As a kid, I spent an inordinate amount of time in airports. I’d make a fortress out of my family’s suitcases, curl up on the floor, and take a nap. We were making our bi-annual trip from the U.S. abroad to visit my maternal family in Sicily, and I was completely unappreciative of what a privilege that was. We’d bounce from city to city on mainland Italy seeing my aunts and uncles in the north, but the longest and most dreaded part of the trip for me was heading south to my nonna’s tiny village on Sicily’s eastern coast.
For me these trips were an unwelcome exile. My mom’s hometown in Giarre-Riposto within the province of Catania has the kind of old world charm that Americans love to romanticize (or watch in a Francis Ford Coppola film), but to me, summers there were a special kind of torture. I was the youngest grandchild in my stereotypically huge family, and the only one who lived in the States. It meant the summer away from my friends in a town without much to do where I didn’t speak the language, and where the businesses shut down for lunch at noon. Everyone there took a three hour nap afterward, which was absolute misery to a kid with boundless energy. I’d spend that time on my zia’s couch watching episodes of Belle & Sebastian overdubbed in Italian without understanding a word. There was no shortage of pouting on my part.
But my mom knew the magic ointment to turn my poor attitude around. She’d poke her head between those suitcases and ask me how excited I was to have granita soon. This instantly perked me up. All year, I’d dream of that creamy ice concoction slowly melting on my tongue as I imagined my nonna crocheting sweaters next to me. Every morning, my cousins would pick up a load of granita al limone at the local gelateria, and we’d eat it seated around my Zia Antonietta’s kitchen table before piling in my Zio Sebastiano’s classic FIAT 500 to head down a narrow winding road toward the beach. I savored every bite of that icy light sweetness.
Photo by jim CC BY-SA
Granita is a semi-frozen half dessert, half breakfast food that’s a Sicilian specialty. It’s looser than a sorbet, thicker than a slushie, and galaxies better than a snow cone. Americans may recognize it as the fresher ancestor to what we call Italian Ice. Rather than a drizzling of flavored syrup over crushed or shaved ice, granita consists of water, fresh fruit (or nuts), and sugar pureed into a simple syrup. It’s then continually stirred as it’s being frozen so it never completely hardens. The result is light and refreshing and typically eaten with a brioche, which is used to sop it up as it melts. Granita is generally eaten for breakfast, but it’s also a common salve at any time later in the day when the Sicilian sun has gotten the best of you, which, it most definitely will. Temperatures were regularly 105 degrees when I spent summers there, high enough to turn my brown hair solidly dirty blonde.
It’s thought that Sicilians developed granita centuries ago when Arab rule (circa 1000 A.D.) brought sorbet to the island. The story goes that snow from Mt. Etna would be sweetened with local fruit (hence the dominance of lemon) to keep people cool in summers long before air conditioning or even refrigeration.
Lemon, espresso, and almond are the most common (and traditional) granita flavors, but if a bar (that’s Italian for coffee shop and gelateria) has a full menu, they’re likely to also serve chocolate, pistachio, and occasionally something more off the map like mulberry or cantaloupe. Many establishments now keep it churning all day in a machine that looks indistinguishable from a frozen margarita machine, but the stuff is easy enough to make at home. All it takes is a blender, a saucepan, a freezer, and some patience.
In my adolescence our summer sojourns to Sicily decreased. My nonna had passed, and money had gotten even tighter. Quickly enough I was missing those trips and desperately looking for granita in the states, to my continual disappointment. I’d brag about its deliciousness to friends who couldn’t try it, likely cementing a pretentiousness I was wholly unaware of. I’d purchase sno cones and Italian ices with utmost hope, only to be disappointed by their iciness and sickly sweet artificiality. Even on mainland Italy, real granita had been hard to find. I once discovered it for sale on the ferry that shepherded our train from the boot to the island, and I was ecstatic. But mom was skeptical, and she was right to be. It tasted like a lemon slurpee.
Granita has trickled into the U.S. in recent years, most often through speciality Italian gelato shops. The ever-popular Eataly in Chicago and New York offers a refreshing classic (and inexpensive!) limone. And at Austin’s Dolce Neve, I had an excellent chocolate granita that even my mom would approve of—smooth, light, and rich. More recently, granita has been appearing on menus in Italian restaurants, often with a foodie twist. I discovered it at Chicago’s Cafe Lula when I ordered a scallops appetizer and to my surprise it was topped with grapefruit granita, or at Italic (also in Austin) which offers something their menu claims is granita, but is more like cubed watermelon in rose´ topped with shaved ice.
And this summer my favorite breakfast item went mainstream when Starbucks got into the granita game. They serve three options on their Sunset menu that are advertised more as drinks, including caramel espresso, white tea, and strawberry lemon limeade. Their version is coarser than the granita I grew up eating and definitely sweeter, and I’m torn if this is the granita I want most Americans to know. I’ve accepted watered down versions of Italian foods in the U.S. all my life. Will one more hurt? For now, I’ll keep churning the homemade granita in my freezer and taking my trips to Dolce Neve when Sicilia and my family are too too far away.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Splitsider, Bitch, Rookie Mag, and The Hairpin.
Top photo by Sebastian Fischer CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons