Eating Your Way Across Sicily
|Tasty Sicilian arancini snacks — orange-shaped fried rice balls — are stuffed with veggies or cheese with meat sauce.|
By Heidi Van Sewell
While Sicilian food tends to be spicier than north Italian cuisine and heavier on tomato sauces, there is so much more to the food than what most Americans are familiar with. The constant invasion of the island by foreign cultures has left an indelible mark on its culinary traditions. For example, when the Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th century AD, they began cultivating rice and sugar cane — and harvesting snow and ice from Mt Etna — to make sorbets and gelato. They also contributed the tradition of combining exotic mixtures of nuts, fruit, fish, herbs and bread, as in pasta con le sarde made with fresh sardines, fennel, onions, pine nuts, raisins, capers and bread crumbs. Rice is used to make Sicilian snacks called arancini — fried rice balls shaped like oranges (arancie) and stuffed with meat sauce and cheese or vegetables. The island's proximity to Africa means it has taken culinary influence from Tunisia as well. Couscous with vegetables, meat or fish is a specialty in western Sicily.
Despite being one of the poorest areas in Italy, Sicily is blessed with plenty of sunshine and rich volcanic soil that produces flavorful fruits and vegetables. Eggplant plays a major role in the southern Italian diet and is prepared in numerous creative ways as in Pasta alla Norma — fried eggplant and pasta tossed with tomatoes, ricotta salata (salted ricotta cheese) and fresh basil.
The island also relies heavily on the Mediterranean to shape its cuisine. Seafood stars in the main courses, especially swordfish made into rolls (involtini) stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins — or simply breaded and grilled (impannato). Tuna is another prized fish, best prepared simply. Try it grilled with a squeeze of local lemon and extra virgin olive oil — or prepared like sushi, Italian style (carpaccio di tonno).
Sweets in Sicily are much sweeter than in the north. The most famous dessert is cannoli — a fried pastry cylinder stuffed with sweetened sheep's milk (ricotta). Sicilian cassata comes in at a close second, made from sponge cake layered with sweetened ricotta, candied fruits and pieces of chocolate. For centuries, monks and nuns were the main producers of pastries, which they sold to the public to support their religious orders. Each convent had its own specialty, like the pasta reale produced by the Martorana convent in Palermo. The pasta reale, or marzipan (almond paste made from the best Sicilian almonds), is painted and sculpted into such fanciful designs that it earned the title "royal pastry" — pasta reale.
In the sizzling summer, the most refreshing desserts are the cold ones: gelato and granita. Granita (what we'd call a slushy) is usually flavored with espresso and topped with fresh whipping cream, or made with fresh squeezed sweetened lemon or orange juice. Gelato (ice cream) is made from the freshest local ingredients. The number of flavors is mind-boggling! Try gelato with pistachios grown on the flanks of Mt Etna or with sun-ripened melone. But don't save it just for dessert. Sicilians eat gelato in their brioche — a soft, lightly sweetened bun split like a sandwich — for breakfast!
Sicilian wines are becoming more prestigious. Grapes have been cultivated in the area since at least the 8th century BC when the island was part of Magna Graecia. In the past, hearty Sicilian grapes were either exported to fortify French and northern Italian wines, dried and used in the local cuisine, or made into rich, fortified dessert wines like Marsala. Recently, there has been a return to the production of drinking wines, with the whites coming out on top. Bianco d'Alcamo, a dry white wine from the western half of the island, is a top notch white with a light and fruity flavor that is well paired with fish. Straw-colored Insolia is a popular wine to drink with antipasti, fish or white meats. Nero d'Avola — an intense, velvety red wine, ranging from medium to full bodied — is sometimes used to make hearty sauces, but best drunk with roasted meats like lamb or rare steak. Salute!
Heidi Van Sewell leads Rick Steves tours throughout Italy