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Eating well in Syracuse

By Jeremy Dummett
(from his book on the city's history and monuments,
Syracuse, City of Legends: A Glory of Sicily).

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Sicilian food comes with the strong flavours of the southern Mediterranean and is based upon a unique blend of influences from the island’s long history.

The ancient Greeks introduced the Mediterranean diet and in their day the Syracusan table was famous for gourmet eating.

The Arabs, who ruled Sicily in the 10th century, added a new level of sophistication. They brought rice and pasta, oranges and lemons, aubergines and cucumbers, as well as cane sugar, used for making the very sweet cakes and desserts.

Syracuse still produces a wide variety of high quality food. A walk around the outdoor 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, oranges and lemons, slices of red watermelon and bunches of herbs.

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 arriciola and lampuca, depending on the season.

Specialist stalls display sacks of sun-dried tomatoes, honey, barrels of olives, bottles of olive oil and the local cheeses, caciocavallo and pecorino fresco.

Renting an apartment provides the opportunity to try a whole range of fresh local produce. Examples of delicious dishes, easy to cook back at the apartment, include fish steaks of tonno (tuna) or pescespada (swordfish) and gamberoni (large prawns), a kilo for 3 to 4 people, fried in their shells in olive oil, then finished in a pan with garlic, lemon juice and parsley.

Tuna fish cooked 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.

The market is located in via Emanuele De Benedictis, which is to the left of Piazza Pancali, just over the Umbertino bridge into Ortygia. The first stalls are visible from the footpath by the Temple of Apollo. Opening hours are 8.00 to 14.00, Mondays to Saturdays.

At the end of via De Benedictis, on the left adjoining the square facing the sea, is Fratelli Burgio, an alimentare selling bread, ham, salami, cheese and wine. Specialities include the local jam, especially orange, lemon or apricot and the chocolate from Modica. They also stock a range of wine, for example the local Nero D’Avola (a robust red), Moscato di Noto (a dessert wine) and the wines of Planeta, a Sicilian producer of high quality.

For cooked dishes to take away, the Bar del Ponte Cristina in Piazza Pancali is worth a visit. Depending on the day, a baked pasta dish, pizza or couscous is usually available. It is also a pasticceria making ricotta cake, almond biscuits and much more. Look out for arancine (literally little oranges) which are deep fried balls of rice with a meat or cheese filling, a Sicilian speciality found in many bars.

For ice cream, Voglia Matta, 34 Corso Umberto, over the bridge from Ortygia, offers a selection of types and flavours, together with tiramisù, zuccotto and other desserts.