One of the most extraordinary cities on the island of Sicily is Siracusa, or Syracuse. Touched significantly by ancient Greece (the Greek mathematician Archimedes was born here), there are also visible remnants of Arab, Norman, Spanish and Imperial Roman culture. In some sense this place is a beautiful and richly complex microcosm of Sicily itself.
A quick walk from downtown Siracusa, over the Santa Lucia or Ponte Nuovo bridge, is a smaller, picturesque island called Ortigia that is just as steeped in history but also features wonderful food and wine. There are amazing churches and ancient monuments, like the Temple of Apollo—one of the oldest Greek temples in Sicily—plus great restaurants, wine bars and a first rate open-air market, the Mercato di Ortigia, a farmer’s market by the sea.
Overlooking the Mediterranean, the fish, prawns and shellfish sold here have been literally pulled from the water that morning. Farmers from the surrounding countryside cross the bridge daily to bring seasonal produce, such as wild asparagus, tomatoes and tenerumi (the leafy fronds of a particular kind of local squash) plus famously delicious citrus fruits like lemons, tarocco blood oranges and grapefruits. Because of the Mediterranean climate and uniquely rich soil, Sicily’s fruits and vegetables are the envy of the rest of Italy and the world. In season, finocchietto (wild fennel) is used abundantly, even in an after dinner liqueur! The most beautiful dark purple eggplants are turned into caponata (a sweet and sour vegetable stew). During wintry months, the sun-dried tomatoes with basil and olive oil are mouthwatering, reminding us of summer skies. And the list goes on…
Add to that some wonderful local Ragusano and tricotta (baked ricotta) cheeses, freshly made bread or pastries (like schiacciata or maritozzo), some meat, fresh pasta, wine and you have all the mixings for a perfect meal. The vendors are knowledgeable, friendly and call out to shoppers hoping to sell their wares. On my last visit I ran into the owner of the restaurant where I had eaten the night before as he was buying fish for his evening menu. Friendly discussion ensued about what looked best that morning when the fishmonger piped in with his own, very strong opinion. As we say here, solo in Italia, only in Italy!
Because Ortigia is relatively small, most everything is within walking distance, including shops that sell an array of traditional, dried Sicilian pastas like busiate, fragrant extra virgin olive oil and wines that have been nurtured by the volcanic soil of nearby Mount Etna. Along the way, it’s easy to pop into one of the most magnificent churches in Sicily: the Duomo. Consolidating in one structure the turbulent but rich past of the place, elements of every invading power are revealed. It’s Sicily in a nutshell. I’m planning my next trip right now.
Are you planning to visit Siracusa and other breathtaking parts of Sicily, and wish to enjoy its food, wine and cooking in the company of local food experts? Be sure to visit our Sicily food, wine and cooking experiences page for inspiration!