A day at the Ortigia market, Sicily

Sacks of spices, seeds and salty capers from the island of Pantelleria

Sacks of spices, seeds and salty capers from the island of Pantelleria

My first trip to Sicily was as a six year old, on the passenger ship Marconi, on the way back to Australia. It was the 1970s and the handful of photos we have from the trip are yellow and faded. I know we stopped in Taormina and went to see the Greek amphitheatre. I remember the view of Mount Etna as a backdrop to the theatre, and that it was blowing smoke at the time. I also remember my first taste of a soft lemon gelato, delicious and dripping, the type that we couldn’t yet buy in Australia. 
 It took 40 years for me to return to Sicily, and coincidentally it was a Greek story that drew me back, specifically the 1968 RAI television mini-series of The Odyssey, directed by Franco Rossi on DVD. It had the most glorious locations with never-ending blue skies, olive trees and cobalt-blue waters. I thought of the Greeks in the Mediterranean, that amphitheatre they had built in Taormina, and after a bit of online research, I started reading about Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian), founded by the ancient Greeks close to 3000 years ago. And I knew the time had come to return to Sicily.  

Colourful mounds of baked sheep's milk ricotta

We stayed in Ortygia (Ortigia in Italian), which is the historical centre of Siracusa and located on a small island, accessible by a bridge. We arrived on the evening train, with clouds threatening to storm. There were no taxis at the station, so we started walking, but the rain hit just as we approached the bridge to the island. We could go no further, sheltered in a shop and the helpful shop assistant called a taxi for us. Geraldo was the driver – he also lived on the island – and he knew the maze of streets perfectly, speeding along in spite of the rain, mere inches between his taxi and the parked cars. He dropped us off directly in front of our apartment and the rain miraculously stopped. 
Our accommodation was on Via Laberinto, a first floor Air BnB apartment, newly renovated and with a spacious kitchen, looking out through tall and elegant windows onto the street. The floor had a central square of colourful tiles, which the owner later explained were original and kept as a feature during the renovation. It was our charming and cosy home for the next four days.  

There were olives of all types at the Ortigia market

The following morning was sunny and started with an early search for a cappuccino and cornetto. To walk around Ortigia is to feel as though you are in a village, an open-armed and welcoming one, with pot-plant filled balconies jutting out from limestone houses. Doorways were open, and peering in we saw artisans at work with wood and stone, they smiled and nodded “buon giorno signora” from their work spaces, the sound of tools clanging, cutting, and pounding away. There were wide piazze with churches and civic buildings, constructed in a gloriously giddy Baroque style, with twirls and swirls. The south-east corner of Sicily, including Siracusa, was ravaged by major earthquakes in the 1500s/1600s so it was rebuilt by its Spanish masters in a Baroque style. It is very, very pretty. 
Before I arrived in Ortigia, I had read about its open air market.  For me, markets are always a first stop in a new town, because it is in markets that you can immerse yourself in the community and how it lives – where the food that feeds the people is produced, sold and bought. And it was a particularly lovely market, open daily, with crates and tubs filled with colourful seasonal produce in the middle of a maze of sandstone coloured buildings, not too far from the water’s edge. 
Locals were chatting to stall owners, buying what they needed for the day – and there was so much to choose from. We were there at the end of summer, so I found glorious late summer fruit – ripe plums and peaches, luscious figs and “bastardi” prickly pears. 
There were olives of all types, and sacks of spices, seeds and salty capers from the island of Pantelleria. 
The fish stall was manned by a smiling pescivendolo, selling cuttlefish, mussels and a whole swordfish, that was sliced as required. Filleted sardines were on sale for only 5 Euro per kilo – I imagined them tossed in a pan with fennel, currants, and pinenuts, as a sauce over freshly cooked spaghetti. 
I found a stall that was selling sheep’s milk ricotta, a speciality in Sicily. There were several varieties: soft fresh ricotta, so creamy and no doubt made yesterday; salted ricotta for grating and colourful mounds of baked ricotta. 

Swordfish at the market is sliced as required by the pescivendolo

The market was overflowing with bright red tomatoes and they were, as expected given the season, inexpensive and ready to be made into passata. You knew they had been picked from the vine when ripe – rich, sweet and mildly acidic, just as they should be. Boxes of the zucchini flowers were waiting to be bought, stuffed full of sheep’s milk ricotta and fried. Bunches of wild asparagus were tied up with colourful string, crying out for an omelette of eggs and parmesan cheese and the scent of fragrant fresh green herbs filled the air. 
My market choice for lunch that day was simple: a bunch of basil, a tub of fresh ricotta, a ciabatta loaf, a small bottle of local extra virgin olive oil and a bottle of 2012 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Bianca. It was the most perfect and freshest of meals in a perfectly heavenly place, fit for a Sicilian king (or even a Greek one). 
Paola Bacchia is an Italian-Australian food blogger. Her award winning blog “Italy On My Mind” tells the story of family memories and their connections to food. She returns to Italy every year to expand her knowledge of Italian food, its traditions and innovations. Connect with Paola at http://italyonmymind.com.au 
Instagram: italyonmymind, Facebook: Italy on my Mind

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