There is nothing more cheering than the sight and smell of good food. In front of me sits an assortment of deep fried Sicilian street foods and bruschette, irresistible little morsels that make for some very fine mouthfuls. The mini arancini filled with classic ragu – a slow cooked meat sauce that is splendidly seasoned – are just wonderful, oozing with cheese. The ragu is worthy of dressing the best of lasagne. We taste a lovely, deep fried ball of potato croquette that is packed with cheese. The fried pizzette each look like small calzone and conceal strands of melted cheese and one fat, oily anchovy, dripping with salt and packing a powerful punch. We polish off the platter with total ease.
This is our welcome to Valletta’s Ortygia restaurant, a casual, quaint little eatery nestled on the steps that mark the beginning of Strait Street. Concealed behind a deceptively small entrance is a large arched dining room festooned with wine bottles, Sicilian marionettes and Majolica pottery of the Sicilian ceramic art tradition – specifically the Moorish heads, icons of Sicilian folklore that hark back to the time of Arab rule in Sicily.
The waiting staff that greet us are full of southern Italian warmth. They are authentic Syracusans hailing from Ortygia itself, the small island that is a short bridge away from Syracuse and is the city’s beating heart. It is a sweet mix of sentiment and gluttony for the food found here that draws me back again and again. It is a place that opens up the valves of nostalgia.
Brimming with incredible history, Ortygia’s atmospheric baroque streets lead you through a density of bars and trattorias, through shops lined with Sicilian delicacies and limestone piazze, blazing white in the sunshine.
Ortygia will have you marvelling at ancient remains and delighting in the vibrant food market, its stalls laden with only the best quality meat and local produce and the freshest fish. Enormous hunks of swordfish and tuna gleam in the midmorning sunlight, the animated fishermen yelling passionately...
Equally full of colour and character is the Sicilian pesto, a variation of the pesto alla Trapanese, that I’m about to tuck into. Set to delight, it is the colour of rust-red; every taste a bite of summer, of sun ripened vegetables and robust flavour.
Thick and rustic and tossed through hot casarecce coils, the pesto practically melts over the pasta.
Recipes for pesto are among some of Italy’s oldest. For a solid minute I urge you to forget about Liguria and its emerald-green pesto alla genovese. Instead, make your way down to Italy’s southernmost region.
No compromise has been made on the quality of each and every ingredient
From nutty pistachio pesto and the sublimely salty caper variety to delicately flavoured walnut and ricotta pesto, the Sicilians have put their own spin on this beloved sauce, with fantastic results. Ortygia’s pesto comes bursting with almonds, basil leaves, garlic, tomatoes, egg plant, pepperoncino flakes, a good glug of extra-virgin olive oil to bind it all together and a pinch of fresh mint leaves that lift all the flavours, adding depth and deliciousness. Having been fried together and simmered down before being pounded to a creamy consistency, this concoction of vegetables and herbs is transformed into a sauce that is utterly delicious, pulling in great flavour. It is an utter pleasure to savour.
The tuna steak at Ortygia is simplicity at its best. The waters surrounding Sicily afford rich fishing grounds, possibly the richest in the whole of Italy. The Mediterranean blue fin tuna that have always inhabited these waters, and their historic centuries-old ritual catching, play a prominent role in Sicily’s culinary history.
Our tuna is extremely fresh and cooked to perfection having been seared quickly over high heat and served more or less rare as befits this fish. The steak isn’t dry in the slightest, nor is it tough. Its texture is quite gorgeous with a silken, almost melt-in-the-mouth quality to it. Some lovely little accompaniments fill the plate. There are grilled marrows and charred egg plant slices, sautéed mushrooms and a salad, fresh and fragrant with chopped tomatoes, red peppers and black olives that complements the tuna beautifully.
For dessert there are two undeniable Italian classics: a tiramisu and authentic Sicilian cannoli. A heavenly combination of cream, coffee and alcohol, the best tiramisus can be to die for.
Ortygia’s slightly ill-fated tiramisu is only reasonably good. Soggy of sponge, soppy and slightly claggy, it just isn’t the sort of tiramisu that you’d live for, let alone die for.
The cannoli siciliani, icons of Southern Italy first made in the Northern Sicilian town of Palermo, are lovely buxom things, filled there and then with a thick, freshly-whipped cream of sweetened sheep’s milk ricotta.
Intensely flavoured, this ricotta is a product typical of Sicily and the traditional cannolo filling. In stark contrast to cow’s milk ricotta, it leaves a sour tang in the mouth which is not unpleasant. The fried pastry dough shells had good crunch before giving way to the soft, creamy interior.
Another lunchtime visit to Ortygia finds us sampling the gourmet sandwiches. The Eurialo consists of a crusty baguette that is spread with a basil pesto and topped with fresh tomatoes, wrinkled sun-dried tomatoes, slices of milky mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. Gorgeous.
The Aretusa sandwich is a layering of lovely things: delicious sautéed swordfish cooked with onion along with rocket leaves, sweet cherry tomatoes and shavings of piquant pecorino al pepe rosso that pairs extremely well with the firm, meaty fish. It is a wonderful sandwich.
On both occasions we end our meal with complimentary coffees. The espresso is excellent and far more likely to pick you up than their tiramisu.
Simplicity is the order of the day here. Despite the conciseness of this unfancified menu – the main focus is on salads, sandwiches and platters whilst the pasta and main course dishes are daily specials that seldom number more than a couple – no compromise has been made on the quality of each and every ingredient.
The result is food that is pulled off remarkably well.
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