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City guide to Catania

As part of an Italian city guide series, Decanter brings you the best of what Sicily’s second-largest city has on offer for wine lovers.

The east coast port of Catania is Sicily’s second-largest city after Palermo. Its central position means it is perfectly placed for trips south to Syracuse, Noto and Ragusa and north to Taormina and Mount Etna. As such it offers a gateway to the most interesting wine areas of eastern Sicily: to the south, Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG and Noto DOC for Nero d’Avola; and north for the exceptional Etna DOC wines of Carricante and Nerello Mascalese that have exploded onto the market in the past 20 years. It’s worth allowing a day or two to explore UNESCO World Heritage Catania before setting off on your wine tours.

Like so much of southeastern Sicily, Catania was decimated in 1693 by an earthquake, the destruction having been likened to London after the Great Fire of 1666. Gone were the layers of culture accumulated through centuries of Greek, Byzantine, Arab and Norman domination.

The buildings that rose from the rubble in these cities – including hundreds of churches and countless palazzi – were fortuitously built in the Baroque style, the fashion of the day. In Catania, the decorative drama is accentuated by the contrast of local black volcanic stone and white plaster and marble. The historic centre has benefited from investment in recent years and is handsomely laid out around an easy grid.

Where to stay

Treat yourself to a colourful stay in Hotel Asmundo di Gisira, a handsome palazzo with themed rooms, art collections and buyable antiques. It’s an eclectic venue with a rooftop terrace offering stunning views of the city and Etna. Hotel Bastiò Suites contrasts modern decor with an ancient building in the heart of the city.

Where to eat

Catanian traditional food is saporito (‘full of flavour’), based on seasonal vegetables grown on Etna’s mineral-rich soils, accented with salt-cured capers from Salina, local citrus and Bronte pistachios. Breakfast in summer is a fruit-driven frozen granita eaten with a pillowy brioche. Lunch in town at Antica Marina, one of the restaurants built within the walls of the central fish market. It features seafood raw and cooked, pasta with squid ink or the day’s catch and a decent local wine list. A more staid dinner can be had at La Siciliana, where traditional dishes shine in a wood-panelled interior. My favourite is pasta alla Norma, named for native son Vincenzo Bellini’s courageous opera heroine. It features tomato sauce, fried aubergines and ricotta salata cheese.

Where to drink

The most complete collection of Sicilian wines and speciality foods can be found at Nelson. Two locations in the same street offer an inspiring shop and wine bar. The shop is a dream: hundreds of Sicilian wines from every corner of its islands, along with oils pressed from native olives including Tonda Iblea and Nocellara del Belice, lemon honey, pistachio creams, cheeses, legumes and much more. Its website is great and the best thing is that it will ship, so you can have a weight-free spree. Under the archway is Nelson’s newly opened wine bar where almost all these wines are offered by the glass accompanied by local cheeses and other snacks in a relaxed interior. If you’re after informal food, wine and cocktails, try Uzeta Bistro Siciliano and enjoy the city’s best arancini or a plate of pasta on a lively outside terrace.

Places to visit

My favourite place to stay is about 25 minutes’ drive north from Catania, at Maugeri winery, where architect Carla Maugeri’s family makes wine on Etna’s eastern slopes. Zash is its spectacular boutique hotel, set in citrus groves. She has designed the villa’s 10 stylish rooms and spa and created an unforgettable one-star Michelin restaurant in what was the estate’s palmento: the vast stone vinification barn that once produced the family’s wine. It’s complete with vaulted ceilings and the original press, crafted from a centuries-old chestnut trunk – a perfect mix of old and new with elegant food and wines.

La Pescheria fish market

Credit: Tom McLeish

Insider tip

Don’t miss the fish market, La Pescheria, that has held a central position in the port for millennia, located across the main piazza from Sant’Agata cathedral. It has shrunk in the past 20 years but still offers a compellingly theatrical spectacle where tuna, swordfish, squid and sea urchins star. It can be viewed from a raised gallery for those who don’t want to get their feet wet.

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