Discovering Messina, Sicily

Francis Ford Coppola has told in the interviews that the most famous cannoli line in The Godfather (1972) by the Mafia henchman Clemenza (played by Richard S Castellano), was an improvised one.

After Rocco shoots Paulie three times into head, Clemenza tells Rocco to ”Leave the gun, take the cannolli.”

City That Lost It’s Identity

Messina is a Sicilian city you can reach by a ferry in 25 minutes from the mainland Italy. A city that sort of was not on our map at all. Messina is an ancient city, with a rich history of rulers coming and going. It has certainly had a lot of going on there in the past as it is so near the mainland. Messina has also been an inspiration for novelists, poets and play writers. We had not realized that for example William Shakespeare set his play Much Ado About Nothing (1598) here.
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Before we felt too embarrassed of our ignorance our tour guide eased our minds a little: Messina has lost almost everything for plague, invaders, natural disasters time and time again. The last massive earthquake of 1908, followed by a tsunami, killed around 100 000 residents and destroyed most of the city. And what wasn’t destroyed and what was built after this event, was bombarded down in 1943 by the Allied forces. You could say Messina lost it’s identity and has slowly been able to return to the map of the world.We arrived for a day during our MSC Seaview cruise and had chosen to learn about Messina by combining a compact city tour and tasting some local delicacies – the buildings may have been lost times and times again, but food is forever. As mentioned earlier, many rulers have called Sicily their own and thus, influences from all culinary directions have made their way here. You can trace culinary routes back to Greece, Arabian cultural traditions and many others.

Cannolli, A Sweet Tradition

Our small group of about 15 people started the morning at the busy Pasticceria Irrera 1910 (Piazza Carol 12). That particular Tuesday morning seemed to be busy, maybe because of the funeral of the archbishop (who passed away some days earlier), maybe just because Irrera 1910 just happens to be a local favorite place to meet friends, family and business acquaintances. The bakery has a wide variety of items like almond biscuits n’Zuddi and Piparelli, sweet almond pastries like Fior di Sapori and traditional Cassata Siciliana cakes, baked goodies with fresh strawberries and so on.
Cannolli at Irrera 1910
Cannolli, the sweet Sicilian tradition
Local customers enjoyed their espressos and mezzo con panna al caffè, the coffee granitas with cream, typical to Messina. We also saw someone having a granita filled brioche for breakfast. Our guide explained it is a special summer thing, enjoyed as a breakfast, snack or even as lunch.
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We were guided to sit at the terrace and after a little wait got to taste delicious, hand made cannoli. That was our reason for coming here. Cannoli siciliani are a real symbol of the Sicilian confectionary tradition. The fried, tube-shaped pastry dough shells are most often filled with a creamy and sweet ricotta, topped with finishing touches like chopped nuts or almonds, tiny, candied fruit cubes or chocolate flakes and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Each of us got one traditional, plain ricotta version and one with chocolate mousse inside.

A Funeral & Arancini

Our tour guide was a little nervous of our tour schedule because of the archbishop Giovanni Marra’s funeral taking place at the Cathedral. Roads and streets would be closed for security reasons later that day and therefore our guide and the driver did some fixes to the original schedule.From Irrera 1910 we drove above the city, to the Capperina Hill where you can admire the monumental tomb of the fallen, a building called Sacrario Cristo Re as well as the city and the coastlines of Messina and mainland Italy below. From here you can see the port, the old fort and the golden statue of Madonna della Lettura, she is the Patron Saint of Messina and naturally has her own festival, celebrated every year June 3rd.

Messina views from Capperina Hill
Messina views from Capperina Hill
Sacrario Cristo Re, Messina
Sacrario Cristo Re, Messina
MSC Seaview seen from the Capperina Hill
MSC Seaview seen from the Capperina Hill in Messina
Maybe it was intentional, maybe just a lucky schedule change thing, but after the bird’s eye views our driver dropped us to the old jewish quarters, just steps away from the Duomo. The funeral mass was still on as we arrived and we could only peek inside. Around the church there were security guards, police, representatives of different military branches.
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Archbishop's memorial mass at Messina Cathedral, Sicily
Archbishop’s memorial mass at Messina Cathedral, Sicily

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Our group headed to restaurant Dolce Vita next to the Duomo (Piazza Duomo 14) to wait for our next tasty treats: arancini. Arancini, the deep fried, bread crumb coated and stuffed rice balls come with various fillings. We got one with a mozzarella filling and one with a strong ragù stuffing. It was just before noon and the salty bite in the boiling heat was more than welcome.

Tasting of Sicilian arancini at Dolce Vita in Messina
Tasting of Sicilian arancini at Dolce Vita in Messina

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As a dessert we enjoyed the awesome bell tower show: Messina’s Cathedral has the largest and most complex mechanical and astronomical clock in the world and daily at noon there’s a fantastic show where the giant, golden lion roars, the rooster opens it’s beak for a spine chilling cock-a-doodle-doo, the golden saint statues and angels of the carousels going around, moving their limbs.

There’s even the golden, grim reaper in the shape of a skeleton. All this culminates in the sounds of Ave Maria played to the whole square. This all felt a little surreal, like we were part of the funeral of the archbishop.

Duomo of Messina's astronomical clock
Duomo of Messina’s astronomical clock
Duomo of Messina's clock tower
Duomo of Messina’s clock tower comes alive at noon
Messina Cathedral's belltower statues
Messina Cathedral’s belltower statues
Messina Cathedral, Sicily
Messina Cathedral, Sicily

Local Charm and Malvasia Wine

The final part of our tour took us outside the city. We drove by the coastline, through picturesque small fishing communities. Messina Strait has lovely beaches (and bars with nightly parties), but according to our guide the strong currents keep the water very cold. Sword fish season extends from May to July and we could observe the traditional sword fish catching boats, felucas, where the captain has a sword fish lookout on top of the mast or a watchtower and the fishermen hunt the fish at the end of a long pier extending from the forward of the ship.

A traditional, Sicilian feluca ship searching swordfish in the Messina Strait
A traditional, Sicilian feluca ship searching swordfish in the Messina Strait

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Local fishermen had their stalls roadside, selling fresh frutti di mare, also huge chunks of sword fish. A little later as we entered the area with artificial lakes we spotted mussel vendors. Beautiful, giant black and blue shell piles were sold in net bags. Local fishermen rent areas of the lakes to farm mussels, but these lakes are not only important for mussel farming: thousands of migrating birds arrive here on their way every spring and fall.

Mussels are farmed in lakes of Messina, Sicily
Mussels are farmed in lakes of Messina, Sicily
Before heading back to city for our own explorations (and excellent pizza at Comparello Bello at Piazza Catalani) we had our final stop of the tour at a roadside bar Nuovo Millennium. Here we tasted the local, sweet dessert wine Malvasia that pairs well with chocolate, almond cookies, biscuits with dry fruit, foie gras and mature soft cheese. It can be used for baking sweet things, but our guide told Malvasia is also an exceptional wine for cooking scallops.
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Enjoying Malvasia wine in Messina, Sicily

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For us who didn’t really know a thing about Messina before our arrival this day was a good one. One day we might take a ferry from mainland and drive around here. Or come on another cruise and go enjoy the beaches, the local train takes you there in minutes. For a city that lost it’s identity Messina now has a lot of character.

 


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