Posted on Monday, 3rd August 2009
I have since left Ragusa Ibla, but a little more on this tiny little town, which after only a couple of days had managed to charm its way into my heart. I managed to make a few friends during my stay, namely some of the older male residents, the ones who, if you read my previous blog post, you’ll recall seemed to ‘while away their time watching the world go by’. As I became more of a regular spectacle wandering the little streets of Ragusa Ibla, I would encounter the odd one who would try and talk to me. I barely speak a word of Italian, so as I watched them talk to me, following their hands as they made those gestures that Italians so love, I can only assume that their favourite pastime after sitting is to indulge in idle gossip.
What I found most amusing about these experiences was that my protestations that I do not speak Italian did nothing to curtail their desire to talk to me. In fact, it made them more determined to be understood. But because of my language failings, what I was unable to convey to any of them is that “it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat what you say, or even if you S-A-Y I-T S-L-O-W-L-Y, if I don’t understand it the first time, I probably won’t understand it the second time either.” But if I could actually say this to them, then it would be because I was able to speak Italian, in which case I would not be having this problem in the first place. As it was, I could only nod and smile.
But my favourite of the lot was this one in particular. I am not that tall, but I still managed to tower almost a full head over him. He was really sweet, and on a couple of occasions wanted to help me on my way – even though I wasn’t actually lost. So from hereon in, I shall refer to him in my memories as ‘grandpa’ as I would dearly loved to have been able to adopt him as my own.
I did end up befriending another local who coincidentally spoke English (phew) on my second day there, and somehow, just somehow, we got chatting about food. “In Ragusa we love food. Ragusa is all about food” he tells me, at which point I realise that I have officially fallen in love with this place. Is there some special karmic energy that draws food lovers (no matter what language they speak) together? He lived with his mother (bless), and curious to see if she fit the stereotype, I couldn’t resist asking about her cooking habits. “She cooks all day, every day”, he said, “it’s not good”, pinching the excess on his girth. I felt very happy indeed that there are some traditions that do not seem to die.
He suggests trying out a restaurant called Quattro Gatti which serves typical Ragusano food and where the ingredients are locally sourced. How could I refuse? It’s a little hidden away, off the main street, so despite the fact that Ragusa Ibla is very small one might still have trouble discovering it. Mr Local tells me that if I wanted to eat the same food at any of the restaurants on the main street I would be paying double the price, since they’re the ones that draw in the tourists. The Chef has also apparently appeared on food shows in Sicily.
We chose the degustation menu (€18) which included antipasti, a pasta course, a fish course, dessert and coffee. The antipasti were plentiful and delicious. With reference to the picture below, we had local Ragusano cheeses which included different types of cow’s milk ricotta (there are no sheep here so the local ricotta is always made from cow’s milk) and hard cheeses; local salamis (all from Ragusa) which were quite spicy; olives; and focaccia which was some of the loveliest I’ve ever had. Slightly salty, with a touch of oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, the focaccia were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Mr Local tells me that the slang words for this focaccia bread translates as ‘old woman’s face’ because of its slightly crinkly surface. There was also a delicious Sicilian omelette smothered with homemade tomato sauce.
There was also a dish of parmigiana – a mixture of aubergine, tomatoes and a local Ragusano cheese, which with its slightly salty taste, added body to this rustic, homely dish.
Next was scacce, which consisted of layers of something that resembled a cross between bread and pasta, followed by layers of cheese and tomato. This is uniquely Sicilian. In fact the word scacce is from the Sicilian dialect. Mr Local tells me that if you had to use an Italian word, it would be focaccia, although this isn’t technically correct.
To the breads. These were also unique to Ragusa, although they may also be found in neighbouring towns. In comparison to breads that one might more commonly eat, the ratio of yeast to flour is used produces a bread which is really dense. And because of its density, the bread can apparently keep for a week. Olive oil is also an ingredient that is added.
Next was the pasta course. We were served two types, both local, one of which was ravioli filled with ricotta (which can of course be found in other parts of Italy) and cavati, which is a type of pasta shaped that the two opposite sides curl inwards towards each other. Mr Local tells me that the traditional way of making this was to cut the pasta into small squares, place it on the end of a fork, and run your finger along its centre to get it to curl. These days, the pasta is predominantly made by machine. The pastas were covered with a ragu made with sausage meat, carrots and onions, which had been cooked slowly for three to four hours. There was also a strong taste of bay leaf and cloves in the sauce, but I would have preferred a clearer tomato flavour. Mr Local tells me that what we had is in keeping with the traditional recipe, although he too prefers a clearer tomato flavour as that is how his mother makes it.
The fish courses were mussels with tomato, garlic and onions, and tuna cooked with onions and capers. Interestingly, Mr Local tells me that seafood is not considered local to Ragusa, even though the coast is about 20km away. Ragusano cuisine is about meat as the town is landlocked, so these seafood dishes can only be considered typical of Sicily and not Ragusa. The mussels were pleasant, but the wine had not been cooked off properly so you could still taste it. As for the tuna, I found this heavily overcooked and therefore a bit dry, so it wasn’t to my liking.
There were also some sides of roast potatoes and onions. I really enjoyed these, in particularly the latter, which are unique to a town called Giarratana, about 5km away from Ragusa Ibla. These onions grow flat, not round, and are renowned for their sweetness (something to do with the soil). They tasted like sweet caramelised onions, almost buttery, only no butter had been used in their roasting, just oil, and they were some of the most delicious tasting onions I have ever had. Stuffed to the gills, I could barely manage to finish my delicious dessert of cannolo made with cow’s milk ricotta.
Service was really attentive throughout the evening, and where she could, our Czech-born, Italian and English speaking waitress would pitch in with a running commentary on the food too. This dinner rated as perhaps one of the most enjoyable and informative meals I have ever had. True, there were some things I didn’t enjoy as much as others, but equally there were some things I loved. But for the one authentic, unique taste of Ragusa, Sicily, Italy, this was an experience that was hard to beat.
Quattro Gatti – Osteria con giardino
Via Valverde 95,
Ragusa Ibla 97100
Tel: +39 0932245612 or +39 3394244992