Sicily on a plate
What to buy, eat, drink and bring home in your suitcase
Chef Catherine Fulvio in Sicily. Photograph: Rory Cobbe
The island of Sicily: “the pearl of the Mediterranean”
Fish market, Catania, Sicily
Fruit and vegetable seller, La Vucciria, Palermo, Sicily
Sicily, said Goethe, is “the pearl of the Mediterranean” . It consumes visitors with its beauty, history, warmth of its people and vibrancy of its food. Inhabited by the Spaniards, Normans, Greeks and Arabs throughout its history, this island’s diverse and unique food culture marries flavours from former occupiers with its own Mediterranean roots.
The island was renowned for its durum wheat, ideal for pasta and bread , and the Romans considered Sicilian cheese to be the best in the Empire.
The first known Italian food writer lived in Syracuse, Sicily, in the 4th century BC. He wrote about using “top quality and seasonal” ingredients, saying that flavours should not be masked by spices, herbs and other seasonings. So passion for food came as no surprise to me when my husband introduced me to his homeland. It is a main talking point – that and soccer. In fact, Claudio’s family love to tell me how the bars of Palermo ran out of beer and street food when the fun loving Irish soccer supporters visited for Italia ’90.
Fresh and seasonal ingredients are most important. Some people shop twice daily, for lunch and for dinner. Over meals, the nuances of each dish and the detail of the ingredients are discussed.
You can expect the best of Mediterranean ingredients in Sicily: lemons, oranges, peaches, fish, tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes – food of all colours and flavours. Most towns have markets. Don’t be surprised to see knock-off handbags, baby clothes and fish stalls all on the one row.
The most lively, boisterous experiences are the markets of Palermo and Catania. La Vucciria in Palermo, the oldest market in the city, sells everything from copper pots to street food .
Mercato di Capo and Ballaro markets are primarily for fish, vegetables and spices. Here you can buy polpetini di melanzane (aubergine balls) and sardi a bseccaficu (stuffed sardines) ready to finish cooking when you get home.
Vendors bellow to compete with each other in the vibrant fish market in Catania. Go, even to see the array of fish – from whole swordfish to various clams, from octopus to tuna – it’s a sight to behold.
I don’t bother with panini or pizza when on the streets of Sicily. My taste buds are drawn to dishes I can’t have at home.
The likes of arancine (stuffed rice balls) are a favourite with my children. Panelle are a type of flat croquette made from chickpea flour and deep fried, served in a bun – delicious!
Sfincione is like a deep fried pizza, but the topping is very different, finished with breadcrumbs and pecorino.
Some street food I have trouble getting my teeth into are ricci (sea urchins, eaten live) and panne con la milze; cooked cow spleen in a bap. For the most authentic experience, order one in Franceso D’Antica, Palermo, the oldest Focacceria in Sicily.
At traffic lights, figi d’indi – the fruit of the cactus plant – are peeled and sold to motorists. Tasting a little like a ripe papaya, they are a welcome treat on a hot day.
Dining out: what to eat
The most famous Sicilian antipasto has to be caponata, a delicious aubergine and tomato stew with lots of additional seasonal ingredients and served with bread. The salumi and cheese are also wonderful. Caciocavallo, a gourd shaped cheese, is probably the most well known of Sicilian cheeses.
Pasta alla Norma, named after Bellini’s opera Norma , is a delicious tomato, ricotta salata and aubergine sauce.
In pasta con le sarde, fresh sardines, lemon and fennel combine to make a very tasty sauce. Spaghetti al nero di seppia (pasta with squid ink) is my husband’s favourite.
The black pigs from the Nebrodi Mountains are prized and their salsiccia (sausage) made with fennel is truly delicious.
All fish in Sicily is excellent, cooked in its simplest form . It includes s wordfish, tuna, pasta with clams or mussels, prawns, polpo (octopus); especially carpaccio of octopus and fritto misto.
Sicily has the best ice-cream in the world . And the granita (like a slushy but a lot nicer!) and sorbet are especially welcome in the heat of the summer. Popular granitas ar e limone (lemon) and gelsi (mulberry). S curzunera (jasmine ice-cream) is well worth looking for.
Cassata is a beautifully decorated, rich ricotta and candied-peel-filled cake, delicious with a coffee . The movie The Godfather made canoli famous. These are cigar-shaped pastries filled with sweet ricotta. The best place to try these treats is in La Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico in Erice.
What to drink
According to legend, the god Bacchus brought pleasure to mankind and wine to Sicily. Nero D’Avola is the best- known Sicilian red. The Alcamo region is known for its white – a blend of Cataratto, Grecanico, Damaschino and Trebbiano. Wines to try and vineyards to visit include La Planeta, Murgo (on Mt Etna) which makes a lovely sparkling wine and Rapitala (near Alcamo), Corvo and Donnafugata.
Marsala fortified wine is one of the most famous drinks of Sicily. The Cantine Florio, in the town of Marsala, is open for visits and tastings.
Many people in Sicilian homes make their own digestifs such as limoncello and mandarincello but even the shop-bought versions are delicious; if strong .
What to bring home
Extra virgin olive oil, Nocellara del Belice olives, caponata, pistachio-flavoured honey, salt from the salt beds of Trapani, saffron, marsala and bottarga (tuna roe).
Also make room in your suitcase for some capers – salted are best – from the nearby island of Pantelleria; chocolate, nougat and almond paste from Modica, and jars of pesto or sweet creams made with pistachios from Bronte.
INSIDER GUIDE TO WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
GrandHotel Et desPalmes
Historic, elegant and great location.
San Domenico Palace
Our room had a balcony projecting out to the sea, with amazing views.
Grand Hotel Villa Politi
Former war-time base of Winston Churchill. Ask for the Lady Churchill room.
The best food I have enjoyed in Sicily has been home cooked and the joy, for me, is being able to help my relatives in the kitchen and learn about ingredients and the passion. But I have always enjoyed a lovely meal in Ristorante Monte San Giuliano in Erice (montesangiuliano.it). The sea bass there is unforgettable and the stroll through the cobbled streets of the Norman hilltop town is always a highlight.
I would detour for Nangalarruni in Castelbuono in the Madonie Mountains (hostarianangalarruni.it). If you visit during porcini season order handmade porcini pasta and their meats are excellent.
Sunday lunch at the Villa Baglio Carta, Ballestrate, is a great experience, from the food to the people-watching, as city folk head out en masse for family gatherings in the countryside(ristorantiitaliani.it/bagliocarta).
Aer Lingus has flights to Catania and Ryanair has flights to Palermo and to Comiso, both from Dublin.