“The aroma of bright citrus, fresh basil, and aged dry herbs clashes with an intrusive medley of anchovies and sardines. Then comes along a strong note of ricotta and burrata, a finish of coals from oven-fresh loaves and roasted garlic cloves. The confusing scented market plume should be a bit off-putting, but in this case it’s not, rather it’s invigorating, making one all the more curious as to what lies beyond the sandstone bend. So just as you turn down a seemingly humble side street you meet the market.”
Sicilians build things like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow.
If the sunrise in Ortigia is something of the heavens, an equally romantic morning at the market will bring you back to earth in a very approachable, rustic way.
Indulging in the cuisine of Ortigia is an adventure. There are many articles and blog posts out there on where to eat and what to eat, but I want to focus on the culinary soul of this island, the market. It is there that you find yourself brushing shoulders with Michelin-rated local chefs and Sicilian nonnas alike. The market informs their gastronomic delights praised in publications from The New York Times to Travel + Leisure.
It’s important to understand the Ortigia market is almost an oddity in contemporary Italy. Expansive daily markets with locally-owned and locally-sourced products are a dying breed. Rather, grocery stores like Conad have made the necessity of these markets almost obsolete. And sure, maybe one day a week you’ll stumble across a few quaint stands on the outskirts of a small Tuscan town, or find yourself in the chaotic market that occasionally occupies Campo dei Fiori, but my guess is you’ll be disappointed. Yes, those markets have some fresh produce and a couple of regional specialties, but they’re lacking in authenticity as pashmina vendors outnumber the artisans selling local honey and freshly baked bread.
In complete contrast, Ortigia boasts one of the most classic, genuine markets in Sicily, if not the entire country. The Ortigia market is an open air culinary museum. I imagine you will be as impressed with this little market as you would with the archaeological park and the adjacent ruins of the Temple of Apollo. The great dishes that anchor la cucina Siracusana begin at the market.
Now, let’s go back to the story of the senses synonymous with Isola d’Ortigia.
After you’ve had an opportunity to take in the morning sunrise, it’s time to go shopping. Of course you’ll go early, probably around 8:00 AM, because any later and the market is mobbed. From 100 yards away a smell hits you. Different from the harmonious fragrance of the sea, this scent is more pungent, overwhelming, intoxicating.
The aroma of bright citrus, fresh basil, and aged dry herbs clashes with an intrusive medley of anchovies and sardines. Then comes along a strong note of ricotta and burrata, a finish of coals from oven-fresh loaves and roasted garlic cloves. The confusing scented market plume should be a bit off-putting, but in this case it’s not, rather it’s invigorating, making one all the more curious as to what lies beyond the sandstone bend. So just as you turn down a seemingly humble side street you meet the market.
The beating heart of Ortigia is literal on this modest via lined with fishmongers selling the live octopus they stole from the sea only minutes before. And if the morning sunrise is sight, and smell the greeter at the market’s door, it’s sound to escort us down her way.
The second you step into the market you are bombarded by a cacophony of vendors yelling in a mixture of Sicilian dialect and some language I am sure is understood only by the local fishermen, standing proud as they smoke a freshly-rolled cigarette and marvel at their morning catch.
As you stroll past the first few stands, the colorful, perfumed produce is made exponentially more beautiful by the story the vendor tells of how he picked the most perfect vermilion red tomato you’ve ever seen with his own hands. Step further and you’re enchanted by rows of spices with their incredible north African character, outmatched only by the older gentleman explaining in broken English and hand gestures how even a mere mortal can turn these simple ingredients into the world-renowned pasta siracusana, arancino, or caponata.
So after you’ve sampled the fruits, eyed up the vegetables, and snatched some honey, almonds, and capers for later, you find someone yelling what no one, not even a non-Italian speaker could ever misunderstand:
“Glass of wine free with an oyster. 2.50 euro.” That’s the greatest sound I think I’ve ever heard. So at approximately 8:30 AM you’re buzzed and have eaten three fresh oysters, not a bad breakfast.
But if you’re getting full, my apologies, you aren’t done yet. Because just when you think you’ve reached the end of the 150-meter long market via, you arrive at Caseificio Borderi.
Borderi are the market showmen. The process to make their cheese begins around 3:00 AM, and the line starts soon after. There’s a reason my wedding night afterparty consisted of me eating an entire ball of Borderi mozzarella in my Danielle Frankel wedding gown. There’s probably no cheese in Sicily, dare I say all of Italy, that compares to Caseificio Borderi. The ricotta recipe is as old as time. And the unpreserved piacentino ennese true as it could be.
These guys embody the drama, passion, and humor you’ve come to expect of Sicilians. They speak English so they’re happy to chat as they force feed you taglio after taglio of cheese – not that you wouldn’t oblige. And it doesn’t stop there. If it’s early enough, they’ll smoke some fresh meats, cut some baguette, create a little antipasto spread, and leave you to enjoy over a bottle of local wine.
So now you’ve paused for the third, fourth, fifth snack of the morning, and the yelling isn’t as deafening, it’s more of a pleasant hum in the background. Maybe that’s because it’s taken on some charm, or maybe because you’re kindof drunk. For all that’s rough around the edges, suddenly the market being billed as the best food spot on the island makes complete sense. And in the back of a cheese shop over two plastic cups of the best two euro wine you’ve ever had, the market’s rustic romance has officially settled in.