Because of its strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily attracted numerous invaders, all leaving their mark on local cuisine. It is simple food, “cucina povera,” but immensely rich in ingredients, giving us some wonderfully flavorful options for our summer Sicilian menu. Fruits and vegetables are abundant. Eggplant, fennel, tomato, citrus, peaches, pistachios, almonds, olives, ricotta and swordfish are all featured.
Though agriculturally rich, Sicily has suffered under the weight of adversity. Internationally acclaimed film, Cinema Paradiso, offers a particularly poignant glimpse into post war rural life – still amazingly relevant today. We think it is an enriching addition to this week’s menu, creating an authentic Sicilian experience.
In has been a long time since my first trip to Sicily. We took our car on the ferry from mainland Reggio Calabria to Messina where we initiated our long journey across the island to visit friends in Mazara del Vallo, south of Trapani on the opposite coast. We traveled through Sicily’s rugged heartland – rocky deforested mountains and grassy pastures, past almond and olive trees and prickly pear cactus (fichi d’India) along every road.
The trip was a revelation of new culinary treats, good wine, and cultured sightseeing, but what I remember most were the drivers! Nothing prepares you for the crazy drivers in Sicily. Traffic signals are a mere suggestion and nobody stops at a red light unless they absolutely have to. We made the mistake of stopping only to be assaulted by a furious chorus of car horns. When we wouldn’t move, they simply drove up over the curb and onto the sidewalk to pass us. Pazzi!
Because of its strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily attracted numerous invaders, all leaving their mark on local cuisine. It was the Greeks who first came over 2000 years ago, bringing with them a new world of culinary knowledge – grapes and winemaking, olives and oil extraction, and grain and refined flour. We have to thank the Sicilians for Italian cuisine as we know it today.
Despite the wealth of its diverse ingredients, poverty has been persistent in Sicily, leading to mass emigration beginning in the mid 1800s to then again after World War II. The internationally acclaimed film, Cinema Paradiso, offers a particularly poignant glimpse into the life of post war rural Sicily. With few opportunities for a better life, the town’s people congregate at the local cinema, appropriately called “Paradiso,” in search of a communal experience that allows them to forget their problems and dream. The protagonist, young Toto, must leave the town (and his love) to pursue his career. The Cinema is used as a metaphor for an era – a loss of innocence and irrecoverable past. It is a stunning movie (won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film) and adds a touch of authenticity to our featured Sicilian meal.
Insalata di Finocchio ed Arance is a cornucopia of Sicilian ingredients – orange rounds and thinly sliced fennel are tossed with Castelvetrano olives and toasted almonds, over a bed of arugula, dressed with lemon vinaigrette. Every edible variety of citrus is grown here, most famously blood oranges (not in season) with the island supplying more than 85% of Italy’s lemons. Castelvetrano is a town in Northwestern Sicily, world renowned for its bright green olives. Almost all of Italy’s almond production comes from here. Fennel, peaches, pistachios, eggplants, capers and cherries are also grown.
Macaroni alla Norma is Sicily’s most iconic pasta dish. It is said to be named after Vincenzo Bellini’s 19th century opera, Norma. Fried eggplant with tomato and basil is tossed with a tubular pasta, usually ziti, and finished with a grating of Ricotta Salata, sheep’s milk cheese, pressed, salted and aged for at least 90 days.
Early July marks the mating season for Mediterranean swordfish with schools of them swimming through the Straits of Messina and off the west coast of Sicily. Trapani is the most important fishing center in Italy, featuring predominantly tuna, sardines, anchovies and enormous swordfish. Pesce Spada cu Sammurigghiu (in Italian “salmoriglio”) is fresh grilled swordfish steak flavored with citrusy-herbal sauce of oregano, parsley, garlic, lemon and EVOO. The swordfish we use is locally sourced off the coast of New England.
Our Pesche sulla Brace is an homage to Sicilian desserts – cannoli and cassetta cake are well-known, as are Bronte pistachios. Given Sicily is also known for its peaches and they are in full season now, we grill them with a wash of honey, and serve them with a slice of butter cake topped with cannoli cream and toasted pistachios.
Waves of invaders through time have left their impact on Sicilian culture and food. Though it is agriculturally rich, it remains strained under the weight of adversity. Cinema Paradiso, the movie house and the film, offers all its viewers a place to escape from the trials of modern reality. For many of us, this forced COVID isolation has allowed us to connect with our memories and reflect on our life’s journey. In the film, the older Alfredo tightly embraces his protégé at the train station as he leaves to follow his dream and whispers, “Whatever you end up doing, love it!” Words to live by.