In Catania, the dark grit of the city casts a spell. At first it seems dirty, like a black veil has been laid over the euphoric Baroque architecture, with its voluptuous curves and gilded trappings. Like the inky sea swells are primed to devour anything that gets too close. Black is everywhere: black lava stone; basalt. It’s the literal foundation of this eastern Sicilian city and its craggy coastline, where Mt. Etna, the active volcano, looms large on the horizon and often sends down rain storms of black sand on the heels of her fiery flares. Optimism comes in measured doses. This is a place where the local language, Siciliano, has no future tense. It’s where making plans is rarely met with an affirmative yes, but instead a hopeful maybe. Magari. However, the Catanese are hospitable. They will feed you until you’re begging for an amaro to cut through the eggplant parmigiana, involtini, meatballs, and pastas topped with ricotta. Here, family is celebrated front and center, and even in this deeply patriarchal society, the women command that ship. For the Catanese, the three most important and influential women are—and will always be—mamma, Etna and Agata.
Sant’Agata, the city’s patron saint, endured the darkness. A devout (and illegal at the time) Christian, she vowed to dedicate her life to God. But Agata was as beautiful as the plumeria that perfumes the balconies around town. A Roman prefect named Quintianus became obsessed with her. When she rebuked him, he tortured her. She was put on trial for her faith and tortured even more. Eventually, in an attack on her femininity and religious chastity, he cut off her breasts, and she died February 5, 251 CE. At the moment of her death, an earthquake is said to have throttled the city. A year later, on the anniversary of her demise and martyrdom, Etna began erupting, but simply evoking Agata’s name caused the eruptions to subside.
Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of devotees from all over the world descend on “the black pearl of the Ionian” for three days in February (3-5) to celebrate Agata’s strength and shine literal light on her path. As a twenty-ton carriage pulls her relics from the Duomo along Via Etnea and Via San Giuliano, crowds swarm the streets to settle in for an all-night affair as the city’s beloved saint slowly makes her way throughout town. Around sunrise, she will finally arrive back home to the cathedral. Among her escorts, young men dressed in sacco agatino (white long-sleeved tunics, a black chechia hat, and a handkerchief) hoist massive, hand-poured yellow candles weighing as much as 100 pounds. Evidence of their progress along the path is marked by pools of melted wax that congeal onto the lava pavers underfoot. Behind them, gold-ensconced carved wooden pillars called candelore ply through the streets, each carried by a small army of men. The largest requires a team of 12.
For a city of people who hardly ever show all their cards, the spikes in emotion can be practically cathartic. It’s the one time of the year where intense peaks of jubilation and adulation might be followed by silent weeping or even wailing. As any Catanese knows, the road behind Agata can be dark and arduous. But that doesn’t mean it’s doomed. They just have to bring the light.
A Short Guide to Visiting Catania
See & Do
Catania Fish Market (Pescheria di Catania) | Spiny sea urchins, whole swordfish, succulent bright red gamberi rossi, a sweet and creamy local shrimp that’s mostly eaten raw: before noon (every day except Sunday), this souk-like labyrinth of stalls is the site of one of the largest and most visceral fish markets in the world. Around the perimeter, stalls like Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab offer a fritto misto to go; just outside, look for vendors selling cacoccioli, roasted artichokes bathed in lemon, garlic, and parsley.
Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolo | See the elaborate candelore that accompany Sant’Agata’s relics during the annual procession at the church of San Nicolo, set within a 16th century Benedictine monastery. The building is a landmark of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in Catanian history: in 1669, Mt. Etna erupted and sent a cascade of lava down to the city, and just outside San Nicolo’s walls, you can see the line where the lava flow ended.
Cereria Cosentino | Following the nightlong procession of St. Agata, during which massive candles are hoisted by the faithful to light the path, the lava stone-paved streets become a slippery mess of melted yellow wax and sawdust poured for traction. Many of those candles are made by hand at Cosentino, the oldest candle shop in Catania. Giuseppe Leonardi, a 10th generation candlemaker, hand dips each one in his workshop behind the Duomo.
La Rosa Articoli Sacri | If you fall under the spell of Agata’s benevolent charm, this tiny third-generation shop, opened in 1930, is the place to buy busts, prayer cards and hand-painted fans bearing her likeness. Art Deco meets eternity here: it’s packed to the gills with religious articles (ask to see the upstairs back room) and you’ll find period details like a lava stone floor inlaid with marble circles just a few paces from the Duomo. And yes, they ship internationally.
Palazzo Biscari | The post-Renaissance spirit of the Biscari princes produced one of the most remarkable buildings in Catania. After the 1693 earthquake destroyed half of Sicily, the family built a new 700-room residence along the ancient fortified walls. Their private palazzo, which took more than 60 years to build, embodies the flamboyantly Baroque rococo style that came to define 18th century Sicily, featuring frescoes of fluttering cherubs, intricately inlaid floors and gilded everything. Tours by reservation only.
Eat & Drink
Pasticceria Truglio | This time of year, the sugary displays in pastry shops around town heave with the dome-shaped minne di Sant’Agata (or cassatelle), an edible representation of the martyred saint’s breasts, complete with candied cherry nipples. On a small side street off Via Umberto, Truglio is a tiny family-owned spot that’s been open since 1958. Delicate sponge cake comes top-loaded with sweetened sheep’s milk ricotta that’s packed with chocolate chips and candied pumpkin, and then the whole thing is covered in pale green fondant.
Razmataz | Most modern pilgrimages to Italy involve the search of dolce far niente; Catanians perfect the art form on the always-busy lava stone terrace at Razmataz. The hand-scrawled chalkboard menu changes daily, but a few staples might include meatballs cooked in lemon leaves, parmigiana, and some form of lasagna (from asparagus and bottarga with pepato cheese to radicchio and walnut with gorgonzola). The wine list, a who’s-who of Sicilian producers, puts emphasis on women winemakers, like Fischetti and Occhipinti.
Uzeta Bistro Siciliano | The best arancini in Sicily are at Uzeta, period. Owner Francesco DiStefano dug into family recipes to produce his version of the classic street food with an ideal ratio of saffron rice to hearty meat ragu, and a crispy crust that gives a satisfactory crackle when you break into it. Add a robust selection of Sicilian wines, including cult favorite natural wines such as Alessandro Viola’s Sinfonia di Grillo and Frank Cornelissen’s Munjebel, and the fact that it’s a block off the Agata procession route, and you’ve got an ideal spot to camp out during the festivities.
Sapio | In a town where pasta alla Norma is the local specialty and paying more than 20 Euros for a bottle of wine is the exception rather than the rule, a daring young chef, Alessandro Ingiulla, snagged a Michelin star for Sapio (his first and currently the city’s only) in 2018, at age 26. In a spare white dining room, his tasting menu pushes traditional ingredients well beyond their usual parameters, like ragusano (caciocavallo) cheese that’s creamed into a risotto and surrounded by liquefied black garlic.
KM.0 | You’d be hard-pressed to find a more evocative expression of the area’s seasons than what’s coming out of chef Marco Cannizaro’s kitchen. A caramelized red onion (a staple of markets and roadside grills) that he stuffs with robiola cheese and sets afloat in a strawberry broth is an ode to spring, and the inky cuttlefish pasta with sweet pea puree and creamy mozzarella di bufala is unexpectedly delicate.
Oasi Frutti di Mare da Nitto | It started as a mini mobile market in 1960, with Nitto selling fish off the back of his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape. Now it’s got bricks and mortar and has passed on to the next generation, but the hustle spirit remains at this bodega-size seafood market by the Ognina port. Residents bark orders for raw frutti di mare and whole fish off fishermens’ boats. Elbow your way to the counter to order prepared foods (sweet and sour tuna agrodolce; swordfish involtini crusted with emerald green pistachios from nearby Bronte), and eat them standing at tall tables on the street outside.
Rocca delle Tre Contrade | A 30-minute drive from downtown Catania, tucked amid fishing villages and vineyards along the island’s east coast, this rose-colored, 12-bedroom villa is a labor of love from Jon Moslet, a Norway-born Italian wine exporter, and his partner, Marco Scire. It took them five years to restore the 1850 building into a private retreat, adding a modern aesthetic (Belgian furnishings, minimalist marble-clad bathrooms), while preserving the building’s crumbling patina (arched ceilings; terracotta-tiled floors). The property’s pool, surrounded by a terrace and orchards, faces the Ionian Sea.
Jennifer V. Cole is a freelance writer and editor based in Catania, Italy. A former editor at Travel + Leisure and Southern Living, she is the author of Chasing the Gator with chef Isaac Toups of New Orleans. Though she is originally from the American South, Sicily has her heart.