The Sweet Stuff: Granita from Sicily to NYC

Almond Granita at Grom

When I visited my family in Sicily last spring, I ate almost continuously for a week. In those six days, I forgot what it felt like to be hungry. This, I suppose, is the point of going to Sicily. I remember every meal I had there in almost freakish detail—a chive tied around a hard-boiled egg, the tiny, edible spines of fried sardines. At one point, my Uncle Turi said to me between bites of a pizza topped with artichoke hearts and prosciutto, “You realize, of course, that the best food in the world is in Italy and the best food in Italy is in Sicily.”

You know what? He was completely right. Of all the amazing meals I ate in every corner of Italy—and there were dozens of them, trust me—none were quite like the food in Sicily. None were so packed with flavor or so effortlessly and elegantly prepared, and this was both in restaurants and at home. They sent me back to Paris a solid five pounds heavier and I hardly cared. I refused nothing.

But my single favorite food in Sicily wasn’t something that was prepared at home. I had it at my cousin Graziella’s house, sitting at the kitchen table with her children, my cousins Gieuseppina, Rosetta, and Gieuseppe. In the morning, her husband got us a hugely special treat for breakfast—granita. I’d had granita lots of times growing up, starting with the homemade version my great-grandmother mixed in a baking pan in her freezer. There was also, at one point, an old Italian guy in a dingy convenience store in Lawrence, Massachusetts who sold it, too. I remember that granita, and it was good, but it was not quite the real thing. It was more like what Americans would call slush—more icy than not, and very sweet. My grandmother always said—still says—”It’s better in Sicily.” But then, she says this about everything. The granita that my cousin brought us that morning in Sicily was maybe the best sweet treat I’ve ever had. And for a girl who loves her macarons and her ricotta cannoli and fat slabs of New York City cheesecake, this is saying something.

It came in a styrofoam cup with a lid and with a brioche, a sweet bun that’s glazed and a bit sticky on the outside, and very soft on the inside. You’re technically supposed to put the granita on the brioche to eat it, but I think I had some coordination problems at that early hour and just sort of ate the two of them as time and space would allow. The granita itself was a beautiful balance of icy and creamy—and not too sweet. My favorite granita flavor—on both sides of the Atlantic, regardless of quality or authenticity—is almond. It’s the kind I always got as a kid. It’s the kind my great-grandmother made. It’s the flavor I requested in Sicily. For me, it’s almond or bust.

You can imagine how happy I was to find out that I can actually get granita—and a pretty good one at that—in New York City. It’s not perfect like the granita in Sicily, but it eases my cravings for not just the food itself, but for the comfort of having my family close, the lazy, sun-dappled beauty of that island. It’s at Grom, the amazing-and-jaw-droppingly-but-justifiably-expensive Florentine gelato parlor that set up in New York a few years ago. And again, it’s not perfect. The almonds are not as finely ground, so it’s a bit gritty, and it doesn’t have that blissful smoothness. But it’s flavor, its perfect sweetness—is so close. It’s close enough that I can drop in on a Saturday, drop my $6 on the counter, and be transported back, just for a minute, to that table with my family, the place where my heart lives.

Go there:

You can find Grom in major cities all over the world, including two locations in New York City and the original in Florence, Italy. I’ve been to all three of those. The granita costs about $6 and comes in almond, lemon, and coffee. The granita I had with my cousins was purchased somewhere in Biancavilla, Sicily. If you visit, I’m sure you could just ask someone for good granita and they’ll tell you. That is, if you can find anyone in Biancavilla who speaks English. Which you probably can’t.

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