As you might – and probably should – expect, the seafood in Sicily is to die for. When we were in Venice, my father ate seafood every day, and said it was the best he’d ever had. I didn’t particularly care for seafood at the time, so I didn’t think much of it. However, when I arrived in Sicily a few weeks ago, I found that seafood is much, much more than a tasty local treat here. It’s a way of life. It’s practically a religion for some people. They should have t-shirts: Dio, Mama, e pesce.
Walking along the promenade through Villafranca, on any given day you can see a dozen little fishing boats out in the sea. Even if you don’t notice them during the morning or early afternoon, you notice that there are considerably more boats on the beach in the evenings. The pescherie, or fish shops, outnumber the butcher’s shops here, by a ratio of roughly two to one.
A friend of mine, who is studying in London at the moment, visited me in Sicily for a weekend, and we took Catania. Everything you read about Catania tells you that a visit is incomplete without a stop at La Pescheria (lah pes-keh-ree-ah), or the fish market. I’m always up for the local oddities, and my friend, who belongs to a very Greek family, is a fan of fresh seafood. Even though we had no place to store and/or cook any fish, we decided to stroll through La Pescheria, just to see what all the fuss was about.
We set out in the general direction of La Pescheria, which is just below Piazza del Duomo, we turned a corner and voila! There was a fish market. There’s really no mistaking it once you find it. First and foremost: the smell. The air is permeated by a fish smell, but not the gross fish smell of many a poorly-stocked fish counter in the States. It’s much milder, and smells an awful lot like ocean in addition to fish. Then, there was the water. Water was running everywhere. It was like they simply picked up the fishing boat and dumped it in this little square without draining it properly. Then, there were the people. The Catanesi turn up in droves to buy their fish for the week at this market, and we quickly saw why.
That seafood was the freshest seafood I’ve ever seen. It literally came right off the boat. No refrigeration truck necessary – the whole commute from ship to shopping bag is three blocks. Buckets of clams and mussels sat on ice, while the fishmonger rifled through them finding the most appetizing-looking ones for the little old lady holding her bag at the ready. Whole fish stared at us with wide eyes as we passed them by without purchasing any. Even fresh calamari sat in piles, just waiting for a seafood junkie to come by and scoop up a handful.
The fishmongers themselves were something else as well. These weren’t your Molly Malone type, calling out “Cockles and mussels, alive alive oh,” as they wheel their wheelbarrow around town, taking a few jobs on the side. These guys mean business. If you have any doubts about what their business is, take a gander at the swordfish mongers.
Wielding machete-type knives, these guys take orders for custom-cut steaks of spada (spah-dah; swordfish). They know which people are actually looking for food and which are tourists, and if you’re the latter, they pay no attention to you. I didn’t receive so much as an annoyed glance when I started snapping pictures of the fishmongers hauling out swordfish flanks, thwacking it with their machete-knives, weighing it, then taking another thwack at the fish. Then, they wrap it up in paper, hand it to the customer, point at their partner working the cash box, and zero in on the next real, swordfish steak-seeking customer. If that’s not impressive enough, try this on for size: Every fishmonger I saw, even the ones who had obviously been thwacking massive swordfish with their machetes for years, was in possession of all of his fingers.
Suddenly, the old “You’ll be sleeping with the fishes” threat is a whole lot scarier.
Probably the best part about La Pescheria, aside from the eye-opening cultural experience of witnessing people functioning in that much chaos, is that even if you don’t have a fridge or kitchen at your disposal, you can still enjoy the seafood, or the frutte di mare, as the natives call it (froo-teh dee mah-reh; literally, fruits of the sea). Many of the local restaurants receive their shipments of fish from the mongers at La Pescheria, so if you get a swordfish steak in a restaurant, it will be the same swordfish steak that the machete-man was cutting in the market. There are even several restaurants right in La Pescheria. Many of them only open for dinner, when La Pescheria is closed for the night. You can enjoy your spaghetti alle vongole (ah-leh vohn-goh-leh; spaghetti with clams) in the same exact spot that the chef probably bought le vongole. Also, you’ll probably still be ankle-deep in the water that le vongole came in. It would seem that after several centuries of there being a fish market on this spot, the drainage system can’t quite keep up. Either that, or the square knows that it’s a fish market and endeavors to maintain that rustic charm for its visitors.
The nitty gritty: La Pescheria is literally just under Piazza del Duomo in Catania. If you stand in the middle of the Piazza, look around until you find a white marble fountain. Behind the fountain, you’ll find a set of stairs. Go down the stairs, and you’ll find La Pescheria. Generally, La Pescheria is open Monday through Saturday from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm. However, this is Italy. Times should be read more as guidelines than actual schedules. Fishmongers will close up shop whenever they feel that they’ve sold enough for that day.