This post is part of a series on 5 weeks of solo travel. Read the introduction here, learn more about what I did in Italy here, and if you’re curious about the costs, you can check out my saving and spending.
Ah Italy. I spent a wonderful week on a farm on the slopes of Mt. Etna, Sicily, working in a vineyard, cooking for my host and the other volunteer, and exploring the area nearby. It was relaxing, fun, challenging, but definitely not the kind of eat-pizza-every-day smorgasbord I’ve heard other people experience. This was by virtue of the way I travelled – on a volunteer work exchange. I was in a somewhat remote area, committed to being on the farm half of the day most days, which didn’t make for a typical touristy holiday. Nevertheless, I did get to try lots of new food! These were my favourite Sicilian eats:
Surprisingly, butter was one of the things that left a lasting impression on me. The kind my host Angelo bought was a very pale yellow, slightly sweet, and felt smooth and light. Although muesli was my breakfast of choice, I often sliced a small piece of bread so that I could start my day with some butter as well. If we brought out bread at lunch time, you better believe I had some, again for the love of butter.
All the fuss I made about the butter amazed Angelo. I don’t think he bought anything special, just an ordinary store brand. Before this trip butter was really only a tool for me, something to enrich bread doughs, make flaky pie crusts and keep my toast from being dry. Now that I have the memory of this Italian butter my opinion has forever changed – it’s a food you can enjoy and appreciate in its own right.
Even before touch down, I was on a mission to have cannoli. The first occasion I’d tried one, somewhere in New York, was underwhelming. I don’t remember where I got it from, only the feeling of disappointment and disbelief. This squishy thing couldn’t be what everyone raved about? What that iconic scene-I’ve-never-seen from the Sopranos was about? So I made it my mission to try again – and turns out Sicily is the birthplace of cannoli!
One evening Angelo needed to go into Catania for a language class – he already speaks 4! – so I tagged along to explore the city. I wandered around the old monastery that’s home to the University of Catania, meandered past an old gladiatorial theatre, browsed the stalls set up for a Christmas market, and on one corner stopped into a bakery that had mini cannoli on its shelves. They were the perfect try-again size. I sat down and finished one in about 3 heavenly bites, then promptly got up and ordered another, plus a mini chocolate cake. The cake – which has a special name I can’t remember – was a little dry, but the second cannolo was as dreamy as the first!
Again, the cannoli shells were surprisingly soft. Looking at them I expect a crunch, because they’re deep fried. But these were a tender/firm texture, a pleasant give before you get to the classic ricotta filling – mellow, sweet and creamy. Maybe if I had them freshly piped they would be crisper, but never mind; from the first bite I was converted. If they’re ever passed around at a party I’ll be that person hovering for another.
Two cannoli plus the cake were enough sweet for me for the night. I returned to my stroll and planned to have at least one more, maybe a chocolate or pistachio flavour, later on in my trip. Sadly, that ended up being the only opportunity I had to have any, but I’m so glad I did. They were delicious.
Angelo let me take the last day of my week off, encouraging me to go to nearby Siracusa or Taormina. After a little research I decided on Taormina, and took a bus there from Catania. The day was sunny and warm, and the ancient town looked like a postcard. I walked around snapping pictures, popping my head into speciality stores and marvelling at the blue blue sky. For lunch I stepped into a small café and bought a square of eggplant and mozzarella pizza. Then I went to another little place for dark chocolate gelato. I walked with it to a bench in the main square, enjoying the cone as I looked out onto the ocean.
Shortly after I sat down two guys walked up and one of them asked if he could sit next to me. I said sure, and we soon got into a conversation. They were medical students who gave themselves the day off and came for granita. They invited me along with them, to the famous Bam Bar. Whoa was I excited – I read about this place in my research! I was full from pizza and sugared from the gelato, but this invitation meant it was clearly fated.
Another Sicilian classic, granita is a sweet, frozen treat; to my mind it’s like a melty daiquiri. It’s not as smooth or firm as sorbet, or creamy like ice cream, although you can get yours served with whipped cream on top. The guys ordered mandarin and strawberry mixes. They told me fruit ones are best, but I asked for an almond and coffee combo. Brioche is the traditional accompaniment for granita, and I couldn’t wrap my head around a fruity daiquiri-like dessert with bread; plus in an earlier conversation Angelo told me almond was his favourite flavour.
We had the place to ourselves, though Bam Bar is apparently cram jam in the summer. There were no other people at the outside tables, and hardly anyone walked by. I tried a bit of the fruit granita but had no regrets about my almond/coffee combo, tucked under a lid of fresh cream. It was delicious and refreshing, and the brioche was warm and light. If I had more time I would have gone back! I don’t know when I’ll be able to have granita again but hopefully there’ll be another occasion at Bam Bar in this lifetime.
At the end of the day Angelo and I met up in one of the villages near his home. Rather than go straight back, he offered to drive me around a bit. We stopped at a few bakeries and he described the sweet and savoury items we saw in the glass cases. They were all filled with Sicilian specialties. Eventually we returned home with some treats we picked up along the way. After sampling arancini, rum soaked cakes and a tube-shaped doughnut that reminded me of gulab jamun, Angelo brought out homemade liqueurs: limoncello and cinnamoncello.
Limoncello was another thing I’d had once before and found awful. That first one was very strong, with an artificial lemon flavour. I couldn’t have more than one sip. The memory made me hesitant to try Angelo’s, but surprise surprise, his was smooth and delightfully lemony. He’d also made a cinnamon version, which I’d never heard of before. The cinnamoncello was my favourite of everything we tried that night, hands down. It was as you might imagine – a concentrated cinnamon flavour, slightly sweet and spicy, but very smooth. The liqueur felt a little syrupy on my tongue, but in the best way. Move over limoncello! I don’t know why cinnamoncello isn’t a thing, and I don’t even think of myself as a cinnamon person.
So there you have it! My favourite Sicilian eats. I hardly scratched the surface of their many dishes, and when I think of how diverse Italian cuisine is in general it boggles my mind. If you’ve been to Italy, what were some of your food favourites? I have to go back, there’s just so much else to eat!