To discover Catania like a true Catanian there is one thing that you absolutely cannot miss during your visit to the city: a tour of the fish market, otherwise known as ‘A Piscaria’ (in Catanian dialect).
Catania’s Piscaria is the city’s old fish market, which has welcomed market vendors, fishermen, street sellers, casual visitors, tourists and locals for centuries.
Set into the ancient walls of Charles V, which saved part of the city during the eruption of 1669, when the expanding lava reached Catania, the fish market is the point of reference for local people to buy fresh fish (and other treats) and for travellers who want to discover the most authentic and colourful soul of the city.
Discovering Catania Fish Market: a sensory trail.
I was born and did much of my growing up in Catania and I have been going to the fish market since I was a little girl. The fish market is a magical place where anything can happen. A place where the sights, sounds, smells and flavours blend into a magnificent sensory dance, full of authentic local colour.
“If you want to know the true essence of a people, visit their markets.”At Catania’s fish market you will discover that the Catanian people are closely bound to the sea and to Mount Etna. We are a people who have undergone profound changes owing to the many dominations that have followed one another over the centuries. From each domination, we have inherited something, and the Arab influence is the one that stands out most at Catania’s Piscaria.
There is a saying that is well known by the local population:
“Na vanniata è ‘na mezza vinnuta”That is, “the more you shout, the more fish you will sell”. So, when you reach the fish market, the first thing you will notice will be the shouts of the market sellers who will try to sell you their fish in a highly entertaining fashion, with rhyming sentences, songs and witty quips.
Setting out from the famous Amenano Fountain, located in Piazza Duomo (Cathedral Square) in front of the Palazzo degli Elefanti (Elephants’ Palace), you need only go down a few steps behind the fountain to immerse yourself in the colours of the market.
Among the many stalls offering fresh fish, you will also find a vast selection of typical products that you can taste and enjoy in authentic street food style: Ranging from nuts (Bronte pistachios, for example) to local cheeses. Not to mention the fish-fries, typical drinks from the Catanian kiosks and traditional desserts.
Whereas the fish market was originally a place to purchase fish, fruit and vegetables, it has now become a place for night life, with a vast range of bars and restaurants, where you can taste the best Catanian delicacies.
What to try (and where) in the Catania fish market
Food at the fish market is eaten as you walk, watching the “passìo”, that is, the people strolling along, as they do their shopping, and listening to the voices of the street sellers. You eat, you stroll, you observe, and you pause here and there.
To start your tasting, I would advise you to begin with a delicious fish fry served in classic cones from Scirocco Street Lab, one of the first street food places to be set up in the fish market.
After the fish, of course, you will need to refresh your palate; so, stop off at the legendary kiosk “Da Riccardo” where you can taste the best Catanian drinks. Taste the classics: lemon mandarin (there is also a green mandarin) and the timeless soda, lemon and salt. What is it? An extremely simple drink made with fizzy water (soda water), lemon juice and salt. This drink is an excellent ally against the summer heat as it replaces lost minerals.
We continue our tasting tour of the fish market and now see a traditional Catanian speciality for the strongest stomachs. Sangeli (black pudding), that is, boiled pig’s blood with various flavourings, served in slices. It is one thing that I have never managed to try, but if you are braver than me, go ahead! You will find sangeli sellers near the entrance to the Piscaria, on the Villa Pacini side.
It is important to know something about Villa Pacini, not so much for the characteristics of the villa itself but because you will see there is a water course running through it. It is actually the Amenano river (which we already saw in the Amenano fountain in Piazza Duomo). The Catanians have nicknamed the villa, “Villa Varagghi”.
In Catanian dialect, Varagghi means yawns, and the name refers to the old people that usually visit the city park, practising the subtle art of doing nothing, between one yawn and another.
I will not even mention arancini and granite (slushies) because they are already so well known, but I will mention one more speciality to you: la cipollina. This is a puff pastry hand pie, stuffed with tomato sauce, mozzarella and onion.
One of the best cipolline in Catania can be found nearby the fish market, at Bar Mazzini, via Auteri 6. You may be surprised to learn that cipollina is also on the menu at breakfast time in Catania.
Discovering the Fish Market with children
When I was little, I was not too keen on going to the fish market. In the summer, the “stink” of fish was unbearable to me and I hated (and still do hate), walking through it in sandals because I always got my feet dirty with the water that the fishermen threw over the fish to keep it fresh.
So many things have changed since then. A few more hygiene standards have been added, but the odour remains and always will. It is an odour that now takes me back and reunites me with sweet memories.
For children, a visit to the fish market is a sensory experience made up of gaudy colours and loud noises. My advice, to give them a fun experience, is to transform their visit to the market into a sort of treasure hunt, searching for the varieties of fish and street food, the underground river and for a cave formed by flowing lava.
An experience at the market really can be transformed into an incredible adventure. The restaurant ‘A Putia dell’Ostello, located in Piazza Currò, houses a genuine lava cave, formed during the eruption of 1669, one of the most devastating lateral eruptions in the history of Etna.
If you enjoy organised experiences, then you can book one of the street food tours, which are also suitable for families.
This is Catania and there is so much more to discover!
So, is your mouth watering from hearing about all these Catanian specialities? Then go ahead and book your flight to Catania with Volotea and come and discover the magic of the market firsthand!