A couple of friends have requested more detail re. Sicilian dinners. Although I’ve had a few bad meals here— leathery pizza, vomitous ham-and-pea lasagne, cold risotto containing gherkin, egg and hotdog– they have been the exceptions. Sicily really is a fantastic place to eat. The ingredients are usually fresh and locally produced, the people are a bit crazy when it comes to food, and, thanks to the island’s history as a kind of political football, it offers a combination of flavors you won’t find anywhere else.
The essential ingredients are seafood (lots and lots of seafood)—scampi, tuna, sea urchin roe, sardines and cod; fresh vegetables and herbs (especially eggplant, cherry tomatoes, oregano and fennel); olive oil that tastes bright green; salty, creamy cheeses; fatty cured meats, and bread so fresh it tastes like it was still waving around on its stalk half an hour ago.
Then there are the baroque flourishes and curlicues—spices that add a hint of mystery, suggesting Morocco, Tunisia and the Middle East; interesting wines; angelic sweets concocted by nuns recreating heaven as a gustatory experience; the tang of citrus; and the luxurious crunch of nuts, particularly pistachio, almond and (now that it’s autumn) chestnuts.
So, as a thank you for reading this far, I am offering you an imaginary (and therefore *totally fat-free*) feast containing some of the tastiest dishes so far experienced on this alternately enchanting and infuriating isle.
We shall observe the usual Italian order of dishes, which is very strict and must be adhered to: antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta or rice), secondi (protein), contorni (salads and side dishes), dolci (sweets) and frutti (you can guess). I’ll leave you to choose your own drinks, but you might want to select one of these local wines.
This literally means ‘oranges’. They are fried balls (or cones) of rice filled with meat sauce (like bolognese) and mozzarella, coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried. The one in the photo is served on some parsley cream sauce.
There are lots of different ways to make this, but a consistent ingredient is eggplant. The one in the picture (which we had at a place called Sale), is a kind of sweet-and-sour concoction containing onions, tomatoes, capers and raisins with a hint of Moroccan spice.
This has nothing to do with Parma or Parmesan cheese. In fact, it is Sicilian all the way and comes from the word parmiciana, which describes the lattice work involved in making wooden shutters, an allusion to the layered ingredients in the dish. There are lots of different recipes but the ones I’ve tried here have the same basic ingredients: fried eggplant, ham sliced as thin as a cat’s ear, tomato-and-garlic sauce and caciocavallo or provolone cheese.
Spaghetti with sea urchin roe
I’d seen this on TV programs and wanted to know what it was like. It was very simple–spaghetti, olive oil and urchin roe (ricci di mare) with a garnish of parsley. The taste and texture weren’t what I was expecting at all, though they were pleasant–sort of like diluted sweet clay.
Seppia risotto with pumpkin cream sauce
Seppia is squid ink, and the risotto also contained pieces of squid. Ordinarily I avoid chowing down on cephalopods but I decided to be a bit adventurous just this once. It was a spectacular dish, quite a sensory rollercoaster, but in the end the chewiness and the black ink bleeding into the sweet yellow cream put me off and I couldn’t finish it.
Penette with pistaccio and strong cheese
I can’t remember the name of the cheese, unfortunately, but it smelled like feet, in a good way. This was a delicious pasta dish. The practice of using pistachio crumbs as a garnish is very common here–it is also sprinkled on pizzas.
I recommended these to John and he wasn’t very happy about it. He kept telling me how much they looked like scorpions or the creatures from Alien. Then he picked one up and jiggled it up and down like a puppet. “Thanks for ordering the spider-fish!” he chirped in a muppet voice.
Pork chop with lemon
No complaints here. Juicy. John’s only regret was that we were not at the sort of establishment where you can pick bones up and chew the gristle off.
Chicken with potato
Chicken leg with lettuce and roast potatoes.
This was a simple mixed salad but deserves a mention because it was so fresh and un-bitter. There was butterhead lettuce, raddichio with beautiful red speckled leaves, grated carrot, a bit of basil and a few quartered cherry tomatoes.
Ricotta and almond cake
This was unbelievably good. The ricotta here is creamy, soft and sweet. Here it is combined with a sponge cake that has been dipped in some alcoholic elixir, then sprinkled with toasted almond flakes and chocolate.
Cassatelle di Agira
These are like big sweet ravioli biscuits filled with a paste containing chickpea flour, ground almonds, cacao, sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest.
Well, there you have it! Don’t forget your espresso or, if you prefer, an after-dinner sip of Sicilian limoncello.