I haven’t gotten to travel to Europe yet, but after this research paper, I am adding Sicily to my list!
Introduction to Sicily:
Whenever I think of Sicily, I think of two things: the food and the movie, The Sicilian, based on a Mario Puzo book. Romance notwithstanding, I know that my image of Sicily is pretty inaccurate. So, in doing some research, I sought out the Anthony Bourdain “No Reservations” television show and a few blogs written by Sicilian foodies as well as the typical resources of tourist books and Wikipedia. The result was two days of frantic and amused reading and, hopefully, a more accurate perspective on Sicily.
Sicily is an island located south and just west of Italy, which is a large, boot-shaped peninsula in central Europe. Parts of the islands just off Sicily are actually closer to Africa than they are to Italy, so you will find a strong influence from Northern African culture, language, and ethnicity. You’ll also see African influence in the cuisine. Sicily is surrounded by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north; the Ionian Sea to the east; and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The Straits of Sicily are just west of the island, and Pantelleria is further west and closer to Africa.
According to cookbook author Clarissa Hyman, Sicilians actually refers to Italy as “Continente” while they consider themselves a self-sufficient island. Although the author doesn’t say so, the self-sufficiency probably stems from the experience that Sicilians have had in comparison to northern parts of Italy: they’re a less wealthy region than other parts of Italy, and so they’ve been forced to be more creative with the resources they have. Sicilian food is distinctive from other foods of Italy, and it is indicative of the blending of various continents and peoples throughout time.
Terroir and Climate:
According to the website unabashedly called “Beauty and Romance of Sicily,” the terroir of Sicily is what gives fruits, vegetables, and all other food its unique Sicilian value and flavor. The website’s author writes “Travelers have noted that the lettuce is especially tender and tastes something like milk. This is due largely to Mount Etna. Eruptions from the active volcano have fertilized the soil to an incomparable richness.” This is probably true. Volcanic ash, according to the University of California in Santa Barbara, shows that volcanic soil is especially fertile. According to the site, Sicilian farms flourish on volcanic soil, and populations risk living near active volcanoes because southern Italian soil is otherwise comprised mostly of limestone, which results in poor quality soil.
The higher quality soil allows for uniquely Sicilian produce to be grown, such as specific varieties of artichokes and tomatoes. The Sicilian island of Pantelleria is known for its capers, according to Anthony Bordain, and the farmer he interviewed claimed that the land is what makes its produce unique. Hyman agrees, and she quotes the adage “They don’t know how to make it the way we do.”
Hyman also writes that volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and other storms have shaped the island and its people. Both the island and its people are resilient, not quite Italian, and distinctive. The cuisine that results from this region is easily recognizable, and it has had a powerful influence on American Italian cuisine.
History and External Cultural Influences:
Cookbook author Clarissa Hyman gives an excellent history of Sicily. She starts by saying that “contradictions and extremes abound in Sicily.” The Greeks brought beautiful architecture and honey, wine, ricotta, and olives. The Romans brought mosaics, Baroque architecture, roads, wheat, grains, and pulses. The Byzantine Empire brought monasteries, new religion, sharp cheeses, and spicy biscuits. The Arabs also brought sugar cane, citrus, eggplants, rice, spices, and couscous. They taught new agricultural methods and new cooking methods, including the idea of stuffing vegetables, deep-frying, and spit-roasting. These methods are most evident in Jewish-Italian cooking that was found in that region until the Spanish Inquisition, which resulting in displacing populations all over the Spanish Empire. The Spanish also gave Sicily tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash, the prickly pear, and chocolate, because they were simultaneously conquering nations along the Mediterranean and exploring the New World. Afterwards, the Normans, who also conquered Italy, brought dried fish, shortcrust pastry, farsumagru (stuffed meat rolls), eel with spices, and Béchamel sauce.
High class and low class cuisine were very distinctive during these times of conquest. Conquerers and rich landowners enjoyed elaborate banquets that represented cuisines of the conquerer-du-jour, while the conquered were often forced to make deal with gruel. The high class cuisine was called “Monsu,” a riff on the French word “monsieur,” which described the higher class. That said, Hyman points out, “the strong, feisty Sicilian women have fought hard to do the best for their children, driven by hunger to heights of remarkable inventiveness.” Nothing was wasted, including vegetable and animal trim. Polpette were made by rolling trimmings of vegetables and meat together into flavor-packed meat balls which were fried and eaten as a secondi course. Anthony Bourdain was given a sample of Fritolla, essentially offal from various animals that are fried in oil and served very hot. In fact, when Bourdain ate the Fritolla, he ate them almost as soon as they came out of the steaming pot while they were piping hot. His Sicilian host explained that once the Fritolla cool down, they become very tough and disgusting.
In researching Sicilian culture, I found that one notable feature about Sicilian attitude is the strong sense of pride – borderline chauvinism – in their identity and in their contribution to the world’s cuisine. According to the website Sicilian Culture, “the French loved Italian cooking so much…they took Italian wives and chefs back to France with them…[sic] this his how great French cuisine was born as well.”
According to the Beauty and Romance of Sicily website, “the Sicilians are also famous for their long leisurely meals, creating an atmosphere of relaxed indulgence. Their lunches begin at one o’clock and go on until three or four. Then dinner begins at about eight and can last for hours. Lingering is encouraged in Sicilian restaurants.
Three Key Sicilian Ingredients:
It turned out to be extremely difficult to limit myself to just three ingredients. Cheese, like Pecorino Siciliano and Caciocavallo; fruits like oranges, lemons, figs, apricots, peaches and grapes; and sweets made from marzipan, candied fruits, and sundried fruits are just a few of the items that are famous from Sicily. In addition, Sicilian wine is renowned. So, my favorite selections, which I hope are unique:
Trapani salt is famous, according to Anthony Bourdain. While admiring the salt marshes, he also dined on a dish of fish encrusted in salt and then baked. One thing that surprised him about the dish is that the fish was not salty, despite its cooking method. The outer, salted layer is peeled away, of course. The inner flesh is moist and flavorful, though the flavor is almost entirely that of the fish itself. As a culinary student, I found that interesting, because we are often taught to add both seasoning and flavoring in order to achieve a sophisticated, professionally prepared dish. Based on the writings of Sicilian food experts, the food of this Italian island is pretty basic and natural.
Sicilian olives are famous, according to an article written for shoppers of PFI, a Seattle-based food purveyor. The author writes that Sicilian olive oils are “typified by their grassy green flavor and their peppery finish.” The popular Castelvetrano olive is an ash-cured Nocellara del Belice olive, and these olives are grown in Sicily as well. In addition to olive growing, Sicily’s climate is also perfect for citrus production, and PFI carries a signature Sicilian oil, Olio Agrumati, citrus oil. In this dish, “olives and citrus fruits are crushed together to produce a flavored oil that is perfect condiment for use on pasta, chicken or fish,” the author shows.
Wine writer for the Italian Made website, Vincenzo Mormino, writes that Sicilian vineyards are prolific. Grape growing is credited to the Greeks, but the author makes a point to suggest that the Phonecians were also very effective in their grape growing. The author also believes that the native Famous wines include Marsala vergine, Marsala solera, Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, and Malvasia delle Lipari. The writer adds that drier table wines are up-and-coming, but he didnb’t name any wines specifically. He credits the Mazara Valley location and the soil from the Gibellina Mountains as producing the hearty grapes that make Sicilian grape juice sturdier than the northern Italian juices. The growing region occupies the west side of the island, in the regions of Salemi, Marsala, Menfi, Alcamo, Trapani, and Castelvetrano.
The author waxes rather eloquently:
The rolling hills planted with vines are themselves the main attraction; the mountains are merely a backdrop. It’s a good place to breathe the tranquility of the real, rural Sicily of centuries past.
Three Sicilian Dishes:
The author of the Sicilian food blog Sicilian Cuisine writes that Palermo has claim to a traditional Italian pizza, which they call “sfincione.” The dough is made using the sponge method, where a dough base is prepared and allowed to rise. This base is then blended with more flour and water and kneaded until a smooth and very soft dough is formed. The blog author writes that the word sponge either originates from the Latin word “spongia” or the Arabic word “sfang.” The apparent confusion about the source of the word is again indicative of the influence of different cultures on Sicily throughout history. The blogger says that the best – and most traditional – combination is “tomato sauce, onions, anchovies, the typical caciocavallo cheese and breadcrumbs. Some people also add sliced artichokes.” You can find these pizzas all over Sicily, and you can even find them sold out of the back of mini pickup trucks like impromptu food trucks.
Recipe for the dough: 500 gr flour 00 – 500 gr hard wheat flour – 1 ts sugar – 1tbs salt – 25 gr brewer’s yeast – 1/2 lt warm water – 1/2 glass of olive oil or 100 gr lard –
Recipe for the condiment: 500 gr tomato sauce
– 4 chopped onions slightly stewed – 50 gr anchovies – 350 gr caciocavallo cheese cubes – oregano – breadcrumbs – olive oil
1. Sift the two flours and put them in a bowl together.
2. Add salt and sugar.
3. In a smaller bowl put the yeast and add some warm water until it dissolves.
4. Little by little add the yeast with the water to the flour mix and start stirring all the ingredients together forming a dough.
5. Remove it from the bowl and transfer it on a kitchen surface (a bit floured), adding the remaining water and the olive oil (or the lard) and kneading for about 15 minutes until it becomes smooth and soft. Give it the shape of a ball.
6. Now the dough has to rise under a blanket in a warm place for about 2 hours. It has to double its volume.
7. Preheat the oven at 180° or 200° degrees; (It really depends on the oven).
8. Remember to stew and chop onions thinly, chop anchovies in small pieces and the cheese in cubes as well. Then, prepare some tomato sauce.
9. In a pan put some breadcrumbs with a drizzle of olive oil and toast it until golden brown.
10. After the 2 hours stretch out the dough and press into a large oiled baking tray. (It’s even better if you can let it rise in the tray for another half an hour.)
11. Cover the dough with the tomato sauce, the onions, the anchovies.12. Put the tray in the oven for about 15 minutes.
13. Remove from oven and add the caciocavallo cut in small cubes, then cover all in breadcrumbs.
14. Put back inside the oven for some more minutes, about 10 minutes, again it depends on the oven and on how thick is the dough. Check after 5, just to be sure. 15. Bake the pizza until the bottom of the crust is golden
Warm Sicilian octopus salad
Ingredients (serves 4-6 people)
750g potatoes in small cubes
1 stick chopped small
1 carrots julienne
75gr stoned green and black olives
1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
Juice of 3 lemons
Salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Finely chopped chili pepper (optional)
First, ask you fishmonger to prepare the octopus so that it’s ready for cooking. Every chef has his own way of tenderizing an octopus before cooking but one simple way is to dip it into boiling water several times for about 10 seconds each. Then place it in a large pan of boiling water (no salt!) and leave to cook for for about 1 hr or until you can easily prick it with a fork. Leave to cool in the water and then drain and chop into pieces of about an inch long.
While the octopus is cooling, bring another pan of water to the boil, add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, salt well and add the cubed potatoes. When ready, drain and leave.
In the meantime, get a large mixing bowl and add several tablespoons of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, some chopped parsley, some black pepper and a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice. Mix well. Here you can add the finely chopped chili if you want a little kick.
Put the octopus back into a pan of hot water to warm up for a minute or two, drain well and add to the mixing bowl along with the potatoes.
Then add the olives, the carrot and the celery and mix well. Spoon onto a serving dish, pour any extra olive oil mixture on top, add a little more chopped parsley and one final dribble of olive. Serve with a good glass of white Inzolia wine!
Sigaretta all Ricotta (Ricotta filled cigarettes)
This is from Manuella Darling-Gansser’s Spring in Italy. While it’s not the origin of the popular cannoli, it is probably something close to the origins of the cannolis.
60 g unsalted butter, room temperature
75 g caster sugar
45 g unbleached plain flour
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 organic egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks
Icing sugar for dusting
250 g very fresh, full-cream ricotta
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1) Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius
2) Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the flour and vanilla extract, then gently fold in the egg whites.
3) Line two oven trays with greaseproof paper. Place small, well-spaced spoonfuls of the pastry mixture onto the trays and spread them out to form 6 cm circles. Bake for 5 minutes until the biscuits are golden brown. Remove from the oven and while still warm, carefully roll the biscuits around the handle of a wooden spoon to form cigarettes. Slide them off and leave them to cool completely.
4) To make the filling, beat the ricotta with the sugar to make a smooth, lump-free cream.
5) When the cigarettes are completely cold, spoont he ricotta fillinginto a piping bag and fill the cigarettes generously. Dust with icing sugar and serve right away.
If you like, add 2 tablespoons of grated lemon or orange zest or 2 tablespoons of grated chocolate to the ricotta filling.
Makes 18-20 little cigarettes.
Regional nature of traditional Italian cooking:
Sicily has been home to a multitude of invaders, and each invader brought a new way of agriculture and cooking. As is typical with lands that have been overrun by other nations, the occupied people will incorporate the new methods into their existing habits, and the hybrid cuisines develop a distinctive quality from their neighboring populations. Sicilian food is distinctive from other parts of Italy because the population was poor but had the advantage of living on fertile land. In modern agriculture, according to the Italian Made website, Sicily is home to the second largest organic production in Italy. The growing season is long and generous, so foods available on the island include fresh vegetables, herbs, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.
Because Sicily is surrounded by abundant seas, seafood is a significant staple. Sardines, anchovies, tuna, and swordfish are commonly found on Sicilian plates. The seafood is marinated, brined, herbed, stewed, roasted or grilled.
In the introduction of the Italian Made website, the writer says “On analysis, la cucina italiana is a miscellany of regional, provincial, local and family dishes that vary from season to season and cook to cook. It is a deliciously random fund of little treasures, of recipes rarely written down but passed intuitively from one generation to another, modeled according to the produce available and enhanced by knowing hands.”
The pride in Italian made food explains somewhat the origins of the Slow Food movement, too. It seems that the reflective nature of Italian diners and chefs may have leant itself to allowing the movement to start there. Founded in 1989, it seeks to fight against the fast food and fast paced life that seemed to absorb western society’s way of eating. Now the Slow Food movement is strong internationally, and it has a particularly strong following in Seattle. The restaurants that serve traditional and authentic Sicilian food in Seattle even mention following a more traditional way – a slower way – of cooking.
Traditions of the Italian Table in Sicily:
The website to the popular guide book series Lonely Planet starts by saying that “a huge part of anyone’s visit to this gorgeous island will be taken up with eating, and with learning the many unwritten (and written) rules of eating the Sicilian way – understanding the strict order of the dining ritual, matching tastes and preparation methods, choosing the right dessert, having the right coffee.”
It’s not surprising that there are strong food traditions in Sicily. What you will find is that snacking and enjoying smaller meals is common throughout Sicily. The Lonely Planet guide describes food courts where little snacks, called buffitieri, pane e panelle chickpea fritters, sfincione pizzas, frittola offal meats that are incorporated into various bread rolls and sandwiches, and sweet brioche breads filled with fruits, coffee, nougats, or other sweet treats. Through this list, the influence of other cultures is evident, ranging from the scaccie pancakes that resemble Middle Eastern flatbreads and other bread dough snacks.
Popularity of Italian food in America:
Italians have had a strong influence on American history, and there are many famous Italians. Although this paper features Sicilian cuisine, I’ve included this list because it is interesting and rather entertaining. You could find plenty of other famous individuals from other ethnic groups as well. Source: http://www.sicilianculture.com/history/history.htm
(Italian or Sicilian & Other Descent)
Wikipedia overly simplifies the description of Italian American heritage and food. Essentially, Italian food is the collection of food traditions that the immigrants brought with them. You can see the influence of Americanized Italian food in dishes like the muffuletta sandwich in New Orleans or the toasted ravioli dish in St. Louis. These types of dishes are almost more like fusion Italian food.
According to Wikipedia, the advent of convenience foods and popular restaurants projected Italian food to the forefront of popular foods. The site shows that
Italian-derived food has become remarkably common in convenience cooking
, especially with canned foods such as Franco-American
as well as the popularity of Italian-American specialties from take-out counters in supermarkets and restaurants. In particular, the pizza parlor
is one of the most ubiquitous of American eateries, with businesses ranging in size from single proprietorships all the way up to large chains such as Domino’s Pizza
and Pizza Hut
. In a cross-cultural variation of the theme, refrigerated, ready-to-heat-and-eat spaghetti has become a popular convenience item in Asian convenience stores in the U.S.
Chef Ettore Boiardi
was probably one of the first “Italian” celebrity chefs within the United States, so much so that he is credited with popularizing the cuisine to many non-Italian-Americans and the public at large. Chef Boiardi is more commonly known by his commercialized, eponymous brand
name, “Chef Boyardee
Americanized Italian Food:
Wikipedia also lists other popular Italian-style dishes, and I’ve edited the list to include ones that seem to have come from Sicily.
· Italian bread
— Perhaps a bit closer to French bread
in composition and appearance, American “Italian bread” is a lean white bread, often braided and covered in sesame seeds
, with a thin but usually crisp crust and a soft crumb.
— A version of the Sicilian pizza
, a larger square pie in which the dough is risen an inch or more, and which is topped (contrary to native Sicilian tradition) in much the same way as the thin-crusted round Neapolitan form, including the use of mozzarella
or biscotti d’annodare
– knot cookies
– a sort of custard turnover made with leaved (“foglie
“) pastry; a similar pastry, larger and filled with a type of pastry cream
, is sometimes called a “lobster
Authentic Sicilian Dishes in the PNW and Restaurants where you can find them:
4857 Rainier Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98118
La Medusa was opened by Sherri Serino and Lisa Becklund in October 1997. The two developed a “Sicilian Soul Food” menu inspired by the recipes of Sherri’s Sicilian grandmother. The name La Medusa came from Sherri’s mentor, Claudia Medusa.
Dish to eat at La Medusa:
Alaskan halibut and spinach tagine with artichokes and fava beans
La Fontana Siciliana
120 Blanchard Ave
Seattle, WA 98121
La Fontana is an urban oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of Belltown. As you step into the courtyard you are drawn in by the bubbling fountain and the aroma of Sicilian cuisine in the air. La Fontana has been a fixture in Belltown for over a decade. Proprietor Mario Fuenzalida’s food philosophy of utilizing the freshest ingredients prepared to order ensures that every meal is a pleasurable and memorable experience. The wine list has been specially crafted as a showcase to the food; it features quality Sicilian and Italian wines that highlight the unique flavors of La Fontana’s menu.
Dish to get when you’re at La Fontana:
Sicily’s most famous dish. Chicken breast sautéed in Marsala wine and mushroom sauce.
Enza Cucina Siciliana
2128 Queen Anne Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98109-2359
Enza Cucina Siciliana is that rare thing: a totally authentic Italian restaurant where literally everything (homemade pasta, sauces and baked goods) is made on the premises by Enza Sorrentino herself. Using only fresh, natural ingredients, Enza’s recipes rerepresent the genuine, richly-flavored dishes of the Italian countryside. A meal at Enza’s is an experience you will never forget!
Mamma Enza was born and raised in Sicily. Her passion for cooking began when she was seven years old, watching her grandmother prepare large meals for the farmers who worked in the family’s vineyards. At the age of 30, she left her 9-to-5 job to start catering and managing restaurants full time.
Enza moved to Seattle in 2002 and quickly became well known in the Italian restaurant community: she was the original chef at la Vita e Bella, Mondello Ristorante, and la Mondellina. Today, Enza Cucina Siciliana is one of only two food establishments in Seattle that are owned and operated by first-generation Italian women.
Dish to eat when you’re at Enza Cucina Siciliana: Cannoli
A crunchy pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta, garnished with chocolate chips
Resources, in order of reference
Think Sicily. Accessed October 15, 2011. http://www.thinksicily.com/guide-to-sicily/food-and-wine-in-sicily/sicilian-recipes.aspx
Darling-Gansser, Manuella. Spring in Sicily – Food from an Ancient Land. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2009.
Hyman, Clarissa. Cucina Siciliana – Authentic Recipes and Culinary Secrets from Sicily. Brooklyn: Interlink Books, 2002.