If you were to condense the Italian experience into a single, keepsake moment, that memory could be of a visit to Palermo’s vibrant Il Capo street market. The sounds, smells and colors there create one of the most authentic snapshots of Italy. Housewives spread laundry from overhead windows. Three-wheeled Piaggio Apes honk through the pulsing crowd of determined shoppers and feisty vendors. And everywhere: abundance.
This is what sets Il Capo apart. It is a showcase for the country’s bounty, in the overproportioned size of the vegetables, the bright saturation of the fruit colors and the sheer variety of seafood and shellfish on display.
It comes as no surprise that Sicily, at the heart of the Mediterranean, played a role in the lives of all the goddesses dedicated to fertility, from Ceres to Demeter, and Venus to Aphrodite. From the time of the ancients who spun those myths, Sicily has evolved a highly sophisticated and complex culinary tradition that matches the impressive caliber of other hot-climate cuisines, like those found in India, Mexico and Morocco.
“The sun provides us with the key to understanding Sicilian food,” says Anna Tasca Lanza, who has written several books on her native island’s cuisine and founded its most important cooking school. “The sun is a powerful natural force that blesses everything that grows in Sicily with intense flavor and shapes the daily life of its people.”
Besides its favorable climate and fertile growing conditions, Sicily is heavily shaped by the outside forces that skirted its perimeters throughout civilization. Its strategic positioning made it a natural resting spot for the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. The Greeks are said to have introduced olive trees and grapevines for oil and wine, while the Romans accumulated vast stockpiles of durum wheat and other grains.
The most significant growth in Sicilian cuisine came with the Arab domination of the island that started in A.D. 827 and continued for hundreds of years. While the rest of Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, Sicily experienced its own gastronomic renaissance.
The Arabs brought the technology for irrigation aqueducts and smaller, more diversified farming plots. They also imported key ingredients such as noodles, citrus, rice and, most importantly, sugar. These opened new horizons for Sicilian food. Sweet and sour contrasts, found in such dishes as eggplant caponata with vinegar and capers, originated during this time. The Arabs were also responsible for the island’s famous desserts, which feature honey, almonds and pistachios.
“Sicilian cuisine is a blend of different cultures and races,” says Chef Ciccio Sultano, who infuses many classic recipes with a modern touch at Ristorante Duomo in Ragusa Ibla. “It really is the most complex and complete in Europe.”
After the Arabs came the Spaniards, who introduced the flavors of the New World: peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, zucchini and eggplant. In the mid-19th century, the British established a benign military presence in Sicily’s port city of Marsala. As they did with Port and Madeira, the British experimented with fortifying the local wines; the seeds of Sicily’s powerhouse wine industry were sown at this time.
The three recipes presented here not only represent Sicily’s classic dishes, but they also reflect the international influences that continue to shape local cuisine.
One of the most elaborate but rewarding classics from Sicily is seafood couscous, a culinary point of pride in the area around Trapani in southwestern Sicily. It represents one of the most obvious examples of Arab influence found in Sicilian cuisine, with North Africa only 200 miles away. Variations of the dish, which are plentiful, rely on whatever the local fishermen have caught that morning.
Born in the port city of Catania on the east side of the island, Pasta alla Norma was named after Vincenzo Bellini’s lyrical opera Norma, featuring a tormented high priestess—the role has challenged soprano singers since the work was first produced in 1831. Legend says the dish was invented at a tavern located near Catania’s Teatro Massimo Bellini opera house. After seeing the opera, a tavern client praised the dish’s abundant flavors and declared it “just like Norma.”
Involtini (meat rolls barbecued on skewers, also called spiedini) is said to have originated in the town of Bagheria, near Palermo. On the other side of the island near Catania, they are known as sasizzeddi, and spicy salami is added to the filling.
Think of the abundant offerings of fresh ingredients found at Il Capo market as you stroll the farmers’ market closest to you.
Couscous alla Trapanese
With the soft texture of the semolina flour enhanced by the delicate nature of the seafood, this dish makes an excellent companion to a structured Sicilian white wine or light red. Unlike the meat couscous made in Tunisia and Algeria, the Sicilian expression is not heavy or overtly spicy.
For the fish broth and couscous:
4 cups water
1 large white onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
10 black peppercorns, whole
10 ounces white-fleshed fish
Salt to taste
14 ounces couscous
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons broad leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
For the fish sauce:
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)
5 to 10 saffron threads
½ large chili pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 pounds fresh seafood, cleaned; any combination of red mullet or bream prawns, calamari, mussels or shrimp
3 tablespoons broad leaf Italian parsley, chopped
To make fish broth:
In a large pot, add water, onion, carrot, celery, bay leaves, black peppercorns and fish and simmer for 25 minutes. Strain the broth through a cheesecloth, reserving the liquid and discarding the solids. Season with salt to taste.
To cook couscous:
Pour the couscous grains into a large sauté pan set over low heat. Add the hot fish broth and olive oil, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon until the grains absorb all the moisture and are soft, but not clumpy. Mix in the chopped parsley at the end.
To make the fish sauce:
In a large pot, sauté the garlic and onion in olive oil until transparent. Add the tomatoes, saffron, chili pepper and salt, and cook for 35 minutes, making sure the tomatoes are fully stewed.
Add water and tomato paste to keep the sauce from becoming too reduced. Add the fish, starting with the seafood that takes the longest to cook—beginning with the calamari and ending with the red mullet or bream. Simmer until the sauce has the consistency of a creamy soup. Finish with parsley.
Place a small portion of couscous in a serving bowl and top with fish soup. Serves 4.
This elegant dish would pair well with Planeta’s Cometa, a concentrated Fiano-based white wine with a long finish.If you prefer red wine, another interesting match would be a Cerasuolo di Vittoria from COS, a biodynamic producer that ages its wines in clay amphorae.
Pasta alla Norma
Topped with fried eggplant and salted ricotta cheese, this Sicilian classic ranks high on any list of Italy’s best pasta dishes. The freshness and simplicity of the ingredients, as well as the brilliant juxtaposition of sweet tomato and eggplant with savory cheese, are what set it apart.
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 pound peeled tomatoes, fresh or canned
Salt and pepper to taste
10 to 15 large basil leaves, cleaned, divided
2 medium eggplants, unpeeled, cut into inch-long cubes
14 ounces maccheroni pasta (or large tubes)
7 ounces ricotta salata
In a large skillet, fry the garlic in a tablespoon of the olive oil until soft and light gold in color. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper and half the basil leaves and simmer for 25 minutes. In a second skillet, add the full cup of olive oil, until it fills up ½ inch of the skillet; fry the cubed eggplant until crispy and golden.
Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted water. Drain and place in a large bowl. Mix in the tomato sauce until the pasta is evenly coated. Remove the fried eggplant from the oil and pat dry with a paper towel until the excess oil is removed. Add the eggplant over the pasta and sauce so that the cubes remain crunchy and piping hot. Using the side of the cheese grater that produces thick shreds, grate the fresh ricotta salata over the pasta and fried eggplant. Garnish with the remaining basil leaves. Serves 4.
This easy dish could pair with a white, rosé or a light red wine, but the excellent wines of Mount Etna are ideal. For a white, Benanti’s Pietramarina, made with Carricante, fits the bill. But for an Etna red that delivers both the bouquet and power to pair with a dish like this, try Tenuta delle Terre Nere’s Guardiola.
Involtini alla Siciliana
Despite Sicily’s irresistible abundance of fresh fish and vegetables, meat dishes also feature regularly in Sicilian cuisine. There are any number of variations of involtini. Veal or even swordfish can be substituted for the pork, and the rolls can be grilled or fried in olive oil.
For the filling:
1 onion, chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
10 ounces breadcrumbs
10 ounces grated cheese (either aged caciocavallo, pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
2 ounces white raisins
2 ounces pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
For the meat rolls:
2 pounds pork chops, boned and flattened with a meat pounder
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons salt
2 large whole onions, cut into
20 fresh bay leaves
Make the filling:
Place the chopped onion in a large skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil and fry until soft and transparent. Set aside to cool. In a large bowl, combine breadcrumbs, cheese, raisins, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Add the onion. Mix well with your hands, adding a tablespoon or more of olive oil to keep the mixture moist. The filling should be soft and compact without crumbling.
Prepare the pork:
Section the pork so that you have 20 pieces. Rub the pieces with olive oil on both sides and sprinkle with salt. Add about a tablespoon of the filling onto the pork chop and roll tightly. Using bamboo* or metal skewers, first impale one onion segment, one bay leaf and one pork roll, repeating until 5 pork rolls are placed; onion should enclose the skewer on both sides. When finished, drizzle over more olive oil and roll over any remaining breadcrumbs to lock in softness and moisture. Grill until pork registers 140°F on an instant-read thermometer, or is slightly pink in the center. Makes 4 skewers with 5 meat rolls each.
*Note: Soak bamboo skewers briefly in water beforehand to prevent them from catching fire.
Sicilian reds can match the smoky flavor of this dish. Try the Nero d’Avola-based Rosso del Conte by Tasca d’Almerita, which offers bold flavors of red fruit, firm structure and great evolution in the glass, or the streamlined elegance of Firriato’s Ribeca, made from the native Perricone variety.
Here’s another great Sicilian classic!
For another authentic taste of Sicily, look no further than Formaggio all’Argentiera—a simple Palermo dish of fried cheese cooked with garlic, vinegar and oregano. According to Mary Taylor Simeti, author of Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food (Knopf, 1989), the name comes from a silversmith—perhaps mythical, perhaps lost to history—who had fallen on hard times and could not afford meat. In order to hide his reduced circumstances from his neighbors, he prepared this dish, either outside or with the kitchen windows wide open, which is said to have identical aromas to that of roasting rabbit. It’s a typically flamboyant gesture, common to poor urban Sicilians, who toss scraps of meat and fat onto a fire to impress their neighbors. This tradition, Simeti writes, is summed up by a Sicilian proverb: Tutto fumo e niente arrosto, or “all smoke and no roast.”
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1½ pounds smoked caciocavallo (see Note below), cut into ½-inch-thick rounds
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon sugar
1 loaf of rustic hearth bread or 1 baguette, sliced and warmed
Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan—cast iron or heavy non stick is ideal—over medium low heat, add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds and then remove and discard. Set the cheese in the pan in a single layer and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Use a metal spatula to quickly turn the cheese over and cook further until it is nearly melted, about 2 minutes. Working quickly, sprinkle the oregano, the vinegar and sugar over the cheese, and cook 1 minute longer. Transfer the cheese to a warm platter and set it on a trivet or a thick pot holder. Serve immediately with the sliced, warmed bread alongside. Serves 6.
Note: Caciocavallo, both smoked and unsmoked, is increasingly available in the United States, cheese shops, Italian markets and on line. Other cheeses can be prepared using this technique—provolone is a typical substitute—but the dish is most authentic and delicious with caciocavallo.