I don’t even know how to begin to describe our wonderful weekend in Siracusa, Sicily. From the markets filled with fresh, local produce, to the friendly restaurant staff who made us feel like regulars the moment we stepped in the door, this island really is a food-lover’s paradise, and as a vegan I never felt left out of this vibrant celebration of food. Nope, not for one second. The local market in Siracusa was just bursting with freshly-picked fruits and vegetables being sold at insanely cheap prices. During our travels around the area we passed through multiple citrus orchards, and indeed the most popular local products seemed to be lemons and oranges (especially Tarocco blood oranges), fennel, pumpkin and nuts of all kinds. Not surprisingly, these also kept showing up as ingredients in the dishes we ordered in local restaurants. This pretty much sums it up:
And when you factor in the narrow cobblestone alleyways and Baroque architecture of Ortygia, plus the impressive ancient Roman ruins and caves nearby, Siracusa really has it all.
While traditional Sicilian fare is already very vegan-friendly, there are actually a couple of vegetarian restaurants on the beautiful Baroque island of Ortygia – the heart of Siracusa – so we began our Sicilian adventure by heading for one of these. The first one we came across was an all-vegan restaurant called MOON (which stands for “Move Ortigia Out of Normality”). This is quite a classy-looking place and even has a grand piano in one corner of the dining room, though the prices are still quite reasonable.
Just a few steps away in Piazza San Giuseppe is Le Comari Inn, which is a cute and welcoming vegetarian restaurant and is where we decided to have our first dinner. I didn’t make it back to MOON during our short trip, so if you get the chance to eat there then please leave a comment and let me know how it was!
The majority of the items on the menu at Le Comari contained dairy and eggs. Nevertheless, there were also several vegan dishes, including three soups, some salads, a pasta dish, a seitan steak and a chocolate and pear cake. Soon after we ordered, we were treated to complimentary garlic bread and a lovely beetroot dip.
As my main dish I chose the pasta, which was actually pasta fresca (fresh, hand-made pasta, as opposed to pasta secca, the stuff in a box that you find in most supermarkets). Pasta fresca is almost always made with eggs, so it was a rare treat to find a vegan version, and to top it off it was made in the shape of trofie, one of my favourite pasta shapes. The dish was topped with a red pesto made from nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and wild fennel fronds.
I was astounded at how much the liquorice flavour of the fennel really shone through from just the little green fronds, as I couldn’t find any pieces of the bulb itself in the pasta. I later learned that the wild fennel used in Sicily is quite different from the domesticated kind grown for its bulb, and that only the fronds are used.
While the sauce was not described as a pesto on the menu, that’s essentially what it was. As I was soon to discover, pesto is incredibly popular in Sicily and comes in a variety of flavours. And the amazing part is that almost all of these are vegan! Pesto alla genovese – the type that originated in Genova and is by far the most widely-known version of the dish – is one of those foods that is annoyingly almost vegan, except for the sprinkle of parmesan cheese that is pretty much always added to the sauce. Well, in the markets and supermarkets of Siracusa I came across a number of pesto varieties made with different nuts and herbs, and none of these contained any cheese! I did see one with anchovies, but all the rest were vegan. And, what was even better, I found several that were sold in little 90 gram jars – just small enough to make it through security at the airport (we were travelling with carry-on luggage only). I brought four of these little beauties home with me.
Anyway, returning to our dinner at Le Comari, we both rounded off the meal with a slice of chocolate pear cake, which was simply delicious.
As for breakfast, we were staying in a studio apartment that we had booked through Airbnb, which meant that I had access to a working stove. Regular readers of this blog will know that this could mean only one thing – oatmeal! Shortly before our trip I had been unable to resist a sale on strawberries at my local supermarket, so I actually brought my own fruit with me this time. The strawberries travelled surprisingly well.
I was eager to experiment with local Sicilian flavours though, so when we got home I came up with a new recipe: Blood Orange, Almond and Wild Fennel Oatmeal!
For those who would like to recreate this (assuming you can get hold of some wild fennel), here’s the recipe:
- 1 cup soy milk
- 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
- 2 blood oranges (or 1 large one)
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- a few sprigs of wild fennel
- pinch of salt
- Segment your oranges.
- Bring the milk to a boil, add oats, and reduce heat to medium.
- Stir in the segments from one orange and about half the fennel, saving the rest for topping.
- Once more of the liquid has absorbed, add almond extract and salt, stirring occasionally.
- Once the milk is fully absorbed and the oatmeal looks nice and fluffy, transfer to a bowl and top with remaining orange segments, fennel and sliced almonds.
Our second day in Sicily was basically a Sicilian street food tour. We started off at the market, which is best described in pictures rather than words.
I was going to say, “Check out the size of those lemons!”, but the interwebs tell me they’re not lemons at all. Rather, they are a citrus fruit called “citron” in English and “cedro” in Italian, and they’re used not for their pulp or juice but for their thick white rind. Sicily is just full of new discoveries!
Inside the market is a little shop called Caseificio Borderi that sells the most wonderful sandwiches, made fresh to order while you watch. I told the man behind the counter that I didn’t eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs, and without batting an eye he said “OK, leave it to me” and created the most delicious sandwich, then told me what a great pleasure it had been for him to make it. And he meant it too. In Sicily I was impressed just as much by the sincere hospitality of the people as I was by the freshness and simplicity of the food. This sandwich, like so much else in Sicily, was made with love. Eat your heart out Subway; this is a true sandwich artist at work.
We ate our sandwiches a bit later in a little park while waiting for a bus, and it was then that I opened it up and analysed the ingredients, which included sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, mushrooms, lemon zest, mint and olive oil. In a word, perfection.
From Siracusa we made a quick day trip to Noto – one of several towns in the area that were completely destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1693 and then rebuilt following the Baroque style that was in vogue at the time. While Noto is a very small, quiet town and can easily be covered in a couple of hours, its ornate palaces and churches might make you want to linger awhile.
Most of these are concentrated along the main street, Corso Vittorio Emannuele, where you’ll also find Bar Gelateria Pinguino – the perfect place to enjoy a refreshing gelato while soaking up the views of the cathedral across the street.
Just a little further along Corso Vittorio Emannuele and up to the right is Rosticceria Palermitana da Andrea.
This is a simple local-style fast food restaurant with just a few tables, but what caught my eye was the sign advertising their panelle. This is a local specialty made from chickpea flour and is similar to the farinata found in Genova or the socca eaten on the streets of Nice in southern France. A basket of these little, fried rectangles is a steal at only two euros and makes a great snack for sharing.
Another one of the Baroque towns in the area is called Modica and is particularly famous for its chocolate. We didn’t have time to visit during our short stay, but you don’t have to go all the way there to enjoy this local delicacy, as cioccolato di Modica is sold throughout the region. I picked up a few bars in a shop called Sapori Burgio, which was just next to Caseificio Borderi in the Siracusa market where we got the wonderful sandwiches. They had at least a dozen different flavours, and all the ones I looked at were vegan and were made with the simplest of ingredients. In fact, the ingredients list generally contained just three items: cacao, sugar and whatever else was used to provide the particular flavour of that bar (lemon zest, orange zest, star anise, etc.).
Another great place to pick up local specialties as well as any staples you might need is a shop called Gusto, which markets itself as a “Gourmet Store”. This is where I bought three of the four little jars of pesto, and they also have a huge selection of organic fresh produce, non-dairy milks, and items that you would normally expect to find only in a health food store. I saw several types of vegan cookies and cereal bars here too, though they are not all clearly labelled as vegan, so check the ingredients list.
We were back in Siracusa for dinner, and this time it was Nick’s turn to choose the restaurant. He wanted to try somewhere with super-traditional Sicilian fare, so we ended up at a place in Ortygia called Osteria da Mariano.
I was confident that I would be able to find something vegan on the menu, but when we arrived I was completely blown away by the number of naturally vegan dishes on offer. I think there more vegan choices here than at Le Comari, which is a vegetarian restaurant! I managed to narrow my choice down to two pasta dishes and then asked the server for his advice. Without hesitation he recommended the penne Monte Iblei , which was a plate of penne pasta served with a sauce of with mint, basil, parsley, pine nuts and fennel. Again, this was basically a pesto, even though it wasn’t described as such. And once again, it was delicious.
Nick had the pasta al capuliato, which looked tempting too.
Ooh, and guess what? For sprinkling on top they gave us little bowls of…nope, not grated parmesan cheese. Breadcrumbs and crushed pistachios! How awesome is that?
Always keen to sample as much local produce as possible, I also ordered a side salad of Sicilian oranges and onion. These turned out to be the beautiful Tarocco blood oranges that we came across everywhere in Sicily. I would never have thought of combining oranges with onions, but it works!
Now, Sicily had already been reminding me a lot of Greece – the amazing vegan food, the warm yellow sunlight and clear blue sea, the friendliness of the people, etc. But when the waiter brought this out, I had to do a double take:
Complimentary dessert and liquor at the end of our meal. It was like we were back on Crete again! And to top it all off, these candied ginger pieces and nut brittle were egg-and-dairy-free (though the nut brittle might have contained honey). I had no idea what was in the bottle and was bracing myself for the burn of a locally-made firewater, but it was delicious and surprisingly sweet. The waiter said it was a muscat (moscato) wine, which in this case seemed to be a dessert wine. It was the perfect ending to a very memorable meal.
On our final day in Siracusa, we knew we wouldn’t have time for a sit-down lunch before heading to the airport. I was perfectly fine with that, though, because the day before I had seen a quick snack that I was just dying to try:
Arancini (whose name means little oranges) are the quintessential cibo da strada (street food) in Sicily. While they are often filled with a meat-based ragù sauce, an Italian friend had told me that vegan versions could also be found, so I had been keeping an eye out during our trip and had eventually happened upon this sign:
Arancina, a little hole-in-the-wall establishment near the market in Ortygia, specializes in arancini and has at least 10 different varieties on offer every day, including two vegan ones! These are the “Italian Style” and the “Vegetariana”. Now, don’t be thrown off by the English translations, which still list “cheese” as an ingredient in both of these. In the Italian description, the word “formaggio” has been covered over by a sticker that reads “vegana”. Do you realize what this means? These two items used to be lacto-vegetarian, but the owner must have gotten enough requests from people who wanted vegan options that he decided to change the recipe. Woo hoo! I can’t say it too many times: don’t be shy about asking for what you want! The more demand we create for vegan food, the more of it there will be.
Now unfortunately, the very friendly man behind the counter accidentally mixed up my order, so I ended up with one “Italian Style” and one “Parmigiana” (which contains eggs and cheese). He offered to replace it, but I decided to go ahead and eat it, because (a) we had to get to the airport and really didn’t have time to wait, and (b) since I had already taken a bite out of it, sending it back would have meant throwing it away, which in my mind is worse than eating it. How you choose to deal with such situations if of course entirely up to you, but do be prepared for mistakes like this to happen on occasion. When they do, know that you’ve done your best and just move on. Despite this little hitch, I was still thrilled to find this place and have no hesitation in recommending it.
There was one other vegan street food vendor that I had passed by several times and was hoping to try before we left, but sadly it had not yet opened by the time we had to leave.
Stecco Natura brings a new twist to the conventional Italian gelateria by serving ice pops on a stick. Noticing the sign advertising gluten-free and lactose-free ice cream, I had inquired about vegan flavours and the girl behind the counter had pointed to about 20 different ones. I didn’t get a chance to try them myself, but please leave a comment and let me know if you do! They get great reviews on Trip Advisor and seem to have locations in several cities around Sicily and beyond.
And let me just stop right there, because if I keep going on about all the wonderful vegan delicacies that I wanted to try in Sicily but didn’t have time for, then this blog post will go on forever. Suffice it to say that one weekend is definitely NOT long enough to sample everything Sicily has to offer, and I for one cannot wait to get back there. Who knows, I could even see myself living there one day.