Saturday, May 15, 2010

Catania Fish Market: Sea Urchins and Goddesses

Photo Tom Pfeiffer

Sicily is a magical place that holds many culinary treasures—the fish, the lamb, the vegetables, the wine, the desserts: ahhhhhh! One such treasure is the fish market in the coastal city Catania, located on the eastern area of the island, just at the foot of the volatile volcano Mount Etna. Catania is Sicily’s second largest city and it has the feel, over all, of a weathered seaport town, lacking the charm of Cefalù, or the sophistication of Palermo. But what you do find here is one of the best outdoor fish markets in Italythe fish is so fresh that the sweet sea air cheats you of its scent. There's a staggering variety of both fin and shellfish; some are sold straight from the neighboring Ionian sea and are still alive—have you ever seen a squid wink at you before?!?! This is also a wonderful place to take in a seafood repast, and most of the restaurants in the city offer excellent aquatic dishes that are pure and simple, maintaining the integrity and freshness of the fish. Close to the market there are a few little buchi (hole in the wall eateries) that serve some of the freshest fish I've ever eaten. I was there in the early part of the spring two years ago, and my favorite marine treat was everywhere: riccio di mare (sea urchin). The dish that makes me look back and salivate the most was a bowl of steaming spaghetti served with the classic Sicilian trinity: olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. The woman who served us the pasta took out an odd tool that resembled a nutcracker-cum-bottle-top opener, and with it she cracked open the spiny beasts in half, scooped out their content's into the bowl of heady pasta, tossed it all together and served it onto our awaiting plates. Incredibile!

The combination of steady sunlight and rich, volcanic soil has also made this part of the island a good source of fruity and herbaceous white wines that are the perfect accompaniment to this largely fish based cuisine. According to mythology the goddess Persephone, one of the daughters' of Zeus, enters into a marriage contract with the god of the underworld, Hades, via an area of the Sicilian landscape. Her fate is not so grave, however, as she returns to the Island every spring, and with her return she brings renewal and the promise of life. I hope she makes a pit-stop to the Catania fish market and indulges in a resplendent fish banquet. I imagine her enjoying a plate of spaghetti ai ricchi di mare and feeling less like a victim, and more like a goddess.

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