Chronological / Destinations / Europe / Food

Edible Delights of Sicily: Volcanic Vegetables and Succulent Seafood

In eastern Sicily the sky is so blue it hurts your eyes, the water so clear and turquoise you could slip in and stay forever. It’s easy to forget that you could be flattened any minute by an earthquake or a volcanic eruption from nearby Mount Etna, which has killed a million people over the past 2400 years. Imposing mountains cut dramatically into the Ionian Sea, yet everything else seems miniature, from old roads so winding and narrow you can barely navigate a small car through them, to mussels barely pulled from the sea, as sweet, tender and tiny as your thumbnail.

Fishing boats, such as this one in Donnalucata, supply local villages with a fresh catch every day
Fishing boats, such as this one in Donnalucata, supply local villages with a fresh catch every day

Waves lap the beach, motor scooters buzz by like hummingbirds, and a golden light suffuses Sicily’s lush flora: the cactuses that cover the hillsides, full of fat fruits, sprawling oleander bushes in every imaginable shade of pink, trumpet vine blooms as plump and red as lipsticked lips, pale blue plumbago crawling up wrought iron fences, delicate violet and fuchsia bougainvillea clambering across every high wall.

In the midst of it, not far from chic Taormina, is your stucco villa hugged by balconies, the floors all cool tile. If you climb the marble stairs and go out onto the flat roof rimmed with terracotta tiles, you can see the sea in a breath-stopping panorama.

Your hunger, stimulated by the sea air, is sated by the star players in the Sicilian diet: plentiful seafood so fresh it needs no lemon, and vegetables and fruits that grow fat and sweet in the fertile, mineral-rich volcanic soil. Lucky for you your villa has a large kitchen where you can cook the island’s bounty, and even better, new friends invite you for lunches and dinners in their homes.

So many different peoples have taken over Sicily during its long history that its dishes retain traces of influences of the Greeks, Spaniards, Normans and Arabs and other Italian regions. Noble Sicilian families in the early 19th century hired French chefs they called monz˘ (a corruption of monsieur), who brought their French ways of cooking to the island.

Generally you’ll find the Greek influence more in the eastern part of the island, with simpler dishes flavored with olive oil, lemon, oregano. As you travel westward you’ll find more exotic flavorings from the Arabic influence, with unusual spice combinations, sweet-sour sauces, rosewater, currants, pine nuts, almonds and pistachios. Fortunately, near Taormina, where you’re staying, classic dishes from all regions are not hard to find.

Like their countrymen to the north, Sicilians love their pasta, and the isle has several classic pasta dishes, each tastier than the next. At a mountaintop osteria in Forza d’Agro, where parts of The Godfather were filmed, you might be treated to a seafood extravaganza that includes ravioli stuffed with shrimp. And almost anywhere you’ll find pasta with mussels or clams or both, in a simple tomato-less sauce. Or maybe you’ll go for the delicious pasta alla Norma, homemade dense, chewy pasta bathed in a fine rich tomato sauce and tangy ricotta salata cheese topped with slices of gently fried eggplant. Or try your pasta with a simple smooth eggplant pesto, or simplicity itself, just pale green sautÈed zucchini. My favorite is the heady western Sicilian pasta con le sarde, golden with saffron, sweet with onion and currants, the crunch of pine nuts, and the savors of wild fennel and fresh sardines. But nearly as good are the exotic black spaghetti neri, colored and flavored with the ink of cuttlefish or squid, and the vibrant yellow-orange pasta arriminata, spaghetti "shaken" with cauliflower, anchovy, saffron, pine nuts and currants.

A neighbor may bring you a huge deep tray brimming with fat ziti baked with ham, peas, cheese and hard-boiled eggs. And risotto are not just a provenance of Italy’s north. You’ll find tasty versions here with assorted shellfish or perhaps just shrimp with pistachios. The tasty couscous (cuscusu) of western Sicily is based on a selection of fresh fish rather than the heavy meats of nearby North Africa.

Sicily and seafood are an inseparable combination. If you try to order fried calamari for lunch at a waterfront ristorante in nearby Giardini Naxos, you may find that the waiter, whose raspy voice sounds like the mature Marlon Brando, will refuse to serve it to you. He will insist that it would be a crime to order such perfect young squid cooked that way and add that simply grilled is the only way to eat it. You will obey, and he will have been right; your five baby squid will be exquisitely tender, fanned around the plate on a bed of radicchio, barely tarnished with grill marks and tangy with lemon.

Or you might find your squid stuffed and cooked in a fireplace or grill, or if you go to the island of Salina your stuffed squid may be stewed with caramelized onions and Malvasia, a local dessert wine made with partially dried grapes.

Sicily’s seafood is so fresh it doesn’t need much more than a quick turn over a grill, in or out of foil, but you might find it with a simple salmoriglio sauce of olive oil, lemon and oregano. You might have a choice of amberjack, sea bass, or the ubiquitous pesce spada (swordfish), sliced much thinner than you’re used to. If not grilled, you might find it stewed in a sweet and sour sauce with pasta, or rolled around a savory stuffing of flavored crumbs or maybe arugula. (In Sicily they like to roll things up and stuff them. You’ll find swordfish done this way on nearly every menu, but it also happens a lot to sardines, meat cutlets and eggplant).

A new friend will invite you to his house for lunch and fry you for an appetizer some of the sardines called schiabbacheddu in Sicilian dialect, and he will laugh merrily when you try to cut the head off each teeny fish before you eat it.

You’ll find all kinds of sea creatures sott’olio, or bathed in olive oil, lemon, and parsley, served cold as snack or appetizer or part of a feast: baby shrimp, stockfish, octopus, squid or mussels. And you’ll find delicious marinated tiny white anchovies at most deli counters.

You’ll see grilled giant heads-on shrimp called gamberoni, little mussels steamed with garlic and hot pepper flakes or fresh hot peppers, or mussels and clams with a savory stuffing. Look for occhi di bue (ox eyes), a sweet chewy cockle on the half shell.

Preserved fish is delightful, too, so if you’re lucky a fisherman will bring you some local tuna that he preserved in a jar with bay leaves and coarse black pepper. Or your friend Pino, a busy oncologist, will show up for a short lunch, bringing you a loaf of hearty artisan bread so popular it sells out each day by 9 a.m., along with a huge platter of lightly wood-smoked, thinly-sliced salmon, tuna and swordfish, complete with lemon for squeezing and chopped red onion and parsley for sprinkling.

Less common are the richer meats, but you might find some skinny homemade pork sausages or a veal roast or cutlets, or good rotisserie chicken.

The vegetables that grow on the slopes of Mount Etna are without peer, and many restaurants serve huge antipasto buffets based on them. You can’t miss the luscious eggplants, huge and sweet without a trace of bitterness. Besides in pasta all Norma , you will find them grilled, rolled and stuffed with cheese and crumbs and doused with tomato sauce, or in caponata, a sweet, sour and savory salad of stewed eggplant and celery with capers.

Look for sweet peppers, tomatoes or even green olives stuffed with savory crumbs. Seek spinach and ricotta fritters, frittatas of various vegetables, zucchini in slivers or slices or stuffed, or artichokes stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, almonds, pine nuts, currants, black olives and anchovy.

If you are very lucky, a new friend will bring you a jar of sweet mushrooms that grew on the side of the volcano, preserved in olive oil and smooth as butter, the leftover oil like nectar on the bread you dip into it.

The villa where you’re staying, dreading the day of your departure, will be in the middle of a lemon grove imbued with magnificent scents, a mini forest with bright yellow fruits on every tree, some tiny and perfect, some big and warty, some sweet enough to eat like an orange.

Look for the apricot bush; it’s tiny and easy to miss, but the sun-warmed fruits nestled in it will spoil you for any other fresh apricots, ever. Don’t miss the fine figs, the grapes as complex as any fine wine, the rare medlar, or the prickly pears of the cactus.

Sicilians usually prefer fruit for dessert but their pastries are world-famous. You have to try cannoli in the land they come from, those decadent crispy fried tubes filled with sweetened ricotta. There are many other little pastries and confections, too, most traditionally made by nuns, even the almond cakes called minni di virgini (yes, that means "virgins’ breasts"–Sicilians love to name foods after body parts).

Sicily’s ice creams and granitas are legendary, the former invented in eastern Sicily in Roman times out of snow from the slopes of the volcano. Try coffee, coconut or gianduia (chocolate and hazelnut). The icy granitas are a less creamy treat, kind of like pumped up Sno-Cones in exotic flavors like jasmine or mulberry.

To begin a meal at your friends’ homes they might offer you a sparkling, salmon-pink, non-alcoholic bittersweet aperitif, and then afterwards they will likely serve you something more potent: chilled homemade limoncello in little glasses from the freezer. It will taste like sunshine and be the perfect ending to a meal on a sultry night.

If all this feasting leaves you still hungry between meals, you’ll find plenty of tempting offerings to tide you over until the next meal, like the rich, filling arancini or "little oranges," meat sauce surrounded by risotto and fried. Or you also might find, in the street or at an open-air market, panelle, fried bits of chickpea flour dough, or babbaluci, tiny snails with garlic and parsley.

When it comes to discovering the edible delights of Sicily you will rarely be bored or be left hungry.


Leave a Reply