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MY PRIVATE ITALY: IN SICILY, EAT LIKE A SICILIAN

Wednesday, 11 November 2020 10:24 Written by Serena Vocella
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I have been hosted several times in a Sicilian house and for sure they never run out of food!

The first time I went to Sicily, I was hosted by a friend of mine in the beautiful city of Syracuse; I am a hearty eater but, trust me, I remember those days very well: I ate non-stop from breakfast to dinner when, unfortunately, I had to give up in front of another plate full of food made by his mother who constantly looked at me like I was too skinny.So, food is of the utmost importance in Sicily: Sicilians like their food because it reflects their culture, their mixed ascendance, it links them with their ancestors who came from many parts of the world (Arabia but also Scandinavia) to establish here. And Sicilian food is the best example of how very different cultural traditions, reflected in food, can combine harmonically in something better than its parts. Food as a link to life, to land, to a culture, the expression of affectivity, of an ancient conviviality. For Sicilians, food is really a ritual and a famous proverb says “Ai siciliani si può togliere tutto, persino il letto, ma non u manciari”. (You can take everything away from Sicilians, even the bed, but not the pleasure of eating).
Sicilian food has become hugely popular in these last few years in the rest of Italy; you may think this is because many Italians spend their annual sea holiday in Italy, but that’s not the main reason. The best ambassador of Sicilian food in Italy, and the world, is someone who does not even exist, a fictional character that we Italians have come to love passionately: Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Montalbano. Montalbano is the most famous and beloved police superintendent of Italy, his books and TV series episodes are hugely popular: everybody knows Inspector Montalbano, from the Alps to the tip of Sicily which is, by the way, his homeland.

Food is so important in the books of Montalbano because it’s the same for the author, Andrea Camilleri. Camilleri is a true Sicilian and he deeply loves his land. To him and therefore to Montalbano, the passion for Sicilian cuisine is an expression of Sicilian history and culture, in which food acquires a very strong, affective value, synonymous with historical privations, but also the materialization of love. In all his books Sicilian cuisine dominates, because Montalbano is a “foodie" and to taste the food of his beloved land "as God commands" he needs to always accompany it with a nice glass of Sicilian wine.
So, foodwise, when I am in Sicily I am always on the footsteps of Montalbano. Food is important from the very beginning of the day. In the morning you need to get some energy, so I always enjoy a thick and creamy “granita” accompanied by a “brioche con il gelato” (like a big croissant filled with ice cream). There are many granitas for all tastes: from fruit to chocolate, pistachio, with or without cream. I love the one with chocolate and smarties: so delicious and abundant that I can’t finish it!

At lunch, the most famous food is, of course, the “arancina” (the name is used in the feminine form in Palermo) or “arancino” (the name is used in the masculine form in Catania). They are both rice balls: in Palermo, the shape is spherical and is mainly prepared in two variants, with meat (mince) or butter (béchamel with ham, peas and/or mushrooms), while saffron is less used; in Catania, on the other hand, arancino is more yellow and the shape is triangular with the characteristic "top" that reminds of the volcano Etna. The filling is mainly made of meat sauce (in pieces), but also béchamel, butter and eggplant. Arancini are even the main “character” of one of the most popular novels of Montalbano, “Gli arancini di Montalbano”: here Montalbano, after the end of an investigation, goes to the house of Adelina, his waitress and, as a surprise, finally can taste her “arancini”, a delight to the palate.

Palermo, on the eastern side of the island, is the undisputed capital of Italian street food. Walking through the markets of the historical centre, Vucciria and Ballarò, is always a unique experience to me, surrounded as I am by a lovely atmosphere full of aromas and flavours. Here, I can’t miss “Sfincione di Palermo”, a “focaccia” of risen dough baked in the oven, usually topped with tomato sauce, onions, oregano, anchovies and caciocavallo cheese. I also love "Pane e panelle": soft "mafalde" (which are the typical Palermo sesame sandwiches) stuffed with thin pancakes of water and chickpea flour. They are usually accompanied by "cazzilli", potato croquettes seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon. Another unmissable Palermitan must is "Pani ca 'meusa" (sandwich with spleen). The sandwich is made with veal spleen: the entrails (spleen, lung and trachea) are boiled and then cut into pieces and fried in lard; when served, they are placed between two slices of soft sesame bread, called "vastella". At this point you can choose whether to taste it "schettu" (“unmarried” in Sicilian dialect) and therefore seasoned only with a splash of lemon; or "maritatu" ("married") with the addition of ricotta or caciocavallo. Just unforgettable!
Back to my personal research about Montalbano’s food, in Scopello near Palermo, I discovered "Pane cunzato", a type of bread baked in a wood oven stuffed with tomatoes, anchovies, oil and salt: it became my favourite sandwich to have on the beach!
As almost all Italian regions, Sicily has its peculiar pasta recipes, which you can eat only there.

A must of Sicilian cuisine is "Pasta con le sarde" (pasta with sardines): it is traditionally prepared with bucatini served with fresh sardines and wild fennel, along with onion, salted anchovies, pine nuts, raisins, saffron and toasted breadcrumbs. There are different versions, depending on the city where you are: “alla trappitara” in Trappeto (province of Palermo), the most traditional one, is strictly without tomato sauce; the “milanese” is the one with salted sardines and tomato sauce; “la messinese”, in Messina, is without saffron; and finally in “pasta chi masculini” in Catania they use the so-called “masculine”, small fishes similar to anchovies instead of sardines.
"Pasta 'ncasciata" is absolutely one of Montalbano's favourite dishes. This pasta takes its name from the cooking technique, “ncacio” in Sicilian dialect: the casserole is encircled with the glowing embers on which it was placed earlier to cook. The recipe is prepared with macaroni, minced meat, caciocavallo, eggplant and tomato sauce: after cooking all the ingredients, they are put in the oven covered with parmesan. After trying it, I always can't help but ask for an encore!

"Anelletti al forno” is another dish that every Sicilian carries in his heart, a recipe that is the symbol of Sundays, family lunches, picnics and parties. It is the Sicilian reinterpretation of the classic “pasta al forno” (baked pasta), but each family has its own recipe: they may use small pieces of salami, or bechamel, or slices of provolone, everything is allowed because it depends on the personal taste. There are only two requirements that cannot be ignored: the pasta must be “anelletti” (pasta in the shape of a ring) and the shape of the timbale must be strictly round and then turned over on a serving plate. In this way, the slices of fried eggplants that had been placed on the bottom of the pan are now on the top of this delicious stuffed pasta casket.
Sicily is also famous for its fresh ingredients and, in particular, eggplants and pistachio are the ones used everywhere in the Sicilian recipes! My favourite dishes with eggplants are, above all, the “pasta alla Norma”, the “parmigiana” and the “caponata”.
The name of "Pasta alla Norma" derives from the opera of Vincenzo Bellini called "Norma"; the recipe is made of macaroni with fried eggplants, fresh tomatoes, salted ricotta and basil.
"Parmigiana di melanzane" (eggplant parmigiana) is made with fried eggplants, tomato sauce, basil, hard-boiled eggs, provola, and of course, parmesan or more traditional “pecorino canestrato”, a special type of Sicilian sheep cheese. It is better to prepare the eggplant parmigiana a few hours in advance, so that ingredients can blend together more tastily.
"Caponata" is my favorite dish to have as an appetizer, main course, or even a simple side dish. In one of Camilleri’s book, Montalbano opens the fridge and sees it: instantly, it reminds him of Verdi’s Aida, the “Thriumphal March”. And I agree, every time I ate it is like a symphony of flavours. It is made with eggplant, tomato, onion, green olives, capers, celery, basil, a mix of fried vegetables sautéed in a pan with sugar and vinegar. According to the legend, the name derives from “capone”, an expensive fish served with a sweet and sour sauce on the tables of aristocratic people: farmers, unable to afford such an expensive dish, replaced the fish with eggplants, which were much cheaper!
On the other hand, pistachio is used for everything in Sicilian cuisine, from pasta to desserts, and it is really tasty. In my Sicilian journey, the mother of my friend cooked pasta with pistachio pesto and chicken nuggets with pistachio: the creaminess of the pesto was a delight for the palate, and the chicken was crunchy and tasty at the same time.
Finally, in my mind there’s a special corner for Sicilian desserts. My favorites are the “cannolo” and the “cassata”.
Cannolo" is one of the most famous Italian desserts, a delicious rolled and fried wafer, filled with ricotta and decorated with candied orange peel. There are several versions of this dessert: in Palermo, for example, you can find “cannolicchi”, very small cannoli, more or less the size of a finger. The filling can be of pistachio, chocolate, enriched with chopped pistachios or hazelnuts.

Cassata siciliana”, on the other hand, is a famous cake made up of sponge cake filled with ricotta, chocolate, covered with sugar glaze and candied fruit. Perhaps the most famous among the countless versions of this cake is the one prepared in Catania in honour of its patron saint, called “Cassatelle di Sant'Agata” or "Minnuzze ri Sant'Àjita" (which means “breast of Saint Agatha” in Sicilian dialect), representing the breasts of the saint, amputated during her martyrdom.
Finally, if you are in Catania, don’t forget to taste the “Seltz” drink prepared in kiosks. I remember my Sicilian friend telling me: "You need a nice cool drink to digest if you want to keep eating" and he was right. The kiosks offering this thirst-quenching drink based on Seltz, salt and lemon are many and different, with a quadrangular or octagonal plan, displaying oranges and lemons: you can’t help but be drawn to them, especially in summer.
So, my food journey of the footsteps of Montalbano is over. One last suggestion: when eating in Sicily, do as Montalbano does, eat in silence, with your eyes closed, only in this way you’ll be able to dive into the universe of flavours and perfumes that make Sicily a unique, fantastic corner of the world.
Ciao da Serena

Read 391 times Last modified on Wednesday, 11 November 2020 14:24