A Taste of Sicilian Markets


Blood oranges on display in a Siricusa market in Sicily.


Sicily is famous for its food, fresh and brimming with exquisite tastes, whether it be fruit,  vegetables, meats, seafood or home-made pasta. The smallest village has at least a weekly market, while the bigger cities can have more than one market open 6 days a week, and most of these markets have been held at the same market stalls, often by the same families, for generations. Whenever possible during our three week stay in Sicily, we shopped at the local market and cooked our dinners with the freshest foods available. The concept of farm-to-table may be trendy in 21st century U.S., but it’s been a way of life in Sicily for centuries.




Entrance to La Pescheria, Catania’s famous seafood market. For about 3 sq. blocks to the right is a maze of crowded medieval streets and alleys thronged by covered stalls offering seafood, meats, fruits, vegetables, and a melange of dry goods and even household wares.

Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, is famous for its seafood. Thus it’s no surprise that its largest market, La Pescheria, revolves around seafood. A few steps from the city’s duomo (cathedral), La Pescheria is open six days a week and is crowded from early morning until mid-afternoon. While the focus is on seafood, the hundreds of stalls offer an extensive range of fruits and vegetables and meats from the local favorite, rabbit, to pork, beef and chicken — and all the by products one can imagine coming from them.


Swordfish, or la spada, is plentiful as well as a favorite local fish. This baby was nearly 5 ft. long.


Swordfish tails andblades decorate the back wall of one seafood stand.



Plucked chickens and skinned carcasses are offered whole at the meat stalls, as well as every cut and body part of four-footed animals one can imagine: pig feet and heads, tripe, sausages, whole rabbits, steaks and chops are all at hand.



A small sampling of the fruits and vegetables available at market.


Part of one day’s haul at the market. The oranges were particularly delicious. We ate 1-2 each a day while in Sicily.


Ortigia, Siricusa Market

Ortigia, a small island now part of modern Siricusa, was one of the early Greek colonies dating to the 5th c. B.C. Daily markets have been held in roughly the same location for hundreds of years. The Ortigia market had the usual offerings of fish, meats, fruits, vegetables, dried products and general goods, but the following displays caught my eye:



Sun-dried tomatoes, a must in every Sicilian kitchen! Here it was offered up by the bucketful.



Artichokes, a personal favorite! (Actually I was hard pressed to find anything that wasn’t a favorite!)


P1020344_Bacalo, salted cod

Bacala, dried, salted cod, is sold everywhere in most Mediterranean countries and is found on most seafood menus.


Fresh and dried herbs and spices, sold by the gram.



Along with fresh and dried pasta, dried nuts and fruits were for sale at most markets.



Luscious fresh vegetable soups are the fare in restaurants near Ortigia’s market. We asked for a vegetable soup at the Cafe Archimede and were told, a bit hesitantly, it would take about “20-30 minutes.” About 35 minutes later we were served this wonderful and obviously freshly prepared soup. Delicious!


P1020388_lunch platter of meats and cheeses with shaved fennel salad and orange fruit salad with olives and oil

Sampler platters like this or equally good (and massive sandwiches) are what draws daily crowds to the Borderi gli Artisti deli on the edge of Ortigia’s market. The huge molded, slightly browned cheese at the right is sheep’s milk ricotta, made fresh that morning, which was absolutely heavenly. Prosciutto, other cheeses, sausage, fennel salad, and oranges with chopped olives and honey rounded off this luncheon feast.


Locals and tourists daily line up outside the deli at lunchtime. Luckily our driver/guide Alessio Patane of Sicily Grand Tour knows the owner and was able to reserve us a table inside to enjoy our feast!



Sicily’s city neighborhoods abound with small markets, from the one-room mini-mart to roadside fruit and vegetable stands. One can find them in the least expected places. The Giudecca, or old Jewish Quarter in Ortigia, originated most likely during the Roman era of Siricusa although Jews had been present during the Greeks’ earlier reign. The community was large, comprising by some accounts almost a third of the large Siricusa population. The ruins of an ancient mikveh, or ritual bath, is thought to be one of if not the oldest mikveh in Europe. We wandered the ancient streets, admiring the stone houses, many now renovated into trendy apartments or boutique hotels, but many small colorful spots caught my eye:


One dwelling was its own outdoor mini-mart, with fresh veggies and fruits for sale. I heard soft music coming from inside the house so I suppose you just called out when you were ready to purchase. Either that or leave some Euros in the red pot to the left!


Colorful pots and plants and a touch of  paint make this dwelling appealing.

P1020327_On Via del Crocifissi, Ortigia

This doorway was my favorite in all of Giudecca. Not related to a market, just randomly placed items that made a fetching photo.



Palermo was our last stop in Sicily, and while, for once, we didn’t stay in an apartment with a kitchen, we still shopped at the famous Ballaro Market in the historic section of the city. After all, we had to feed our daily addiction to Sicilian oranges! While there were certainly a number of seafood stalls, the Ballaro didn’t come close to having the scope of seafood stalls and offerings of La Pescheria in Catania, but there were certainly a number of luscious fruits and vegetables to drool over.



Just a sampling of the fruits and vegetables on offer.


A colorful array of dried fruits, herbs and spices available from one vendor.


And, of course, being a port town, Palermo’s Ballero displayed many varieties of seafood for sale.

So goodbye to Sicily’s markets, and on to Tuscany’s allures. It will be interesting to see if the street markets there can offer such a colorful and variable selection as Sicily’s!



Ancient Greco-Roman Ruins of Sicily


Greek Doric temple in Segesta, northwestern Sicily. Built about 410 B.C., it is believed to be unfinished and it is unknown to whom it was to be dedicated. (More on Segesta further in the post.)


Sicily is renowned for many qualities: its luscious fruits and vegetables, varied and bountiful seafood, and drool-inducing pasta; the mountainous terrain, including Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest and most violent volcano; even for being “that weird-shaped ball” at the toe of Italy’s “boot.” But most people aren’t aware that Sicily has a rich and varied history, which includes centuries of occupation from many of the Mediterranean cultures: Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman and Arabic, to name a few. Perhaps because the Greeks and Romans were the last of the major pre-Christian civilizations to inhabit Sicily, their relics are most visible of those remaining on the island. In our three week ramble through Sicily we sampled some of Sicily’s Greco-Roman past.


We were fortunate to have Alessio Patane of Sicily Grand Tour to take us through Siracusa-Ortigia and Agrigento. With his expert knowledge of Sicilian history in general, and specifically of the Greco-Roman period, we could fully appreciate the influence of these cultures on Sicily and Italy as a whole, and thus on our own modern, Western culture. Primarily because I’m an unabashed history geek, I knew that Siricusa, founded 2700 years ago as a Corinthian Greek colony, grew in size and importance to successfulyy rival Athens, once the mightiest of the Greek city-states of the period.. But I hadn’t realized just how extensive the Greek influence was within and beyond Siricusa.

The Corinthians first established their colony on the small island of Ortigia, which is now part of modern Siricusa. The earliest remains are of the Temple of Appollo, and columns of a Doric temple to Athena, which were incorporated into the walls of the cathedral:


The modern buildings of Ortigia ring the remains of the early 6th c. BC temple to Appollo.


Doric columns from a 5th c. BC temple to Athena were incorporated into both the interior and exterior walls of the cathedral or duomo of Siracusa.

The gems of the Greek and Roman remains lie a couple of miles north in the now protected Parco Archeologico:

P1020365 (2)

The Greek amphitheater at 138 m. across (151 yards) is the largest outside of Greece. First built in 5th c. BC, it was rebuilt in the 3rd c. BC.


Near the amphitheater is the remains of a stone quarry where captives and slaves were forced to work the stone. The shell-shaped interior cone of this formation enabled people at the top of the quarry to eavesdrop on what the captives below were saying. Supposedly the artist Caravaggio  named it the Ear of Dionysus, after the Greek tyrant who ruled Siracusa in the 4th c. BC and kept prisoners in the quarry.

P1020385_Roman amphitheater, 1st c. A.D.

Roman amphitheater from 1st c. AD. Unlike the Greeks who built their amphitheaters in the proscenium style, the Romans built round or elliptically shaped forums with several entry points and no single stage. This difference in style reflects the Roman penchant for multiple forms of arena entertainment from gladiators battling each other or wild animals, even flooding the arena to stage mock sea battles. The Greeks, on the other hand, preferred theater, which was best suited to the proscenium style of amphitheater.


Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

Alessio took us also to Agrigento, in southwest Sicily, to view the magnificent temple ruins that stand along a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. (It’s thus a mystery as to why this site was named the valley of the temples.) Another interesting oddity is that the individual temples are still called by names given to them somewhat arbitrarily a century or more earlier, when more modern research clearly states most of the temples’ dedications were unknown. Nevertheless, the temples of Agrigento are spectacular.


Although Greek in origin, in the Doric style, these remains are called the Temple of Juno (Greek name, Hera), from about 450 BC.



Almond trees line the roadway along the mountain ridge known as the Valley of the Temples. The well-preserved Temple of Concordia is seen in the center, with the Mediterranean to the center left.



Temple of Concordia, built about 440 BC in the Doric style. It is the best preserved of the temples probably because it was used as a church for several centuries.


The temple of Hercules, from about 6th c. BC, is one of the oldest in Agrigento.



One of the most impressive settings for the ancient sights we saw was the 3rd c. BC Greek amphitheater in the hill town of Taormina. How can you beat the view of smoking Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean Sea as part of the backdrop to the stage?


The remains of the stage area of the Greek amphitheater in Taormina, with Mt. Etna in the background.  Later under Roman rule, this area of the amphitheater was incorporated into a wealthy family’s villa; even later, thousands of stones were hauled away for use in constructing other buildings. Centuries later, what could be recovered of the original theater is what is seen here today.


The  seating area of the proscenium amphitheater in Taormina.



The fabulous Doric Greek temple in Segesta was one of the great surprises of our trip. We decided to check it out on our way to Erice, northwestern Sicily, and as often happens with the unexpected, we were astounded. The temple is featured above as the lead photograph, from the top of another, higher hillside which featured a Greek amphitheater as well as the ruins of a medieval church and a mosque.

P1020797_end Segesta

The magnificent temple, uncompleted, whose function and dedication has remained unknown. he stone columns have remained in remarkable shape.



Both the front and back facades have been well protected. The tipani at both ends of the temple are well preserved.


P1020780_Gr3eek amphpiteater, Segesta

Hilltop Greek amphitheater, possibly 3rd or 2nd c. BC.


Mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale

Not all the reminders of Greece and Rome are temple ruins. We visited a semi-recovered Roman villa in the mountains of central Sicily that had some of the most beautiful and well-preserved floor mosaics I’ve ever seen. While archaeologists can date the construction to early 4th c. AD, the exact identity of the owner of this 3,000 sq. meter dwelling is unclear, other than he must have been wealthy and in the upper Roman hierarchy of his time. What is clear is that the rooms of mosaics were preserved due to an enormous landslide in the 12th c. which destroyed the second level of the villa but covered and thus protected the ground floor’s mosaics over the ensuing centuries.

Dusk was already falling when we entered the villa’s remains, where we walked along raised cat-walks and peered down through the gloom at the mosaic floors. Yet despite the centuries, the avalanche of mud, and poor lighting, the beauty and colors of the mosaics were readily visible.


The majority of mosaics we saw were in ground level rooms off the four sides of the peristyle, the villa’s open courtyard surrounded by a columned portico.


These mosaics are on the floor under the shaded portico. From the hall residents of the villa could enter private interior rooms, all with their own mosaic floors.



Conflict through the ages…


Many of the mosaics (see above and below) featured elaborate hunting scenes — or were scenarios depicting the capture of exotic animal specimens to exhibit in Rome or to set loose on gladiators in the great Colosseum. In addition to the rhinoceros and hippopotamus featured here, nearby mosaics showed lions, tigers, panthers,giraffes and leopards being rounded up and boarded onto ships for the long sea trip back to Rome.




Lithe young women in bikinis never fail too attract!


Some of the floor mosaics depicted incredible range of subject matter, style and detail. Such a variety suggests to archaeologists and scholars that many artists of different designs and backgrounds contributed to the mosaics.


By no means is Sicily’s Greco-Roman past limited to these few archaeological sites. It’s probable that many relics remain, either destroyed as later civilizations built upon them, or simply buried by lava, landslides or earthquakes and are as yet waiting discovery.