A journey through the extraordinary flavors of Sicily
It is not new news that Sicily is a land capable of expressing its opulence also in the gastronomic field, thanks to raw materials of great quality and dishes with unforgettable flavors.
In fact, the perfect combination of favorable climatic conditions and the contamination brought about by the numerous dominations – Arab, Norman and Spanish, among others – over the centuries has made Sicily a hotbed of excellent products and sublime recipes.
What not everyone knows, however, is that in addition to products that are well-known and appreciated at international level, such as arancini or the prized pistachio of Bronte, Sicily offers a considerable variety of flavors and lesser-known foods. This variety is often the result of local traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next, with great stubbornness and hard work, resisting globalization that would otherwise push towards simplification and impoverishment of the gastronomic offering.
We will follow a wonderful itinerary in search of local flavors in the north-eastern part of Sicily. The absolute stars of this tour will be the unmissable specialties of the provinces of Messina and Catania, which you will be able to buy up after your excursions to Mount Etna or the Nebrodi Mountains.
In the city that was the birthplace of the famous composer Vincenzo Bellini, our exploration of flavors can only begin with the famous pasta alla norma: its simple ingredients, tomato, fried eggplant and salted ricotta cheese, combine perfectly to create an explosion of flavor on the palate. According to one legend, the recipe was created by a Sicilian chef as a tribute to the first performance of Bellini’s opera Norma in 1831.
Masculini da magghia, a Slow Food presidium, are anchovies fished in the Gulf of Catania using special nets (magghie) that retain their heads, causing them to bleed to death. This fishing technique makes it possible to obtain a product of particular organoleptic value, to be tasted in the typical pasta alla catanese, a tasty and balanced dish in which the anchovies are seasoned with tomato and breadcrumbs.
Catania is also the city par excellence of the tavola calda: in addition to the classic arancini (the gender is masculine here, as in all of eastern Sicily) with ragù, alla norma, butter and pistachio, the panorama of rustici includes cartocciate, cipolline, bolognesi, fried and baked bombe, all specialties that will turn your curiosity into a real addiction.
In the colder season, the unmissable dish from Catania is cavolfiore affogato (“drowned cauliflower”), a delicious side dish that invites you to taste it while it is cooking thanks to its intense aroma. The cauliflower, strictly Etna purple, is placed in the pan, creating layers with oil, black olives, Sicilian pecorino cheese and spring onion, then braised with wine and topped with a weight that ‘suffocates’ and crushes the vegetable. The result is exceptional, try it to believe.
And the scacciata, an unmissable hors d’oeuvre on Christmas Day, is also one of the winter dishes: a sort of pizza stuffed with tuma cheese, broccoli, sausage and olives or, in its variations, with “drowned cauliflower”, anchovies and tuma cheese, or potatoes, tuma cheese, tomatoes and spring onions. One of those comfort foods that can be shared with friends and family in a convivial atmosphere.
In Zafferana, a town on the slopes of Mount Etna, we find the Siciliana: a huge fried calzone stuffed with tuma filante and anchovies. It’s enough to cause digestive problems just listing its ingredients. But if you are not among the lucky ones who can boast strong stomachs, don’t despair because you can rely on one of the many digestives, including lemon and salt seltzer and tamarind, that the kiosks will prepare for you. Zafferana is also known as the city of honey, the gold of Etna, considered among the best in Italy for its aromatic notes. Here the production reaches 15% of the national product and among the varieties we find chestnut, sulla and orange blossom honey.
And the combination of fried food and honey gave rise to the crispelle di riso, a winter street food from Catania, which have their salty counterpart in the soft and delicious crispelle with ricotta or anchovies.
Etna also plays its part: the typical fertility of the volcanic soil has in fact created the ideal conditions for other high quality and tasty products such as spinelle pears, Etna apples or the Maletto strawberry, a very large and sweet ancient strawberry now at risk of extinction.
Catania is also the city of horsemeat: put on your oldest clothes and head for the city’s oldest and most popular neighborhoods, where, amidst the smoke of the embers and the folkloric shouts of the restaurateurs, you can sample fillet steak, T-bone steak and horse meatballs, perhaps accompanied by a tasty salad of tomatoes, red onion and salted ricotta.
South of Etna lies the Catania plain, which in the municipalities of Palagonia, Scordia and Francofonte is one of the Sicilian areas most suited to the production of blood oranges. In addition to the sweet juices, try them in the traditional orange salad.
If savory food offers us so much, Catania’s confectionery art is no less, starting with one of the most satisfying and universally appreciated (but also imitated) specialties: the granita. In its many and varied flavors – almond, pistachio, lemon, coffee, chocolate and, in season, mulberry, fig, peach and melon – it is the right time of day to enjoy it. Accompanied by a warm, fragrant brioche or even bread, granita is ritual and tradition, conviviality and pure enjoyment. The Arabs, who brought sherbat, an iced drink made from fruit juices, to Sicily during their domination, were the forerunners of granita, which according to various sources was first prepared in Aci Trezza, between 600 and 700.
If the granita wasn’t enough, a breakfast of iris, ricotta raviola – fried or baked – and panzerotto will remove all doubt you may have about Catania’s pastries. Also worth mentioning are the sweets made during the celebrations dedicated to Catania’s patron saint, St Agatha, in what is the third largest religious festival in the world in terms of importance and number of participants: the minnuzze di S.Agata, small Sicilian cassata in the shape of the martyred saint’s breasts, filled with ricotta and covered with an icing topped with a candied cherry, and the olivette di S.Agata, small almond olives covered in sugar.
We conclude with the green gold, the Bronte pistachio, a delicacy that is now known beyond borders and is harvested every two years. Climatic conditions, shape and flavor make the Bronte pistachio a unique product. Gelato, granita, arancini, pesto and pistachio cream are just some of the possible ways in which this great Sicilian excellence can be used.
It is within the enchanting landscape of the Nebrodi that most of the delicacies of Sicilian butchery are concentrated. This is where the Nebrodi black pig, the prized indigenous breed of dark-coated pig, lives in the wild and semi-wild. Among the products made here, don’t miss the salame fellata, prosciutto crudo and sausage, both fresh and dried, whose intense flavor is one of the characteristics conferred by the extraordinary Sicilian breed.
The famous salami of Sant’Angelo di Brolo, produced in the village of the same name in the inland part of the splendid stretch of coast between Milazzo and Capo D’Orlando, should not be missing from the list of norcine specialties. The salami produced here, which bears the PGI mark, benefits from a unique and ideal microclimate for maturing. It seems that its origins can be attributed to the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century, who gave impetus to new eating habits and consumption. Coarse grain, softness and intense aroma characterize this tasty salami. And in the same village, if the Normans are responsible for the origin of the salami, the Arabs are responsible for that of the bocconetto, a traditional sweet made with long candied courgette and almonds.
What better pairing for cured meats than with cheese? And here is the other protagonist of the territory: provola dei Nebrodi, a raw milk caciocavallo obtained from a cheese-making technique handed down among the cheesemakers of the Sicilian cheese-producing municipalities. Eaten both as a table cheese and used in traditional recipes, it is an excellent product to taste.
An indigenous variety of olive, the ‘minuta’ olive, also finds its habitat in the Nebrodi Mountains and produces a very special oil with a spicy, bitter taste and excellent persistence in the mouth.
In Novara di Sicilia, a beautiful village on the border between Nebrodi and Peloritani, and in some neighboring villages, another amazing island cheese is produced: the maiorchino. According to some sources, its origins date back to 1600, when the Maiorchina festival was organized under Spanish rule. This is a pecorino cheese that requires a very long processing time, and for this reason it is not widely produced, with a strong and sweet flavor at the same time, and a long maturation period that can reach two years.
Among the specialties to be sampled in Messina is the delicious focaccia messinese, which has lard in its dough and is stuffed with escarole, tuma and salted anchovies. The pidone, a tasty fried calzone, is made with the same ingredients. And then let yourself be tempted by the scagghiozze, delicious little pieces of fried polenta.
Already known to fans of Montalbano, pasta ‘ncasciata is one of the best expressions of Sicilian cuisine. Its name is said to derive from ‘u n’cascio’, the gesture of placing the pan of pasta on the embers used for cooking. In the Mistretta version, which is widespread throughout the province, baked pasta is enriched with fried eggplants, meat sauce, salami, pecorino cheese, hard-boiled eggs, caciocavallo cheese or tuma cheese: a triumph of flavors for the taste buds!
Among the meat dishes, try the soft Messina-style braciole, veal roulades stuffed with cheese, strictly Sicilian, cooked on the grill.
If you’re wondering what happened to the fish, here it is in one of the historic recipes, stocco alla messinese, a dish in which stockfish, which was imported to Sicily by the Normans, is dressed with a succulent sauce of tomatoes, potatoes, olives and capers.
And then, in the tradition of Messina, there is the swordfish of the Strait, which comes in many versions: from braciolette to baked swordfish covered with breadcrumbs.
Desserts include bianco e nero, a delicious cream-filled cream puff cake reminiscent of French profiteroles. Unlike the French profiteroles, however, the puffs are covered with gianduja cream and large chocolate shavings.
And in the fried food category, the balò alla ricotta and the torciglione Messina will satisfy the sweet tooth, the former with their soft ricotta filling, the latter with a delicious custard.
To close Sunday lunches and for special occasions, the traditional dessert is pignolata, which dates back to Spanish rule and was at one time only made during Carnival. The dessert is made up of a mixture of fried or baked dumplings covered in a black and white icing.
And now all that remains is to move from theory to practice!