Blu Aubergine Blog

MARKETS: Ortygia Island in Siracusa, Sicily

The island of Ortygia, the centro storico (historic center) within the city of Siracusa, Sicily, is a gorgeous spit of land connected to the mainland coastal town by a narrow channel and 3 small bridges. It's a typically Southern Italian ornate, mostly-baroque confection of narrow streets and wrought iron balconies, fortresses and cathedrals, and plenty of ruins and underground tunnels. It's as Greek in feel as it is Italian, and of course Siracusa actually defeated Athens in 413 A.D., so perhaps what we think of as Greek is actually just, well, Sicilian. Regardless, the name Ortygia (also Ortigia, same pronunciation in Italian) means "quail" and comes from the Greek ortyx


"Quail Island" has an old Jewish quarter that's probably the most charming section of a tiny island filled with charm. The Jewish community here in Siracusa was the second most populous in Sicily after Palermo, and was an integral part of the population before they were expelled by the Spanish kings in 1492. Here in the Giudecca (Jewish section), the beautiful architecture that lines the narrow vicoli is a blend of Medieval and Renassiance, Hebrew-Israelite and Sicilian Baroque. You can even visit the miqvah, the Jewish baths restored and open, on a limited basis, to the public. Water is such an integral part of life here on the Sicilian coast, where you're surrounded by it, you're on top of it, and you sustain human life with aquatic life.


Speaking of, we're focusing on the relatively small-but-beautiful food market of Ortygia today, teeming with life and Sicilian salesmen calling out their wares. The local aquatic life is, of course, something of which to be proud: branzini so fresh they're still in rigor mortis, ruby-red tuna famous in these parts. There's Sicilian swordfish as well as abundant sardines, calamari and scampi and shrimp and octopus...all beautifully displayed for purchase and cooking for lunch or dinner (though admittedly, I'd had an amazing seafood couscous the previous evening that was so filling that I could barely fathom eating anything more than a juicy peach the next day!). The market itself is surrounded by inexpensive clothing and souvenir stalls, but the good part of the food market is mostly on Via de Benedictis, opening up onto the Piazza C. Battisti, abutting the shoreline, where there is also a famous specialty store owned by the Fratelli Burgio called Il Gusto dei Sapori Smarriti ("The Taste of Lost Flavors"). Here you can find countless local Sicilian cheeses, salumi, and specialty food items local to the island of Sicily. You can even ask them to make you sandwiches and put together a great picnic basket to take to the water or to the 4,600 year-old Greek ampitheater in town.
The market stalls offer spices sold from baskets, remnants of Sicily as a cultural crossroads. And in the general fruit and vegetable market, there are countless beautiful iterations of southern Italian produce, from numerous variations of eggplant and peppers and onions (including the torpedo-shaped red Tropea onions from Calabria, pictured here), to garlic and herbs. There are countless fruits available by the piece -- though they're so enticing, you'll want them by the bushel or the bag full, so yo can serve them by the bowlful (and they'd look even more delicious served in some of the stunning decorated ceramic pottery for which Sicily is famous. But I digress). Of course, each season in Sicily is reflected in the market, and I had the good fortune of being in Sicily in early August, when so many stone fruits and melons and berries and figs and fichi d'india ("Indian figs," what we call cactus pears) are abundant.

But of these fruits, possibly the most abundant and mind-boggling in its variety is the tomato. The market in Ortygia offered an impossibly vermilion collection of the most gorgeous tomatoes, in all shapes and sizes, I've ever seen. And the scent of them! They've never seen a refrigerator (nor should they), and the smell of ripe tomatoes, warm to the touch, sitting in the shade but in the Sicilian heat, vine-ripened....well, you get the idea. The photo at right is not enhanced in any way -- the red glow is as it was in 'real life'. You can see why I might wax poetic about this display. And speaking of tomatoes, another wonderful aspect of Ortygia's market is the variety of Sicilian-specific products featured in its stalls. We're talking about local oregano, hung to dry and sold like bouquets of dried flowers. We're talking about those peerless Sicilian tomatoes, sun-dried to concentrate their flavor, and sold alongside other salt-cured, -brined, or otherwise salt-forward products, including Sicilian capers and caper berries, olives, and frutta secca (dried fruit) which includes sultanas, almonds, figs, and the world-renowned pistachios from Bronte. Everything is lovingly displayed, and the sellers of these items call to passers-by (often in Sicilian dialect, mind you), highlighting the extraordinary quality of all the foods this proud island has to offer. My recommendation? Get it all, everything you may have room for, in your kitchen, your fridge, your bags. Regret is for suckers, not Sicilians.