Granita is a frozen dessert made with water and a syrup base, much like sorbet. It is popular in Italy, and closely associated with Sicily in particular. In Italy, granita may be served at breakfast, with Italian brioche, or at any other time of the day. Many regions of Italy offer specially flavored versions using seasonal fruits or agricultural products unique to the area. Outside of Italy, it is found in Italian communities, and it can also be made at home relatively easily.
Like many other frozen desserts, granita is probably related to sherbet, a Middle Eastern drink made with syrup, water, and ice. According to legends, granita was invented accidentally by a sherbet seller who left her wares on ice too long, causing it to turn into a block of highly granular ice. Whatever the origins may be, the dessert is made by mixing water with a flavoring and then putting it into a freezer. Every hour or so, the mixture is pulled out of the freezer and stirred with a spatula, integrating all the crystals on the top back into the mixture. The result is a flaky, granular container of flavored ice. For cooks following along at home, granita can be easily made in a roasting pan, and plated in the kitchen so that no guests will guess at its humble origins.
In some regions, granita is made harder, and is designed to be shaved. It should not, however, be confused with shaved ice. Shaved ice is made by drizzling syrup or a flavoring over a dish of ice that has been shaved from a block. When making granita, the flavoring is mixed into the ice, and even when it is shaved, it has a crackling crystalline structure that is quite distinctive in the mouth. While it might sound odd to eat dessert with breakfast, when combined with a breakfast pastry, it is actually quite refreshing.
Popular flavors for granita include coffee, bitter almond, lemon, mint, orange, and seasonal fruits and berries. The bitter almond granita made in Italy is unique, because it includes true bitter almonds, which have trace amounts of cyanide. Bitter almonds are not harmful, with careful processing, and they add a unique flavor to the foods they are used in. Many famous European foods with almonds, such as marzipan, have a distinctive flavor due to the use of bitter almonds. The lemons used in the dessert are also different, as they are smaller and sweeter, like Meyer lemons. Imagination is the only limit to the flavorings, inside and outside of Italy.