My students in Milan had told me that breakfast in Sicily was golosa - gluttonous, rich - but a must-try indulgence. Despite the rush of traveling, I parceled out time to stop for breakfast before departing Catania, putting aside dependence on my beloved guidebook to stop in a nondescript bar by the bus station. I ordered what one must in Sicily: an almond granita and chocolate brioche.
As with most food in Italy, breakfast is subject to a bizarre but ironclad set of rules, and accepting them without meddling in details like “scientific facts” is key to enjoying the culture. Italians define their morning meal less by food and more by espresso beverage. Eggs are considered unthinkably heavy for morning, yet cake is a regular occurrence and the cream cheese brownies I made my first host family were served as breakfast. But a brioche AND a granita? That radical indulgence is reserved for those gluttonous Sicilians.
A granita is essentially a more refined snowcone. Using the simple ingredients of water, sugar, and flavoring, the western part of the island freezes and scrapes the mixture to keep a granular, icy texture, while the eastern side, where I was staying, uses a gelato machine to ensure smoothness. Eaten as a dessert, snack, or yes, for breakfast, granitas are essential to staying refreshed in the unrelenting heat of Sicilian summers.
I never saw another person order a granita and brioche, despite its supposed tradition status. Granted, my mental setting of vacation-mode meant I generally arose just in time for the tail end of breakfast at my hotels, so I wasn’t regularly partaking with locals. But even on this, my last morning in Sicily, when I dragged myself into the bar something far less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I got strange looks from the waiter as I placed my order at the bar. He brought out a still-warm chocolate brioche and set a small coupe of almond granita next to it, the judgment clear on his face.
After one taste I did not care. The American granita I was used to had an icy, grainy texture to them, but this was cool silk. I exhaled the nutty, floral notes in a reverent bliss before taking a bite of the brioche. As flaky morning pastries require a great deal of skill to make, most bars in Milan relied on an Italian version of Sysco, meaning the same standard, stale brioche were found at every bar. This was different. I felt the warm chocolate smear on my face, but in my sugar rush there was no time to be a delicate lady. I alternated between the impossibly creamy granita and the flaky, gooey pastry until there was no more.
Satisfied, I leaned back from my feeding frenzy and the barman slid a napkin dispenser towards me. I touched my face in horror: it was like I had gone bobbing for apples in chocolate. The sticky mess covered my mouth, chin, cheeks, and nose - the napkins were futile and the barman laughed at my attempts. I finally gave up and headed to the bathroom to wash my face and salvage some of my dignity.
When I returned to the bar chocolate-free to collect my suitcase and head to the bus, the barman commented, “Goloso, eh?” Even he thought my breakfast had been wretched excess. “Si,” I replied, thinking of the 10 minutes I just spent shamefully cleaning my face in the bathroom, how my jeans already felt tighter, and, wistfully, all the mornings wasted eating cake at a hotel when I could have had granita, “Ma se vale la pena.” It is worth it.