Breakfast is the meal which, after the night, reconnects us with the world. An interruption of fasting for English speakers, break and fast, for Spanish speakers, desayuno, and French speakers, petit déjeuner, the last two deriving from the vulgar Latin word disjejunare, that is breaking the fasting; for Germans it is instead, Frühstuck, the union of early and bit. In the various countries of the world, for breakfast, depending on the place, we find cappuccino and brioche, charcuterie, cheeses, pancakes, bacon, sausages, eggs, tomatoes, bread with butter and jam, yoghurt, muesli, fruits and then the Asian traditions of the Japanese miso soup, pickles, the Vietnamese pho-pho, a broth with pork and beef bones, the Chinese dim sum and noodles, and, coming back towards the West, the Russian kolbasa, a sandwich with cheese and sausage, and the rich Turkish breakfast with sucuk, a spicy sausage, pastirma, borek, fried bread, soups and all the good things that make the Turkish breakfast one of the most diversified meal.
None of these, however, equals the hedonism, the pleasure of breakfast in Catania, a city black for the lava stone, white for the limestone of architectural decorations, and blue for its serene skies and the Ionian sea. The first difference between Catania and the rest of the world is that breakfast is also a night ritual. Coming out of discos, on the way home after a night out, at 3 or 4 in the morning, in some well-known spots of the city, young people meet in the “bar”, coffee shops, or in the “laboratories” (this word indicates the place where food is manufactured for wholesaling only, so it is almost like a secret rendezvous whereby bakers allow customers the forbidden pleasure to buy fresh preparations before they are packaged for cafes) where cooks and pastry chefs prepare the “pieces” which will then be sold in cafes.
There are cornetti, brioche, panzerotti, iris, raviole, involtini and cipolline. The ricotta cheese ravioli, also called the halfmoon of happiness, opens a world of pleasure to the palate. It is a dough made with flour, sugar, milk, eggs, yeast and lard and filled with sugared sheep ricotta cheese, flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, then fried and immediately rolled in granulated sugar so that the grains adhere to its surface.
Another deeply enjoyable, and fried, piece is the iris, a bread roll made with milk filled with white or chocolate custard, then breaded with batter and bread crumbs and fried in lard until it reaches a golden color. To distinguish the two versions, pastry chefs cut a small circle on the upper crust which frying will become of a different color depending on the filling. Recognized and listed among the Italian Traditional Agricultural-Food Products (PAT), it is believed to be created in 1901 by Antonio Lo Verso, a pastry chef from Palermo, to honor the debut of Pietro Mascagni’s opera named Iris.
Also panzerotti, a word close to “belly”, panza in Sicilian, are in the shape of a half sphere but they are made with an eggless short pastry and the addition of dessert ammonia, different from the one used for home cleaning, which makes them more compact and crumbly, filled almost always with a white or cocoa custard but also, albeit seldom, with a mixture of ricotta cheese and chocolate drops or custard. On top of the white custard panzerotto there is a dough cherry to distinguish it from the chocolate version.
The involtino, probably a Sicilian interpretation of the French croissant, square dumpling made with puff pastry and filled with custard or chocolate custard, soft, creamy and sprinkled with powdered sugar, when filled with the first, or cocoa powder, when filled with chocolate custard.
Cornetti, literally “little horns”, have the same shape of a croissant but they are profoundly different. Deriving from the Austrian kipfel, it is made with flour, milk, eggs, sugar, salt, butter, and yeast while the croissant has a more neutral taste, as it is made without eggs and butter and has very little sugar thus suitable for both savory and sweet fillings. In Catania, cornetti are either “empty”, that is just dough, or with a filling: apricot jam, Nutella, custard, pistachios.
Breakfast in Catania is not made only of sweets but also of savory pieces thanks to the baked “cipollina”, literally “little onion”, prepared with puff pastry filled with fried onions, ham, tomato sauce, and cheese. All of them, involtino, ravioli, panzerotto, cipollina, cornetto are preparations made of a container and a content, a sensory path starting from the sight. The image of those treasure boxes, displayed in full sight, immediately visible as soon as one enters in any coffee shop of the city, be it in the historical centre, with their tables on the piazzas, or in the suburbs or even those coffee shops selling a bit of everything near gas stations.
Laying eyes on these delicacies can often be confusing, giving doubts on whether to opt for a savory or sweet “piece”, but the flavor and the aromas one can smell from behind the glass make the choice easier. Then the touch, while the barman hands you your choice in one of those paper napkins one only finds in cafes, made so that one does not get one’s hands dirty but cannot clean the mouth. And right there and then, once you have it in your hands, your mouth already watering, you begin to taste the chosen delicacy.
The ravioli is sugary, soft, gives in at the touch but does not fall apart. At the first bite you feel the dough and the sugar grains, then the infinity made of sweet and aromatic ricotta cheese, smelling of vanilla and cinnamon.
The iris has a different character, stronger and crunchier, it resists before giving in and opening its heart of chocolate or custard. Even though it was created to celebrate an opera, chocolate iris always reminded me of Mount Etna, hard mountain with a fluid heart.
The panzerotto, whose name seems to derive from “panza”, Sicilian for “belly”, is rounded and crumbly, the smallest of all, drier but generous, is tasted bite after bite until there is a small piece left between the fingers and you pay attention not to lose a single crumb.
The involtino, literally “wrapper”, is different, probably reminiscent of a more aristocratic cuisine, is more delicate but all the same tasty and flavorful.
Finally the cipollina, absurd beginning of the day for those used to cappuccino and brioche, but typical breakfast for locals, be it the fisherman coming back from sea or the student about to attend another day of school and all of a sudden you hear the voice of a young man who enters the coffee shop and asks :“Mbare, m’ammogghi na cipollina?”, that is, “Bro, give me a cipollina to go”.
One cannot write about breakfast in Catania without mentioning the summer, actually the year, queen, the granita in many different flavors, to be enjoyed with one, maybe two?, good brioche with the “tuppo”, bun, evoking the shape of the typical bun hairstyle of Sicilian women. Granita is made everywhere in Sicily, usually with a lemon, or coffee or almond taste.
In Catania, instead, choices are endless: all types of fruits, from mulberry to peach to watermelon, pistachios, chocolate, toasted almonds on top of the usual lemon, coffee and almond. Imitated in other cities and presented with the name “grattachecca” and in the USA as shaved ice with syrup, granita resembles the sherbet and the cremolata but is neither. Of Arabian origins, it was made with the snow taken from the “niveri”, special stone constructions where the snow was taken on a chariot and covered with straw to avoid its melting.
Granita does not leave you thirsty like Ice cream, it is made of water, sugar, and the characterizing ingredient but the union of these few elements causes and explosive combination that goes beyond their individual simplicity. Conceived for breakfast, it often turns into lunch to be eaten at a beach snack shop so as not to wait a long digestion to go swimming.
A Sicilian journey can turn into a gastronomic exploration and breakfast opens the door to a culinary world where savory and sweet coexist and one perceives all the gifts left by the many peoples alternating on the island, cross point of the Mediterranean and desired strategic spot since the beginning of time.