Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy – Il mercato di Ortigia

May 14, 2020

We are walking through the Ortigia market in Siracusa because it is nearly lunch time and we are hungry. It is a jumble of people and produce. Even though it is open every day except Sunday it has a temporary look and only the buildings lining Via Emanuele di Benedictis give it any suggestion of permanence. There is a rather elegant market building -Mercato Antico – at one end of the market street. Completed in 1900, it has been restored and used as a farmers’ market and to stage concerts and events. It is very ordered with its arched arcades and rather formal compared to the more relaxed street market Umbrellas, awnings, ape trucks that have seen better days, piles of plastic crates and glowing displays of produce on show to best catch the customers eye are set in the street between buildings with weather stained facades and sea air rusted iron balconies. Shoppers mill around the stalls selecting what they need. Visitors stare. Some times with confused expressions, sometimes with blank indifference, occasionally with genuine interest. Perhaps they are suffering from a sensory overload. There is a lot to take in.

This market is a joyous festival of Sicilian fruit, vegetables and fish, a jumble of sights, smells. sounds and dots of colour as in a pointillist painting. An insistent olive seller is tempting Sandra. “Verde? Nero? Un chilo?” He scoops plump olives into a plastic bag “No, Grazie.” “Piu?” “No!” “Allora, un mezzo chilo?” Sandra gives in and buys half a kilo before he tries to sell her 3 kilos of capers.

Under the next awning there are cucuzze, a long, often curved pale green variety of squash. This is a Sicilian specialty that looks like a strange musical instrument. Do you play a tune on them or cook them? There are swirls of soft pale green tenerumi, the leaves and tendrils of the cucuzza plant which are boiled then sautéed with garlic. Cedro looking like large warty thick-skinned lemons whose skin is candied and used in Sicilian patisserie, blood oranges cut to expose their red hearts, boxes of almost fluorescent orange clementines. All the usual southern vegetable suspects are on unabashed sensual display. Purple eggplant, spiralling flower heads of broccolo Romano, fire engine red peppers, anise scented fennel. A fishmonger has glistening argent polished fish tumbling from their tubs across the counter. Spatola like long shimmering silver ribbons are looped around themselves for display and there are tiny fish more bone than flesh destined for soup. Razza, vaguely diamond shaped rays, octopus so fresh it is still writhing, blue black striped mackerel, tiny totani and larger types of squid, small pinkish red mullet, huge red fleshed tuna being sliced on demand. Sea, salt and the wonderful fresh smell of just caught fish mixes with the odour of fried anchovies to be handed to customers in paper cones. And just opposite calamari sizzle on the grill perfuming the market air. Loudly vocal stall holders are yelling the superiority of their produce.


We have done our research and we know where to find a great lunch. Fratelli Burgio is a wonderful salumeria on the ground floor of a modern apartment building at the end of the market. It’s a temple to Sicilian gastronomy, a display of plenty and diversity. As well as salami and meats there is an incredible range of wine, cheese and preserved delights, caponata, olives, pesto, eggplant, tuna pate’, tomato salsa and pistachio cream. The best of Sicily in jars. Outside in the market chairs and tables from Ikea are set under umbrellas. They are occupied by tourists, local workers and students all lunching on products from Fratelli Burgio. It’s madly busy and seems chaotic but Squadra Burgio have it all under control despite having more potential customers than seats for them. They are as well practiced in herding customers and preventing anyone wandering off to have lunch somewhere else as a kelpie rounding up a flock of sheep.

The thing to do here is to order platters with a variety of tastes. This is a great way to sample a wide range of typical Sicilian products and flavours, a primer of cucina Siciliana in a single lunch time. Bottarga, squid terrine with ink, sardines and caponata, octopus terrine, swordfish with funghi and eggplant, mackerel with onion, green olives, prosciutto, ricotta and mortadella mousse, zucchini with mint, salami, cheese with saffron and black pepper. And to finish cannoli with ricotta and pistachio. A simple light lunch of great variety and interest using brilliant local products.

At a nearby table is a group, all as pallid and Northern European looking as me. I don’t think they are Siracusani. They study the menu for a few minutes and after some deliberation order a panino with prosciutto each. That’s safe. They know that one. They have come all the way to Sicily to have a ham sandwich for lunch! I’m sure that you can get one of those back home in Huddersfield. I never understand this. How much will it hurt to try something new and unfamiliar. Perhaps you will have a delicious experience and if not don’t order that again. I take a bite of swordfish with mushroom and eggplant. They will never know what they are missing. I have a sip of very good Etna Bianco. They are drinking water.

While we are waiting for our lunch at Fratelli Burgio I take in our surroundings. Just near us is the famous Caseificio Boderi where they assemble super panini with great flourish. Their party trick is to stuff more local ingredients into a panino than anyone has ever thought possible. It’s a famous show that attracts crowds throughout the day. There is a waiter inviting anyone who gives him even a quick glance to have one of the most famous rolls in Siracusa. A young English couple complete with baby in a pusher are taking in the market, wide eyed and looking slightly confused at the organised chaos of lunch time. “Buongiorno signori. Woulda you like some lunch? We ‘ave very gooda lunch.” Very polite and friendly. They look at him with how dare you speak to me expressions and look him up and down with complete disdain as though he had just made an improper suggestion to the woman. With a snort they turn their backs and walk on. He looks at them and says in his best and most practiced English. “And you can …”. He hesitates and enunciates clearly. “…..get fu***d!”

Written by Alf




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