“I can still taste the simple, pistachio pasta we ate,” was the first thing Teresa said when I told her we were going to Sicily. “Their buttery, fat pistachios are so much better than those we get from the Middle East.”
“The food is so good, Clive and I gained ten pounds,” Linda told us. “You must try fish couscous at Trapani—it’s nirvana.”
Whenever we asked someone for advice on Sicily, their lips smacked with delicious memories of food from this fertile, volcanic island. It’s always been this way. In the 4thcentury BC, a Greek Sicilian named Archestratus wrote the world’s first poem about food, Life of Luxury. With the island’s long history of occupation—by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards—its culinary layers deepened and diversified. As the authors of Sicilian Food & Wine, The Cognoscente’s Guide write, “One must question whether any other place in Europe has brought dining to the level, if not exalted status, of high art the way Sicily has.”
Here’s a taste, from simple peasant food to elaborate Baroque desserts, traditional fare to up-to-the-minute cuisine, of our thirty-three days of travelling around the largest island in the Mediterranean. Its geography and cuisine so varied that like the locals, we started to say ”in this country…”
Freshly squeezed blood orange juice. Croissants filled with pistachio crema or marmalade. Orange cake. Prosciutto, ham and cheese. My favourites? Bruschetta with tomatoes and herbs. Pie for breakfast? Yes: marmalade (usually apricot) torte with criss-crossed pastry, each one unique in taste. Honey from Sicily’s black bees. The green goddess of juice (celery, pear, apple, cucumber, kiwi, lemon) in small bottles on ice on Planeta’s breakfast buffet table. Denise’s all-the-colours of prickly pears at her impossible-to-find but outstanding B&B, La Dimora del Castelluccio, in Castiglione de Sicilia.
The quintessential vegetable in Sicily came from the Arabs: melanzana, which translates as “the apple of craziness,” known to us as eggplant. It’s the prime ingredient in caponata, a sweet-and-sour cooked vegetable salad made with tomatoes, onions, olives, celery and capers, a dish you find on many Sicilian menus. The best caponata we tasted was a version with crunchy fried almonds at Taverna Paradiso in Trapani. In Monreale, Taverna del Pavone deserves a shout-out for its eggplant polpettes (like a meatball) bathing in a thick sauce of tomatoes (it’s the Spanish we have to thank for bringing tomatoes to “this country”) and red onions. And kudos to the Greek wife and Sicilian husband at Retroscena in Ortigia, who nailed it with their moussaka, the best of the many we’ve eaten.
The most creative antipasti we had was a “pizza” at La Madia in the southern port city of Licata. The crusty rim, looking like a real pizza, was made from puffed grissini, those skinny Italian breadsticks. But the crust you couldn’t see was layers of thinly sliced cuttlefish. The pizza base appeared to be a white cheese sauce garnished with charred mushrooms. In reality, it was a thick foam of sea-salted potatoes lightened with olive oil and covered with slices of fresh, raw artichoke.
If we were to choose a “best-food city” in Sicily, Noto would be number one. Arriving about four in the afternoon and having skipped lunch, our first taste was a mushroom, ham and cheese crostata at Caffè Costanza. The perfect savoury to accompany Magellan’s beer and my glass of wine. It reminded me of a vegetable crostata that Nancy made for book club, but here it was Euro-sized, a single serving. Another memorable Noto dish was the antipasti at Crocifisso: a little homemade brioche dotted with black sesame seeds and filled with layers of raw red shrimps, lettuce, tomato and panelle—a chickpea fritter that’s Sicily’s most famous street food.
Maria at Tasca Regaleali made the best panelle we tasted. An appetizer of pillow-soft bites served piping hot. Ditto for her thumb-sized arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat or veg) but for the full size, the tastiest came from the cafeteria where we caught the bus to the Greek ruins at Segeste.
Sicilians grow many varieties of oranges, lemons, limes and citrons, another result of their Arab legacy. The orange salad with leeks and olives that we shared at lunch on a side street at Rosso Peperoncini in Taormina shone with simplicity. Olive oil, salt and pepper were its only companions, as they were to the octopus salad we ordered to go with it.
Pasta. Before the Romans grew durum wheat and before the Arabs invented spaghetti, pasta in Sicily was a gnocchi-like dumpling that had to be eaten fresh. Happily, we ate pasta everyday. Okay, I was grumpy one day after an eco-inn served expensive, under-seasoned pasta, some pieces al dente as marble. At Antica Caffè Spinnato, a simple outdoor place in Palermo dating back to 1860, I ordered pasta with carciofini (baby artichokes), pork sausage and, wait for it—licorice powder. (Licorice grows wild in Sicily.) I loved the flavour so much that I emulated this dish for Lynn and Ward the day after we got home.
A few years back at another book club I belong to, I foolishly served an appetizer made with snails to accompany a discussion of The Leopard, the most famous Sicilian novel and listed among the 100 best in the world. While everyone politely choked down a mouthful or two, if they tasted Angelo’s risotto with snails at Al Fogher, located between two highways near Piazza Armerina, they’d be licking their plates. In Sicily, they serve ground snails, but they’re smaller than the French ones we know as escargot. Angelo adds fresh herbs and his 20-day preserved lemons to his snail risotto and serves it on a crema of nettles and borage. One of our best meals in Sicily.
Yes, we had excellent fish couscous in Trapani. (And delicious Finocchietto selvatico [wild fennel] couscous at the Tunisian restaurant Eyem Zemen in Mazara del Vallo.) But would you guess that the best fish couscous we tasted was at a department store, Sicilò, on the top floor of Rinascente in Palermo? Sicilò serves a generous portion of three kinds of fish (including the prized red tuna) leaning on couscous redolent with flavour from steaming in fish broth, and ringed with a circle of aioli. A saucepan of tomato-flavoured fish broth is left on the table for you to further moisten the couscous to your liking. I guess you’re meant to drown the couscous because after I’d ladled on a fair amount of broth, a waiter came by and poured on even more.
Sarde a beccafico (sardines rolled with a stuffing made from bread crumbs, pine nuts, citrus juices and zests, and currants, then baked with bay leaves and orange slices) is the first dish cited in the Insight Guide to Sicily. Watch for a modified recipe in a future blog when Magellan puts together a video of the day we made these “fat birds” in a cooking class with the Duchess!
“I’m ready for meat,” said Magellan in Palermo. We usually shared a Secondi but at Osteria dei Vespri we both ordered Capretto nostrano al forno, rosmarino, peperone, friarelli e sedano rapa: kid goat, succulent dark meat and lightly grilled white meat artfully plated with dots of mashed potatoes, tiny bundles of chard and dots of yellow pepper sauce.
“The same recipe for more than 100 years” boasted a bakery in Monreale. Between us, I calculated that Magellan I consumed a dozen loaves of Sicilian white bread dipped in four litres of olive oil. Because it was there. Because the olive oil we dipped the bread into was so pungent, delicate or grassy.
The better restaurants went beyond the salt-free, empty-taste, and nutrition-less white bread. Like Angelo’s durum wheat buns with pistachios and Crocifisso’s saffron-yellow pumpkin bread. Admiring stuffed brioche at Food Passion in Mazara del Vallo, we bought one that we were told was filled with dried tomatoes, only to be pleasantly surprised at breakfast the next morning to find it plumped with artichokes.
Sicilians love their sweets. Maybe it’s because they had sugar before anyone else in Europe, thanks to the Arabs who introduced sugarcane.
Sicily is synonymous with two sweets: cannoli (a tubular crust filled with sheep’s milk ricotta cream), and cassata (a cake with the same ricotta cream, iced with frosting or marzipan and topped with candied fruits, a dolci that’s especially popular at Easter). At nine in the morning on our first day in Sicily we bought and ate both after pushing aside the metal curtains at a tiny bakery in Trapani with no storefront and a long name, Antico Laboratorio di Pasticceria La Rinascente, where two bakers were making hundreds of cassatas for Easter. But the cannoli we enjoyed most was a deconstructed dolci at Osteria dei Vespri: “Cilindro di cioccolata, ricotta di Gangi all’arancia, cannella, cialda di nocciola dei Nebrodi, frutta candida.” A thin ring of chocolate enrobed a cylinder of ricotta cream blended with orange liqueur and cinnamon alongside bits of hazelnuts and candied fruit. On our first attempt at replicating this dessert, the thick chocolate rings Magellan and I moulded, without a mould, almost cracked a tooth of Ward’s.
At Pasticceria Maria in Erice, Maria Grammatico and her large team of confectioners and bakers fashion marzipan sweets with poetic names like sospiri (sighs) and belli e brutti (beauties and beasts). I devoured a pistachio one decorated like lace and flavoured with preserved cedar. Magellan’s genovesi ericine, a traditional Sicilian pastry filled with warm custard and dusted with icing sugar, was the best of the many he wolfed down. Maria, like many confectioners, learned her skills from the nuns.
And who would think that La Madia’s blood orange jello, a moulded miniature of the ones our grandmothers served, would leave such a lingering impression?
Have you seen the latest Chef’s Table: Pastry on Netflix? One of the four chefs featured is Corrado Assenza. His Caffè Sicilia was the reason we chose to stay in Noto, a decision reaffirmed by our friend Anna who emailed me after she saw the show and said we had to try Corrado’s almond granita. As you probably know, a granita is crushed, sweetened and flavoured ice. Sicilians are crazy about granita; they have it for breakfast. Watching the documentary, you learn that Corrado is on a mission to ensure the Noto Romano almond survives in Sicily. And when you taste his almond granita, you know why Notoians are the luckiest people “in the country.”
Our Favourite Taste of Sicily
“Which of your cookies is best?” I asked the woman behind the counter. “I’d like something to take hiking.” Her smile widened as she handed me a small, brown, humble-looking knob. “Taste this,” she said, waiting for my reaction. One I’m sure she’s seen many, many times when people first sample Caffè Sicilia’s Biscotti di Mandorle alle Erbe.
“OMG,” I said, overwhelmed by the distinctive goodness. “It’s the taste of Sicily.” Aromas—and flavours—of almond, wild fennel, mountain thyme and salvia growing among spring carpets of sun-filled flowers of pink and yellow and purple for as far as the eye could see. “Corrado collects the wild herbs himself,” she said.
We did not eat them hiking. Wrapped and sealed, the precious little bag of biscotti travelled home in my carry-on backpack. We shared them with Lynn and Ward, who had our same reaction, refusing a second, perfect cookie after dessert in the same way one declines a second, perfect Negroni before dinner. “They will last for three weeks,” they told us at Caffè Sicilia. It’s been 20 days now…
Archestratus’s Life of Luxury
Lampedusa di, Giuseppe. The Leopard. US: Pantheon Books, 1960. One of the best novels I’ve ever read, a brilliant and intimate look at life in Sicily in the 1860s through the keen observation and intelligence of a dying aristocrat as history unfolds toward the unification of Italy.
Lombardo, F. and Alio, J. Sicilian Food & Wine, The Cognoscente’s Guide.New York: Trinacria Editions, 2015.
Tasca Lanza, Anna. The Flavors of Sicily. Spain: Imago, 2001. My sister Joyce gave me this cookbook years ago. Anna ran Sicily’s most famed cooking school, now under the care of her daughter Fabrizia at Tasca Regaleali, where Magellan and I spent two nights.