Italy may steal the culinary limelight but sister island Sicily has much to shout about, says Amy Cortese.
Sicily’s long and curious history has left a distinctive cultural imprint, not to mention an understandably natural wariness among Sicilians. Invading Phoenicians, Greeks, Normans, Arabs and Spaniards have all laid claim to this Mediterranean paradise over the years, each leaving a lasting contribution to the cultural mosaic that is modern Sicily.
I’d traveled all over Italy, but this was my first time visiting its sister island, and, as I quickly discovered, over this and subsequent trips, Sicily is a world unto itself. Thanks to great guides, you will easily find yourself dining on all the Sicily must eat foods!In stark contrast to mainland Italy, it’s the Arab influence and close proximity to North Africa that’s most readily apparent in Sicily’s cultural fabric, particularly in its cuisine, with pine nuts, capers, raisins, almonds citrus and couscous all playing prominent roles in Sicilian cooking.
For food lovers, there is perhaps no more deliciously heady world to explore with each region featuring many of its own specialties.
- In vibrant, chaotic Palermo, sweets such as cassata siciliana, a delectable ricotta-filled sponge cake, and cannoli rule.
- In western Sicily, couscous is a staple, and each September the seaside town of San Vito Lo Capo hosts the International Couscous Festival.
- The town of Marsala is famous for its namesake sweet wine, while in Trapani, the ancient tuna fishing ritual known as tonnare has survived despite widespread commercial fishing.
- In the east, Modica is famous for its chocolate, often laced with spicy pepperoncini, while the best swordfish is caught off the coast of Messina, where it’s typically served with pine nuts and sultanas.
It’s enough to make a foodie’s head spin, so for that reason, it helps to have a game plan. First up, a few rules of the road…
For Sicilians, breakfast (colazione) is an efficient affair; typically a cappuccino drunk while standing up at a bar with a pastry. Lunch (pranzo) is typically the main event, starting around 1:30 or 2 pm and involving a first course, or primo piatto, of pasta and a secondi of meat or fish, followed by fresh fruit or sweets and coffee – I’ve met busy Sicilians, however, who confess to an occasional on-the-go lunch of gelato on brioche. And don’t even think about venturing out for dinner (cena) before 8:30 or 9 pm. Market Affair
One of the best ways to experience Sicilian cuisine is to visit its raucous food markets. Most cities have an outdoor market. Palermo claims some of the region’s most famous markets, including Vucciria and Ballarò, but I’m partial to the one in Catania, Sicily’s second largest city.
My heart quickened as I neared the market on one particularly brilliantly clear morning, Mount Etna looming in the distance. I picked my way through the sea- and blood-soaked fish market, stopping to admire the swordfish heads displayed with rapiers raised to the sky, silver fish curved in delicate arcs, and fresh mussels with seaweed still attached. A fishmonger in rubber waders cut a gleaming mussel open and offered it to me; it was sweet with a clean-tasting brininess.A series of alleys led to more delicacies: vividly colored strawberries and raspberries; piles of verdant artichokes; little mountains of pignoli nuts; wheels of cheese studded with black pepper; and rosy red carcasses hanging from butchers’ hooks.
After I had purchased some nuts, cheese and ham, to snack on later that day, I was ready for lunch. I bee-lined for La Paglia, a tiny trattoria off the fish market I had noticed earlier. There, I had a delicious meal of linguine con vongole (pasta with clams) followed by a simple but sublime grilled swordfish steak.
Wine is another window into Sicilian cuisine, and many wineries have begun opening their doors to tastings, tours, and even overnight stays.
One of the most significant Sicilian wine names is Donnafugata (“fleeing woman”), run by the Rallo family. Their three wineries are all available for tours by appointment, including Pantelleria, where the famous Ben Rye is produced. Of special interest is the moonlight harvest on Pantelleria each August, which is open to the public.
Planeta is another prominent maker, best known for its wines made from native grapes offering robust reds and sumptuous whites. The family’s original winery, Cantina dell’Ulmo in Sambuca, and two wineries in Menfi, are open to the public while an ancient farmhouse at its Dorilli winery in Vittoria, has been turned into apartments where visitors can stay.And what better to accompany all this wine with some Sicilian cheeses such as pecorino, crumbly and flavored with peppercorns and spices; canestrato, a table cheese ideal with both fruit and wine; and provola, offering a distinctly mature and smoked taste.
With each new meal and delicious discovery, like me, you’ll feel a little closer to this fascinating and enigmatic place.
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