The key to Sicilian gastronomy is fertility. Since ancient times, this island—with its volcanic soils, gentle sea breezes and especially long, sun-drenched farming seasons—was said to be the stomping grounds of Ceres (Roman goddess of agriculture), Aphrodite (Greek goddess of love) and many other deities of fecundity. The evidence was everywhere: Lemons are a brighter shade of yellow, eggplants grow three times larger than elsewhere, herbs are more pungent and the sea is brimming with countless species of Mediterranean fish.
Sicily is abundant in terms of culinary influences as well. Occupations by the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish and French have all left their culinary mark.
The Arabs who dominated Sicily from 827 to 1091—as the rest of Europe waded laboriously through the Dark Ages—brought culinary enlightenment with the introduction of citrus, cumin, saffron, couscous, rice, almonds, pistachios and sugar cane. They combined sweet and sour tastes in eggplant caponata, for example, and inspired Sicily’s famous sweet tooth with canoli, cassata and flavored crushed ice, or granita. Sophisticated and delicious, Arab-Sicilian cuisine represents a completely unique cooking philosophy.
Those outside influences merge seamlessly with the island’s numerous indigenous ingredients. Pasta con le sarde is made with wild fennel, sardines, pine nuts, raisins and a touch of saffron. Involtini di pesce spade is swordfish rolled with capers, basil and olives that is breaded and fried. Sicilian cities are also celebrated for their street foods. Palermo, for example, offers sfincione (pizza with caciocavallo cheese, onions and bread crumbs), panelle (fried chickpea pancakes), arancine (rice balls) and milze (cow spleen) sandwiches.
Melanzane: Featured heavily in Sicilian cuisine, eggplants were brought by the Arabs and are key to caponata, parmigiana and pasta alla Norma.
Mirto: Myrtle berries are the basis of the popular Sardinian after-dinner drinks Mirto Rosso and Mirto Bianco, and the leaves are used to infuse the meat of spit-roasted suckling pig.
Pistacchio di Bronte: Bronte is a town on the flanks of Mt. Etna famous for its pistachio trees. The nut is the base for ice cream, cookies and a ground crust for fish or white meat.
Pomodoro di Pachino: Farmed in southeast Sicily near Noto, this cherry tomato packs delicious flavor and sweetness in beautifully fragrant, ruby-red fruit.
Ricotta: Best in the spring when sheep can graze on the freshest grass, this soft cheese is sweetened or mixed with cinnamon, candied orange or chocolate.
Tuna: Schools of tuna migrate past Sicily and have historically fueled the local fishing industry that in turn funded much of the island’s art and architecture.
Pasta alla Norma
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 pound peeled tomatoes, fresh or canned
Salt and pepper, to taste
10–15 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.