Sicily V – Acireale : Exploring & Eating

25th – 30th October 2017

Rather than dash off somewhere else and dash back for the dentist we decided to stay put, relax and explore. We got lots of washing done, wiped down the van, and Danny researched the satellite system, shoving Kate up onto the roof again to do a slight adjustment -which actually worked. We spent a couple of hours retrieving our vital spreadsheets (it’s a Kate thing) that Danny had deleted in error, briefly considering paying for special software until a brainstorm got them back. And in-between we had time to read, wander and watch the fishing boats.

Late one afternoon we walked down into Santa Maria la Scala to take the steep zig-zag footpath the 20 minute walk up to Acireale, a town that is past it’s best but not without interest.

We wandered the cobbled backstreets as tourists do, window-shopped on the main street, ate hot roasted Etna chestnuts from a stall, found a Spar for shopping and stopped at a locals bar for the cheapest Campari we’ve had in Italy. Dinner for Danny was a cone of chips with a very weird, but not unpleasant, cold, sweet curry sauce.

Saturday afternoon we were back in Acireale for a haircut for Danny that Carmen & Isodoro had arranged for him. We intended to climb the cliff again but Isodoro insisted on driving us there when his shift finished, and both approved of the result. Danny approved of the 45-minute pampering, including head massage that accompanied his cut. The stylish Italian hairdresser insisted on using ‘product’ in his hair and on blow-drying what was left after he’d finished snipping.

We spent a full day in Catania, taking the train from Acireale again. The Old Town has some wonderful buildings but our first stop was the famous fish market – noisy, large and full of a wonderful array of fresh fish and shellfish some still alive, thrashing about or pulsating, the full range from octopus to cuttlefish, huge swordfish to small silver eel-like fish, prawns of all sizes, crabs, hermit crabs,  mussels, clams and oysters.

Men in wellies dragged huge boxes of ice around, water slopped everywhere, sellers thrust seafood in our faces and fishmongers chopped huge swordfish into pieces. Great – absolutely fascinating.

We had a coffee watching the locals bartering for their fish then wandered up past some butchers stalls on the edge of the fish market – huge cows feet and kid-goats cleaved in half were some of the more interesting offerings.

Out of the chaos and onto the wide shopping street of Via Etnea (no, not misspelt) with great views of the volcano of course, then a dander down the side streets full of interesting little shops, leading us to an outdoor fruit and veg market.

Danny was, as always, fascinated by the typical Sicilian parking, particularly a courier parking on an angle on a zebra crossing at a junction !

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For lunch we went back to the middle of the fish market and ‘Antico Marina’ as suggested in the Rough Guide. When we arrived we found it is also mentioned in the Michelin Guide – quite justifiably. We got there just before opening and got one of the only two un-reserved tables. An excellent shared starter of clams and mussels – really superb, the best we’ve had – then prawns for Danny, gorgeous, and an unusual but delicious prawn and almond pasta dish. We finished with pistachio cake, very light and again delicious, and swore not to eat again that day.

The train back gave us excellent views of Etna, some snow still shining near the top.

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Whilst at the site we met 2 other sets of Brits. Two men peering over the balcony to the rocks below looking for the beach turned out to be from Southport and Scotland, both architects with a tent and a budget. They were fascinated with the van and asked to look round so we obliged and and donated our map of Sicily to them. For a couple of nights we had Oxfordshire residents Peter & Claire in their VW conversion and accompanying guitar as neighbours. They had spent nearly two weeks travelling across continent to get to Sicily and will now have to start their return within 5 days. We have them to thank for the restaurant saga.

We had been told that Santa Maria La Scala had a lovely, traditional seafood restaurant and that we needed to book. Carmen recommended it and Peter & Claire raved about it. So we booked. Saturday night we put proper clothes on (ie. jeans instead of shorts) and headed down into the village. We were the first customers of the evening in the family run restaurant where English is not understood. Thankfully a local lady who did speak some English called in and helped us with our order. The fish didn’t look as fresh as we had been expecting, the menu was limited to say the least and the famous seafood salad was absent, but we carried on regardless. Certainly the constant flow of people and their interactions was fascinating.

The kitchen was run by grandma, mother and 2 daughters. The grand-daughter or great grand-daughter, in her 20’s, popped in with a takeaway pizza which she ate at one of the restaurant tables, and her father and grandfather who had been eating in the kitchen also had a go at it. Then her brother and his friend came in with another pizza and they all sat around eating and chatting. Locals popped in to see grandma, going into the kitchen and swapping kisses, and others came in for sit-down meals. The place was soon filed with a buzz. The food, however, was distinctly average and we returned to the van disappointed and perplexed. Until Danny researched further and found we had been at the wrong restaurant!

So of course next day, our last, we found the restaurant we should have gone to and booked it for 8pm.

That day we spent a couple of hours blogging in the campsites nice little rest room with ok internet and doing a wash. We saw loads of cars arriving for lunch at the site’s restaurant and had the clever idea to share a pizza as we’d been told they were very good. Danny checked there was a table free and we went down, only realising they don’t do pizza till evening after we were seated! Another of those questions we should have asked. Feeling committed we ordered just one set menu between us. The food was delicious but oh so much of it! The starter consisted of a dish of mussels, a plate of tempura  – prawn, anchovy & white fish – and a large plate with an assortment of marinated fish and seafood. Absolutely lovely and a meal in itself. This was followed by the Primi – a big dollop of gnocchi with mussels and another of seafood risotto, then finally the Secundi – consisting of fried fillet of white fish topped with tiny dice of roasted peppers and courgette and a large boiled prawn on the side.

With wine, €25, no wonder the place was packed with locals. Extraordinary value for money but so glad we only ordered one. We were stuffed and hoped it would settle before dinner, comforting ourself with the thought that fish & seafood aren’t that filling…

Just before eight we walked down the hill and the now familiar back-alleys to the harbour where we watched the boats on the water below for a few peaceful minutes before going into La Grotta, the restaurant we intended to visit all along. A tiny place with about 25 covers inside set into the cliff – in fact the the walls on one side were the cliff – raw black basalt. But we weren’t allowed to take a seat until we had examined the short menu and the pile of fresh fish and seafood and picked our meal from the glistening array. Danny pointed out his choice of fish – no idea what it was – and some prawns to go with it, and  Kate opted for the seafood salad – octopus, squid and prawns – which were weighed out in front of us then passed back to the kitchen for preparation. Kates seafood was cooked to perfection and served with Sicilian olive oil, lemon juice and parsley. Danny loved his too and it was exactly what we were looking for, all served with a local dry white wine – perfect. A frothy light lemon sorbet that you knew was freshly made from local lemons finished an excellent and incredibly cheap meal. We felt we had found Sicily.

We really enjoyed our unexpectedly extended stay here, but perhaps a few days without food????