A local's guide to Sicilian gastronomy

Food is done a little differently on Italy’s largest island. Sicilian olive oil producer Giuseppe Trapani explains the principal flavours, and shares the restaurants not to miss.

Thursday, October 15, 2020,
By Giuseppe Trapani
Pasta con le sarde — or 'pasta with sardines' — combines wild fennel, sultanas, pine nuts, ...

Pasta con le sarde — or 'pasta with sardines' — combines wild fennel, sultanas, pine nuts, toasted breadcrumbs and sardines to create Sicily's 'national dish'. 

Photograph by Getty

Sicilian food is a pot pourri of Mediterranean cultures — we have flavours and products that mainland Italy doesn’t. It’s been influenced by the cultures that have come here: the ancient Greeks brought the olive tree; the Arabs brought aubergines, oranges and lemons; and the Spanish brought things from the Americas like chocolate and prickly pears (originally from Mexico but now often associated with Sicily). Recently, there’s been a Tunisian influence, too, thanks to the exchange of fishing in Mazara del Vallo, on the southwest coast.   

We use a lot of aubergine and artichokes in Sicily; Cerda, near Palermo, is famous for the latter. Couscous is popular as well, and every September there’s a dedicated festival held in San Vito Lo Capo, near Trapani. Sicilian oranges are very intense and the olives here are big — we have a lot of autochthonous varieties, like the nocellara I grow in Poggioreale. Pistachios from Bronte, near Catania, are also famous. Then there are the islands: we have capers from Pantelleria, tuna from Favignana and salt from Mozia. 

Giuseppe is the owner of Ogglio, which produces organic olive oil to sell in the UK, where he now lives.   

Photograph by Giuseppe Trapani

We tend to use our ingredients very differently from the rest of Italy. Our national dish, pasta con le sarde, combines wild fennel, sultanas, pine nuts, toasted breadcrumbs and sardines; it’s a very special flavour. We’re also famous for our street food, like arancini (rice balls), which can be filled with ragu, butter, prosciutto or even fish. There’s also panelle (chickpea fritters), sfincione (like a spongy pizza — but don’t call it that, or you’ll cause offence) and pani câ meusa (rolls filled with deep-fried offal and topped with cheese). 

As for my favourite restaurants? Antiche Scale in Castellammare del Golfo is run by a fishing family — I love their pasta with sea urchins. In Scopello, Bar Nettuno serves traditional food with a fancy twist. Then there’s Le Gole in Calatafimi, where they make ragu with maialino nero (a local breed of pig). It’s incredible — and there are no tourists. 

Giuseppe is the owner of Ogglio, which produces organic olive oil to sell in the UK, where he now lives.      

Interview: Julia Buckley

Published in the Sept/Oct issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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