Eat: Sicily

With a centuries-old culinary tradition that gets the best out of its fertile, volcanic soil and distinctive seafood, Sicilian food is an irresistible combination of familiar Italian produce and unique local flavours

By Andrew Purvis
Published 7 Nov 2013, 12:41 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:58 BST

When my plane touches down at Catania Airport, on Sicily's kiln-hot east coast, I don't see Mount Etna at first. Despite its Alpine altitude (11,000ft), it doesn't stand up in a steep cone like a storybook volcano but hunkers down and spreads its vast, shield-like shape over an area of 460sq miles. Rather than being a feature of northeast Sicily, it is northeast Sicily: a looming, brooding presence that dominates the region's psyche, folklore, literature, agriculture and cooking.

Off Aci Trezza, the small fishing town where I'm staying, there are three distinctive, craggy islands, known as the Isole dei Ciclopi (Cyclopean Isles). In Homeric myth, they were rocks hurled in anger at Odysseus by the Cyclops monster, although in reality they're dense clusters of basalt columns thrown up out of the Ionian Sea by unimaginable seismic forces. This entire coast is made up of black volcanic rocks used to cobble streets, build harbour walls and — at the back of Marilena Alabiso's shop and deli (Macelleria di Cotte e Di Crude d'Ambra Giuseppe) on Via Provinciale — grill meat and veggies on a barbecue, using the lava's capacity to retain heat.

"It's a cheap fuel and it's non-carcinogenic," Marilena says, showing me some chargrilled vegetables she's prepared that morning as a takeaway. "Everything here is made fresh daily and right now I'm making my croquettes and my caponata." The croquettes are a version of arancini, the famous fried rice balls of Sicily, but made with mashed potatoes instead of rice, plus ham and mozzarella, then moulded by hand and rolled in fine breadcrumbs.

Caponata is the most Sicilian of treats: an agrodolce [sweet-and-sour] side dish or antipasto made with aubergines, red peppers, carrots, celery and onion, fried individually then returned to the pan with vinegar, sugar, pine nuts, soaked raisins and capers. "Rabbit is cooked using the same agrodolce method, in the dish we call coniglio in agrodolce," Marilena adds.

In this modest deli, in Aci Trezza — a place where thousands of Italians descend every August for their holidays — you can see just how close the Sicilian people are to their land. "Our fresh pepato cheese with peppercorns is made by a shepherd up on the hill where we live," Marilena explains. "Others come from a farm in Ragusa, a two-hour drive from here." In the chiller cabinet are more sheep's cheeses, flavoured with rugola (hot, peppery rocket) and saffron (expensive, with a golden hue), together with fresh provola cheese, bulging out of the wax skin it's hung in, like a
full udder.

Fresh macaroni is made in the shop every Sunday; rolled into cylinders on a stick. On the counter is a pre-prepared salad of mixed leaves, orange and red chilli — a zingy combination popular in local restaurants — and another combining lemon and mint. "Nobody in Sicily buys lemons," Marilena says. "You have your own tree, or people give you some, or you steal them!"

In the economically deprived south of Italy, no part of the lemon goes to waste. "These are pupetti n'de pammini di lumia," Marilena says, explaining how the meatballs — made with beef, eggs and ragusano and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses — are cooked with large, aromatic lemon leaves to give them a clean citrus flavour.

I leave the shop laden with treasures, from cartons of panna (a base for creamy sauces) and hunks of pecorino cheese to jars of pistachio pesto, from rich green nuts harvested in Bronte, on the cool, lush northwest flank of Etna. Volcanic ash from frequent eruptions has made the farmland of eastern Sicily very fertile, producing everything from grapes (the raw material for the high-status wines Etna DOC and Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG) to olives, almonds, pine kernels and the world-famous Pachino tomato and the ciliegino (cherry tomato) — sun-dried and covered in oil and basil leaves.

What I love most about Sicilian food, though, is the way history is writ large in every mouthful. Tomatoes and chocolate (used in some agrodolce dishes) were brought back from the New World by the Spaniards during their colonisation of Sicily from the 15th-17th century. Pistachios, lemons, oranges, rice, sultanas, sugar, saffron and spices are a legacy of the Moorish conquest of the ninth and 10th centuries; meat dishes such as Marilena's pupetti and her sugo (sauce), made with pork, date from the island's 11th-century reconquest by the Normans. Sicily has also been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Germans, Hapsburgs, Bourbons and (finally) Italians — creating the ultimate fusion cuisine.

The star of the show, from Aci Trezza to Palermo, is fish and seafood: beautiful tuna, swordfish and sardines; gamberi rossi (red prawns) from Mazara del Vallo, on Sicily's southwest tip; mussels, squid, octopus; and cuttlefish — its ink the basis for spaghetti al nero delle seppie, a speciality at Trattoria Verga da Gaetano on Aci Trezza Harbour.

My favourite food finds, though, came not from the sea but from the earth: cucuzza — a squash with green tips (tenerume) that are chopped, boiled and served with pasta — sold from a barrow in Aci Castello; and finocchietto selvatico (wild fennel), delicious with alici and fresh penne at Pizzeria Pellegrino. It's the potent magic of Etna on a plate.

Five Sicilian food finds

1. Pesto di pistacchio: Made with nuts from Bronte, you can pick up a 190g jar in delis and supermarkets for around €4-€6 (£3.30-£4).

2. Macelleria di Cotte e Di Crude d'Ambra Giuseppe: It's a mouthful, but the deli run by Marilena Alabiso and her husband is a treasure trove of treats, including their own olive oil. Via Provinciale 234, Aci Trezza. T: 00 39 95 8164473.

3. 2010 Graci Etna Rosso DOC: Delicate Pinot Noir-style red from the slopes of Etna, with sweet plum and violet aromas and notes of 'orange, prickly pear and sun'. From £18.75 from Berry Bros & Rudd.

4. Finocchietto selvatico (wild fennel): Perennial, liquorice-flavour herb, great with fish, rabbit or chicken; the edible parts are the feather-like tips. From 99p per 30g a bunch.

5. Tenerume: Tenerume are the green tips of cucuzza, a squash that grows up to 4ft long and is unique to Sicily; available from street vendors, as well as in local restaurants.

Four places for a taste of Sicily

Pizzeria Pellegrino, Aci Trezza
The name is misleading, since this buzzing al fresco restaurant, on Aci Trezza's main square overlooking the harbour, excels at fish and pasta, too — and delivers a crash course in local specialities. My most memorable dish was penne in a sauce of alici (anchovies) and finocchietto selvatico (wild fennel), with its earthy aniseed flavour. A close second was spaghetti with gamberetti (shrimps) in a pistachio sauce made with vibrant green nuts from Bronte.
How much: Three courses a la carte from €30/£25, without drinks. Piazza Giovanni Verga 6-7, Aci Trezza. T: 00 39 95 276060.

Osteria Antica Marina, Catania
Food aside, it's worth visiting Catania for the Duomo, a Norman church built on Roman ruins, destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in baroque style. It's a short stroll from here to the fish market and this legendary osteria, named after the arches of a historic viaduct. It serves only seafood: calamari, mussels or octopus salad as a starter, say, then mains including fish soup, spaghetti in cuttlefish ink, risotto or grilled lobster — all perfect.
How much: Three a la carte courses cost around €40 (£35); tasting menus from €25 (£22) for three courses to €65 (£56) for six courses. Via Pardo 29, Catania.

Trattoria Verga da Gaetano, Aci Trezza
The interiors here are worth the visit alone — kitsch, tiled maritime mosaics; sunflowers planted in wine flasks; moody black-and-white photos — but in a fishing port, it's hard to beat frutti di mare (mixed seafood) as a starter, then spaghetti alla tarantina (with mussels) or spaghetti agli scampi (with langoustine). There's a certain theatricality: when I order messy spaghetti al nero delle seppie (with cuttlefish ink), the waiter dresses me flamboyantly in a bib.
How much: Three a la carte course cost around €30 (£25). Via Proviniciano 119, Aci Trezza. 

Ristorante Duomo, Ragusa
It's worth the 1hr 45min drive from Catania to Ragusa as much for its glorious Blue Flag beaches as for Ciccio Sultano's two-Michelin-star cooking. He brings exquisite artistry to Sicilian staples such as ragusano cheese gnocchi with pork and cuttlefish meatballs, clams, mussels and carbonara sauce; and scabbard fish with smoked provola cheese, chargrilled vegetables and gamberi rossi (red prawns).
How much: Three a la carte courses cost from €80 (£69). Tasting menus cost €120 (£104); €135 (£117) (both nine courses); €160 (£138) (nine courses with wines); and €190 (£164) (12 courses with wines). Via Capitano Bocchieri 31, Ragusa.


Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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