Weekender: Catania, Sicily and the Festa di Sant'Agata

The streets of Catania during the Festa di Sant'Agata

There are a million reasons why you should visit Sicily at least once in your life, and one of my favorite reason is Catania, a city that was built and rebuilt on the lava trails of a volcano.  It is chaotic and crazy, and at times, calm and contained, a city on the edge of the Ionian sea and more often than not, on the edge of reason.  Catania is as unpredictable and inspiring as Mount Etna, Europe's largest and most active volcano, which just happens to be Catania's ever-looming backdrop.  And Catanesi are vigilantly faithful to the city, in a vibe that found across oceans in New Yorkers and Philadelphians.

A weekend trip from Rome to Catania is easy- a 45-minute direct flight over coastlines, sea and volcano to Madreterra, where Catania overflows from its center all the way to the sea, in waves of history from Greek colony and Roman city to Islamic Emirate,  Spanish Empire to Garibaldi and the Italian Republic.  Once you arrive in the Centro Storico, Catania and its history are palpable.  Dark lava stone line the streets and panel beautiful Baroque buildings, modern apartment buildings weave around crumbling city walls, and just when you think you are walking in Baroque history, you stumble across ancient Roman- an arena, theatre and baths.  And if you talk to any Catanese, they will tell you the legends and lore of the area from the black magic of Eliodoro to Odysessus and the cyclops Polyphemus.

But we didn't weekend in Catania for a history lesson, we came for cult ritual.

Sant'Agata travels the entire city in a three-day procession.

Viva Sant'Agata

Every year for nearly five centuries, Catania celebrates its patron saint Agatha, or Sant'Agata, a Catania-born woman martyred in the 3rd century.   The celebration is a three-day festival of folklore and rituals, and family and friends.  If Catania is puslating organism,  the festival of Sant'Agata is heart, a three-day city-wide street party with masses, fireworks, processions from midday February 3 to the morning of February 6.  And we deliberately go ourselves caught up in it.

Who was Agata and why are we celebrating her?  According to legend, Agatha was a young noble woman who, at the age of 15, decided to dedicate her virginity to God and Christianity only to be brutally tortured and killed five years later on February 5, 251 AD.  Over the years, decades and centuries, people prayed to her, venerated her, built churches dedicated to her, until it all turned into a street celebration, a solemn festival and, if you ask Darius, a pagan-ish ritual.  Considered one of the oldest and biggest street festivals in the world (the other two are Holy Week in Seville, Spain, and the feast of Corpus Domini in Cuzco, Peru), Sant'Agata is one of those lifetime experiences, and if you are an Italian kid like me with a NYC-Nonno, you know it's fun and emotional.  San Gennaro times one million.

Church of Sant'Agata alla Fornace behind the Roman Amphitheatre

We arrived in Catania on February 2, and caught up with some cousins on the edge of Etna, before heading to Catania proper.  The festival hadn't even kicked off and the streets were colored with lights, candy vendors on every corner, and a circuit of churches kept their doors open until midnight. Catania is not bashful. We caught up on Agata's history with a visit to the Church of Santa'Agata alla Fornace, the supposed site where Agata was ask to roll over burning coals, and then walked to via dei Crociefieri, a beautiful road lined with Baroque churches and monasteries. 

On February 3, we skipped what our friend Salvo called the solemn part of the festival- a mass, offering and presentation of the cannalori- 12 large, gilded candelabra-light structures that represent the artisan guilds of the city.   It didn't matter, we'd seem them later as they wold parade through neighborhoods and around the city in what I eventually called Catania Critical Mass.  Salvo wanted us fed and rested up for the evening, when the city is afire in an extraordinary and extremely theatrical fireworks spectacle. By seven pm, we made our way to a corner of Piazza del Duomo where we waited with babies and nonni, students, parent and police, for a few hours until a battle broke out over our heads- a  30-minute long rainbow firefight, accompanied by incredible music arrangements.  The fireworks were loud, explosive and perfectly-time to the accompanying score that brought us from sadness to joy.  Salvo told me that yeah, it's a big deal and yeah, the fireworks were good, but Catania does this every year.  Once over, we jumped into the street party, walking around all corners of the city, bumping into cousins and friends, and eating cedro (citron) slices with salt.  Could we get a restaurant table? Not at all.

February 4 was game day.  We grabbed a coffee and cannolo, bumped into devoti, white cape-wearing St. Agatha devotees who help in the procession, and immediately jumped into the party . . . that would continue for another 36 hours.  Salvo made a few calls and next thing we know, we're on a second-floor balcony with our own Agata (Salvo's seatmate from high school), eating olivetti, drinking prosecco and watching the mass of devoti pull Sant'Agata, in her silver-cage float, down the street.  Salvo grabbed the kids (did I mention Sant'Agata is very kid friendly), and pushed through the crowds so they could give the priests the yellow candles they purchased as a Sant'Agata devotional.   An iPhone fell from the fourth floor, grazing the woman next me and crashing to the street. Everyone below shouted us and we shouted back. I felt at home.  And in honor of Sant'Agata, we headed to the beach with everyone else, and ate pranzo seaside. Perfect day in Catania.

We returned home while the festa continued through Monday February 5th (and the early hours of February 6), literally reaching the heights of worship as the cannalori (each group carrying an 8-ton sculpture) run up the Salita di San Giuliano,  racing to the church in the soft light of dawn. 

Like I said, we came for a ritual. Viva Sant'Agata.

I cannalori.... Candelori and Devoti mix with the crowds filling the streets of Catania waiting to see Sant'Agata

Devoti pulling the cords that pull the carriage of the saint (see above photos)

Vendors sell 2 euro candles to give to the saint

Tips and Tricks

Getting there:   Alitalia  (my preference) and RyanAir.  From Rome's FCO, it’s an easy and beautiful 45 minute flight to Catania Fontanrossa CTA.  Set your timer for 30 minutes into the flight and make sure to look out the windows for Mount Etna.   On the return,  my friend Salvo insists that the flights always leave late from Catania so be prepared to wait.  Getting from the airport to the city center require planning.  We've rented a car (Hertz, and WInRent are on site), hired a transport service, taken the bus and the train. It will depend on what your plans are. If you're not planning any day trips, take the train, otherwise, rent a car.

Sites:  If you're not here for the Festa, you're here for the culture, and Catania is so rich in culture that it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.  Its (first-timer) line up of sites is like the best of every era of old world architecture.  You like old? There's Ancient Catania, as in the many archaeological sites of the city including the Roman Amphitheatre, a mini-colosseum which could hold 15,000 spectators, the Odeon and the baths.  You like bling? Well, that means you will love Sicilian Baroque, lavishly detailed Baroque palaces, churches and monasteries all over the city-   Piazza del Duomo, Cattedrale and Palazzo Degli Elefanti,  Palazzo dell'Università, Via dei Crocifieri (this may be my favorite street in Catania) and Giardino Bellini.  You want to see something more floral? There are Liberty (similar to Art Nouveau) buildings hidden in plain sight.

Il Liotru in Piazza del Duomo.

View from Acitrezza, one the awesome beach towns

Day Trips: there is so much to see in Catania, and also much to see around Catania.  If you have the itch for a day trip,  here are some spots definitely worth more than 24 hours: charming cities that show off the best of Sicily's culture from ancient Greek history to Baroque and more like Ortigia/Siracusa, Taormina, and Noto, nature lovers should head to Le Gole di Alcantara (an incredible, natural gorge that was setting for Matteo Garrone's film Tale of Tales) and Mount Etna, yes, the volcano is active, so much so that on my last visit, we had to leave. And for beach lovers, just drive up the coast and pick a town like: Acireale, Acitrezza, (good enough for Odysseus!),  Giardini Naxos and Isola Bella.

Sleep: I am always up for suggestions on where to stay in Catania.  I've stayed at friends' and relatives homes, but only one hotel: Mercure Excelsior, a standard corporate hotel that service Alitalia crew.  Mercure is in a great location (and has an onsite parking lot)- with a great view of Etna and an easy, invigorating walk to Via Etnea, Villa Bellini and Piazza del Duomo.  However, it's not charming and in the charm/boutique category, I have only recently come across Asmudo di Gisira, but have yet to stay.

A light antipasto at La Stiva

Le Minne di Sant'Agata.


I am not even going to pretend to be an expert on eating in Catania- I'll leave that up to the Catanesi.   In fact, I just close my eyes and let my friends lead me around.  They are never ever wrong.  And that's because Catania has amazing food everywhere - on the street, in bars and caffes, and in restaurants all day and all night.   What if you don't have a friend ? Make a friend.  And no matter what come prepared with the basic ABC's:

A is for Arancini,  slight smaller than a softball, arancini are stuffed rice balls (ragù, mozzarela and peas) coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. In other words, they are the Sicilian powerball, a snack and a meal at the same time. In Catania, arancini have pointed ends which are meant to be at the base when you eat them.  

B is for Breasts.  Yes, breasts but not just anyone's,  but Sant'Agata's - le minne di Sant'Agata . Patron saint of the city, Saint Agata endured many tortures included having her breasts cut off.  In her honor, the Catanese created the pastry whose shape is reminiscent of the perfect boob- a small rounded pastry filled with ricotta cheese, coated in white icing and topped with a candied cherry.  If you've enjoyed a casatina, you will love minne.

C is for Caffes and Cipollina. Catania, like all Sicilian cities and towns, has great caffes, and in most you'll find a wide selection of sweet and savory snacks, including arancini and quite possibly minne. My favorite caffe in Catania is Savia, an elegant, old school caffe on the Via Etnea across from Villa Bellini where the waiters where coppolas.  My friends love the arancini, but I head there for the fassoletto, Catania's bad ass, sweet ricotta filled answer to the mille feuille. But when I am need of savory,  my one true love is a Cipollina, a light filo dough square filled with cooked onions, prosciutto and mozzarella.  It's a game changer.  

It's important to remember that Catania is hot- temperature and mentality, which means that everyone wants to cool down at all times. That's why there are charming chiosks all over the city, and what's I've discovered is late night in summer (or anytime), nothing quenches my thirst better than a limone selz- fresh limon juice, mandarin syrup and seltzer water.  Everybody agrees.

PS. C is also for seafood.  Catania is a port city, and up down the coastline are tiny beach towns with great seafood restaurants.  Take a 20 minute drive to Capomulini and listen to the waves hit the rocks at La Stiva.

The historic fish market by Piazza del Duomo.

Late night line up for the limone selz (lemon juice, mandarin syrup and seltzer) at the local chiosco.

Hello, Etna.

The Rhythm of Ortigia

This article first appeared in Fathom in September 2014.

The Rhythm of Ortigia

Everyone flocks to the Solarium. All photos by Erica Firpo.

When she's not busy conquering her home city of Rome, contributing editor Erica Firpo is probably in Sicily, snapping beach scenes in Cefalu and writing love letters to Palermo. Here's her perfect day on the tiny island of Ortigia.

ORTIGIA, Sicily – My happy place has always had to do with rhythm and color, a tranquility easily achieved by listening to the first few bars of Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P." while envisioning Cy Twombly paintings.

This all changed when I caught sight of Ortigia.

A few years back, my husband brought me to Sicily, and specifically to Siracusa, for a Greek detour from our Roman lives. He promised me archaeology and UNESCO World Heritage, and I found the physical manifestation of my happy place — part Greek myth, part Sicilian fairy tale, sweetened with freshly made cannoli and a Caravaggio.

Lingering on the edge of Siracusa is Ortigia, a small island of 4,500 residents, limestone baroque palazzi, faded medieval houses, Greek temples, and DIY outdoor living rooms. Ortigia is rhythmic, a syncopated beat I fell into on my very first day on this gorgeous rock, and a pulse I pick up every time I return.

Fish Market

Big catch at the fish market.

Antico Mercato

Choices, choices.

Piazza Duomo

Piazza Duomo, the town center.

Here's how it sounds:

We wake up early for a walk to the Antico Mercato d'Ortigia so I can argue about the width of my swordfish carpaccio. I guzzle down oyster and sea urchin shots on street corners, then grab freshly made iris (deep-fried dough balls stuffed with ricotta) before winding our way home for breakfast.

At some point in the morning, we head to Piazza Duomo for the requisite iced tea or granita and make plans about where to find our post-lunch cannolo and cassatina (a breast-like tiny cake of ricotta and marzipan). If it's any day but Monday, we'll swing into the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia to say hi to Caravaggio's Burial of Saint Lucy. (Fun fact: When Caravaggio fled Rome, he swung by Ortigia to stay at his friend Mario Minniti's home and left the city a painting.)

We'll toss our hands in the air as we argue about which cultural site to visit: strong>Tempio di Apollo, Castello Maniace, Fonte Aretusa. Maybe, maybe not. We have a lazy lunch at home because the sun is too strong, and then we're ready to park our flipflops at the Solarium, a smaller rock off 'sto scoglio where everyone sunbathes and swims.

By late afternoon, we're ready for aperitivi, so its either back to Piazza Duomo (we're going to end up there one way or another...) or off on an adventure to find a different spot, a new view, or not. The streets are starting to fill with life. Conversations in the impromptu outdoor living rooms are more animated, and eventually everyone heads to Piazza Duomo or Piazza Artemide. Dinner is not until nine p.m. We have our usual spot, but we keep trying to get creative. Inevitably, we've claimed table space for the last granite or cannolo of the evening.

Eat. Meet. Cannolo. Repeat.

Pesco Mare

The courtyard at Pesco Mare.


Cassatine at Gran Caffe del Duomo.


Pesco Mare Via Saverio Landolina, 6; +39-0931-21075 A tiny, medieval courtyard with great fish.

Gran Caffe del DuomoPiazza Duomo, 18; +39-0931-21544 Their cassatine and iced tea with lemon granite are perfect.

Bar Marciante Via S. Landolina 7-9; +39-0931-67384 For morning cannoli, brioche con gelato, and freshly made granite.

Clandestino Via della maestranza, 128; +39-0931-465939 An enoteca focusing on Sicilian wines with an excellent raw fish menu.

Le Vin de l'Assassin Via Roma, 115; +39-0931-66159 For French flare on Ortigia.

Moon Via Roma, 112; +39-0931-449516 An artsy vegetarian restaurant with live music and installations.

Osteria da Mariano Vicolo Zuccolà, 9; +39-0931-67444 A traditional trattoria.

Fratelli Burgio
Fratelli Burgio

Sicilian delicacies at Fratelli Burgio.


I love walking around the Graziella neighborhood, home to the Antico Mercato (Via Emanuele De Benedictis). Fratelli Burgio (Piazza Cesare Batisti, 4; +39-0931-60069) is a must for the Sicilian delicacies and the five euro two-liter bottle of local white wine.

Nearby Via Veneto is not quite a fancy shopping street, but has great finds like beautiful hand-painted vases at Le Ceramiche di Renata (Via Vittorio Veneto, 43; +39-0931-714362) and hand-macramé ponchos by Donna Carmelo. Donna is an old lady who works from her home on Via Veneto. She just hangs her ponchos out of her window. Best to leave it as that.

DoLù Ceramiche Via Larga, 7; +39-0931-449451 For traditional ceramics.

Olive Via Cavour 27; +39-0931-185-4246 A Sicilian specialty shop with olive oils, Modica chocolate, and other tasty treats.

Alessia Genovese Via dell'Apollonion, 5; +39-0931-21778 Alessia's furniture is made from recycled material with a clever sensibility. She works with local artisans and makes her own signature pieces.

Ortiga Sicily


Ortigia is a Smart Cities lab with interactive information points all over the city that explain the island's history, from its origins as a Greek colony to the present. My favorite sites include Fonte Aretusa on Largo Aretusa, Santa Lucia alla Badia Church (Via Santa Lucia alla Badia, 2; +39-0931-65328), Teatro dei Pupi (Via Della Giudecca, 17-19; +39-0931-465540), and the hypogeum path at Piazza Duomo.

Or walk across the bridge to Siracusa. Find some local sesame cookies, then explore its archaeological patrimony — the Greek theater, Dionysus' ear, the Roman theater — at the vast Pantalica Necropolisruins.


Ortigia is 40 miles south of Catania Fontanarossa Airport (CTA) and is easily reachable by bus, car, or train.

In Praise of the Sicilian Tease

this article first appeared in Fathom in March 2014.

In Praise of the Sicilian Tease

All photos by Erica Firpo.

We're kicking off Sicily week on Fathom, starting with the capital. Contributing editor Erica Firpo calls Rome her home but finds the siren song of Palermo irrestistible. Here's why.

PALERMO, Sicily – I am pretty sure that Palermo is a Gemini. The Sicilian capital seems to fit every definition of the astrological symbol: fickle, flirty, feckless, inconsistent, generous, brilliant, and entertaining. Whether it's a sultry summer day or a bitter, humid winter afternoon, Palermo is a tease, a three-dimensional split personality that will tell you one thing and then do another.

To be fair, Palermo has suffered the weight of colonizations, invasions, bombings, and restorations. Reinvention is second nature, and so is moodiness and distrust. The first time I visited, I just got it. You know that feeling when you intuitively understand the arrhythmic pulse of a person or a place? I felt Palermo's beat inside me, and immediately I was in love and still am.

I love the drunken heat that means you can't do anything all day, but you can go out until 5 a.m. every night. I love the food and its etiquette — as in, everything must be tasted, eaten, and discussed. I love its architecture — the decadent, decaying historic center; lovely Liberty buildings; and even the menacing late 20th-century skyrises. I love how shops close mid-day and people still get their groceries via a basket pulley system that courses all floors of the apartment building. I love how the beach seems to push up on the city suddenly and how the mountains overcrowd its perimeters. And I love its soccer team jersey of pink and black vertical stripes.

Palermo is the proverbial kitchen sink, a melting pot of everything good and bad that the centuries have offered; an ongoing social experiment in chaos theory. Its only constant is that it is a constant contradiction. Most Italian cities center around beautiful, coiffed historic centers, but Palermo left its historic center to fend for itself, and it is now a burnt umber mess of half-standing palazzi, beautifully painted street murals, and late evening ad hoc barbecues. The adjacent neighborhoods, in particular those to the northwest like Libertà, parts of Monte Pellegrino, and Partanna-Mondello, show off curlicues and picturesque turn-of-the-last-century architecture, wild concrete gardens showing the remains of World War II bombings, and new and newer buildings. Palermitani too are a crazy cross-section of the island's history. My fifth grade teacher (she of inflexible Italian sterotyping) should take note: Palermitani can be tall and blond, small and dark, lanky and curvy, gorgeous and ugly — and they are all beautiful.


Like I said, Palermo is a Gemini, a siren and a vamp. The city drags you in with its coquettish, technicolor skies and quaint attitude. But that's just for the tease, because you will never truly know Palermo unless you've lived there for centuries, which is why I keep coming back.


Palermo: Best Day Ever

Palermo: Best Day Ever

This article first appeared in Fathom in March 2014.
Palermo: Best Day Ever

Porta Marina. All photos by Erica Firpo.

Fathom contributing editor Erica Firpo has already told us why she keeps returning to Palermo. Here she breaks down her perfect day.

Eat sfincione ("sphin-shone-ay") for breakfast at any caffe on the side streets off Viale della Libertà. Sfincione is a savory, deep-dish focaccia garnished with a red sauce and anchovies.

Walk around the shops of Viale della Libertà, a long boulevard with Palermo's high end shopping, then meander the side streets shaded by cotton trees and lined with Art Deco houses. Stop in to Giardino Inglese, a lovely mid-19th-century English garden.

Axel Void

Axel Void's Life series.



From the garden, walk to Teatro Massimo, a gorgeous 19th-century opera theater, then on to the historic center. The Vucciria market area, one of the oldest outdoor markets in the city, is also an open-air museum of street art. Look for Axel Void's Life series.

Head down to Piazza Marina for a panino di milza, a spleen sandwich. If that's too much to handle, have panelle, deep fried chick pea fritters, at 'Nni Franco U'Vastiddaru (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 100).

Depending on the time of year, stay in the Kalsa, a neighborhood in Palermo's historic center whose rough-around-the-edges old decadence has become a hub for progressive arts projects. This is the place to catch an avant garde concert in a deconsecrated church or see an installation in a shelled-out 17th century rococo palazzo. Dinner is street food: fish, sandwiches.

Da Calogero

The view over Palermo.

If it is extraordinarily hot, make your way to Mondello, the neighboring beach community to the west, for a swim and a plate of fresh sea urchin at Trattoria da Calogero. Mondello is beach time, all the time, though expect chaos at the capanne (beach huts) from June through September. In the winter, take a walk along the water, when beaches are quiet and sun is strong.


Hotels in Palermo are tough, but these are my favorites.

Villa Igea is probably the best. It's on the water and it has a pool. Excelsior Hilton has a great location and is perfect in the winter. But in warm months, you need a place with pool. Palazzo Ajutamicristo harkens back to decadent of days of yore. Palazzo Sitano is located in the Kalsa, and has a very Y2K male vibe.

Digital Detox Sicily

For the next few weeks, I may be dredging up some writing that has been shelved  as I tried to get in the right headspace.  Or I may not.  .  .

{September 2013} It's been a while.  Last spring, the Professor and I  realized that our computers and phones and apps were intravenously dripping into our daily existence. What was once a lovely symbiotic relationship [i.e. we could turn off/respond whenever we wanted], had become the clichè of photo realism documentation through a never-ending conversation of paths, tweets, grams, vines and any other word you can think that used to have normal street significance.   We had become parasites on the mothership of connectivity and we wanted out. We wanted off.  We wanted Sicily.

Why  Sicily and why one month?  Since antiquity, Sicily has been the Island of Abundance: a diverse terrain of beaches, rocks, hills, mountains, volcanoes, mini-islands, autostrade and dirt roads, an overflowing platter of sfincione, arancine, caponata, ricci, brioche con gelato, granita, pesce and panelle, and full daysand evenings of  hiking, horse back riding, car racing, art, archaeology, Caravaggio, Romans and Greeks.  Sicily encompasses everything we love and how we want to live- fresh food, fresh air and a necessary slow pace.  One week, hell, even one month is not enough.  But that was all we had, a month out of  Dodge.  The Professor's dig was dug, children's activities were no longer, Rome was hot, we found a cheap place to rent, and Trenitalia offered cheap night train tickets.  And secretly, where better could we go for a digital detox?

Digital Detoxnoun,informal: a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world:

break free of your devices and go on a digital detox

The question was Could we do it?  Could we stop checking our email, stop looking at Instagram, stop responding on Twitter, and just turn off for more than a few hours?  Realistically, no.  There was just some shit that just needed to be done: summer homework assignments, article submissions, a Keynote presentation, job interview, donor outreach, calls, calls and more calls.  And there were some things that we wanted to do, like read Night Film, research Etna and make sure to pick up my sister at Punta Raisi, whenever she decided to show up.  Since Sicily has sporadic 3G coverage, digital detox was primarily decided by the island, but an anorexic connectivity was decided by us with the investment in a not-so-fast-nor-big mi-fi device that limited how much time we were allowed on the internet.  In other words, absolutely rare downloads, no films, Facetime and Skype calls of necessity, and a strong commitment to not connect.

Did we unplug?  Yes.  We cooked, ate, invented, swam, fought, played, paused, hung out and visited a lot of amazing places.  All the same things we always do, but taking our time to be in the moment, as opposed to simply taking a photo. (Yes, we did that too).  And most importantly, I read.  I read more books in four weeks than I had from January to June.  Along with Night Film, I read and re-read a bunch of books including Ghana Must Go, A Visit from the Good Squad,Super Sad True Love Story, A Song of Ice and Fire series, 22 JD Salinger short stories, a bunch of arty-spy-WWII novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald tales, and pretty much anything else that was left in my Kindle. [Please note the slight dystopian/digital post apocalypse them as in the Egan and Schteyngart novels.]  To be honest, I had forgotten how much I loved reading, which makes me realise that is probably why I had forgotten to love writing.

Yes, this detox was much more than unplugging from our addiction to digital communication.  It was about reminding myself what I liked, not just "liked".

IMG_1456 (1)

IMG_1456 (1)

For a glimpse into our days in Sicily, here's my spur-of-the-moment Sicilia flipagram I created with mini-e.  Forgive the spelling, I was in a rush to take my time and have lunch.