Whether your interests tend toward ruins, beaches, or ritual tuna slaughter, there’s no shortage of reasons to visit Sicily.
But the one foremost on my list was food, which is a window into the history of the island as good as any archaeology museum. A good thing too, since I didn’t visit any of those.
The emphasis on olives, favas, and fish on Sicily’s eastern coast hearkens all the way back to the period of Greek colonization in the eighth century. Trapanese couscous, a typical dish in the west, the Sicilians owe to centuries of trade and cultural exchange with nearby Tunisia.
But it’s probably the Islamic conquest of Sicily in the tenth and eleventh centuries that has had the most lasting influence on Sicilian cuisine. The Arabs introduced citrus, pine nuts, cinnamon, saffron – even what is thought to be the pre-cursor to ice cream, sharbat (or sherbet).
My first memory of eating Sicilian food actually takes place in Rome. My roommate had returned from visiting her father in Palermo toting little paper cups of gelo di mellone – watermelon jelly – garnished with pistachios and nubbins of dark chocolate.
As is characteristic of Sicilian desserts, it was very sweet, but also slightly floral and spicy – altogether unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Back in the United States, I tried to recreate it every subsequent summer, and finding a recipe was often the timeliest part of the task. Ten years later, there are a number of versions available online and in English. (I recommend Nick Malgieri’s take, featured here in Saveur).
But the first taste I had of the real thing has remained the best, so I was on the lookout for a local version as Evan and I ate our way through Sicily’s southwest.
No luck in Noto or Sircausa. But there are plenty of other Sicilian desserts suitable for summertime. Wandering around in the heat of the afternoon or in the relative cool after dinner, we stopped frequently for granita – basically, Sicilian shaved ice.
At Caffe Sicila in Noto we tried a sampler of three different flavors: almond, cappuccino, and strawberry-tomato. Made with almond milk from locally grown almonds, the creamy granita di mandorle is one of the most traditional flavors. And the strawberry-tomato which we ordered for curiosity’s sake stood up nicely against the classics: the tomato was nearly imperceptible, just adding a rich roundness to the strawberry flavor.
Of course there was more to eat than dessert. Nearly every night our dinner began with an antipasto of caponata – a sweet and sour eggplant dish that often features capers, raisins, celery, and olives. All the versions we tried included cubes of fried potatoes, a variation I hadn’t encountered before. But the potatoes contrasted nicely with the unctuosity of eggplant cooked in an abundance of olive oil.
On our last evening in Siracusa we ended up at Sciue Sciue, a tiny restaurant on the edge of Ortigia. Inside, there was a table or two in the corner but the space was dominated by an open plan kitchen that appeared small enough to fit neatly in our apartment kitchen back in Geneva. Outside and across a narrow cobbled street was the main dining area: four or five plastic tables crowded up against a city wall.
There was just one woman working in the kitchen and a younger man – her son, we suspected – waiting tables. Massimo (we knew his name because his mother frequently screeched at him from the kitchen) was slim and sort of sweaty, with Eraserhead hair. I asked for penne with swordfish but he persuaded me to try the pasta alla Norma instead. It was a beautiful pasta, he insisted, and I believed him – but I’d just overhead the couple at the next table over ordering it and suspected Massimo was just trying to make things easier on the one-woman kitchen.
Evan ordered a plate of sarde impanato and to start we shared the antipasto sorpresa alla Sciue Sciue which consisted of a heap of caponata, some semi-dried tomatoes, hard cheese and salami, a puddle of fresh ricotta and a pile of glistening anchovies.
The penne alla Norma – a Sicilian classic – was worthy of Massimo’s recommendation; rounds of grilled eggplant and a shower of grated ricotta salata crowned a tomato sauce so darkly savoury I thought it must have been made with sun-dried tomatoes rather than fresh. Evan and I were among the last guests to finish our dinners and as we were negotiating the future of the last fried sardine I saw Massimo’s mamma sink into a chair at the kitchen counter and light up a cigarette; he leant against the refrigerator and cracked open a beer, the dinner orders cleared at last.
I crossed another classic Sicilian pasta off my list, pasta con le sarde, when we ate dinner in a Noto trattoria with a mediocre atmosphere that suffered from the presence of a raucous party of about sixteen sunburned Brits. But the food was good and generous: Evan had a warm octopus salad and we both followed up our starters with tuna; his pistachio-crusted and mine served on a mound of peppers and onions.
The most spectacular dinner of all was in Palermo—fittingly, on our last night in Sicily. Craving peace and relaxation after a hot day of driving and a brief incident with the Palermitano police relating to the parking of a rental car in what turned out to be a lane for opposing traffic, we walked from our hotel on Via Vittorio Emmanuele to the edge of the island, then turned right and followed along the shore until we arrived at Kursaal Kalhesa.
A bookstore, bar and restaurant all located within an old city wall, there is a magic air about Kursaal Kalhesa. We ate in the restaurant’s large outdoor courtyard, which is fringed by towering trees and plants. In the semi-dark candles twinkled on the tables.
We ate an amuse bouche of panelle – a fritter made from chickpea flour – while we read the menu, which was rife with Sicilian classics. Some were presented in perfect simplicity, like my starter of macco, a fava bean puree flavoured with wild fennel. Others were whimsical reinventions. Evan followed a millefeuille of anchovies, celery, and tomato with a cannolo – of beef! It was stuffed with caciocavallo cheese, crusted with pistachios, and drizzled with a nero d’Avola reduction.
I opted for the tortino di spigola, or less poetically, sea bass cake. A filet of seabass was pressed into a mold, stuffed with seafood-studded couscous and baked, then turned out on the plate and served with a pistachio and citrus sauce, another nod to traditional Sicilian flavors.
For dessert, Evan had two flavors of ice cream, salsify flower and cinnamon. Me, I went straight for the thing I’d been searching for the whole trip, though Kursaal Kalhesa offered a more sophisticated iteration: a watermelon bavarian cream with jasmine and cinnamon sauce.
It was a parting gift of the sweetest sort.
Sicily Restaurant Recommendations
Sciue Sciue, Via Santa Teresa 8, Siracusa
Caffe Sicilia, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 125, Noto / 0931 835013
Kursaal Kalhesa, Foro Umberto I, Palermo / 091 616 2282