catching display item in front of one of the artisanal shops along the highway. I said it was for my son, but have since realized I like it so much that it may really be for me! Only foreseeable problem with this piggy bank--no way to retrieve the coins without breaking open the piggy :(. My husband says that's the whole point of this type of piggy bank, but I don't think I'll ever want to break it and I don't think my son will be very happy when he can't easily get his coins back! On the brighter side, this could provide an excellent excuse to go back to Giarre for a replacement piggy, and of course, another visit to our new discoveries. 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

in Sicily? eat gelato!

I chuckled when I read Valerie from 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree quote the well known saying that 'the further south you go, the better the coffee gets'. From her perspective in the Naples area, that saying is no doubt true. But down here in Sicily we are a long way from the amazing coffee culture of that region. Not that the coffee here is bad, just never as good as what I've sampled in Naples and possibly even Rome. 

But, if you use that same line of thinking for a different food subject, that of gelato, for instance, I think I would have to shout YES! CORRECT! RIGHT ON! 

Down here in Sicily I have tasted the most incredible gelato. I am sure this topic could be (and has been) hotly debated. This is a personal and subjective proclamation. And, as with most of the things I discuss here, I am no expert on the subject of gelato, I can only tell you that my taste buds have experienced the greatest delight over certain gelatos I have had the fortune of savoring here in Sicily.

One that comes to mind and that I posted on here is the pistachio flavored gelato produced in the town of Bronte. This area cultivates and sells pistachio in every conceivable form. Its pistachio gelato is packed full of creamy flavor that may be unique as it is created in the very place that is producing the main ingredient. 

But the whole reason I felt the need to share my gelato point of view is the mouth watering fun had on our recent outing to one of the top gelateria of Catania, Bar Ernesto. Although I am naturally drawn to fruit flavors, I have learned from my husband and now tend to pick the flavors that are most indigenous to this area and reflect the seasonal offerings. This boils down to choosing the flavors that have the greatest potential to be made from 100% fresh and locally produced ingredients. 

At Ernesto's this time of year that means our flavors of choice are ricotta (yes, as in the cheese) and the house speciality, cannella (cinnamon), with pistacchio close behind in third place. When tasting these flavors it is as if you are eating the real thing, just improved by the sweet, creamy and cold wonderfulness known as gelato. These flavors may sound strange, but I can assure you they are absolutely wonderful and absolutely Sicilian.

Given my passion for fruit flavors, I have to mention that come warmer months I will be strictly ordering fig, prickly pear and wild strawberry flavored gelato.