Sicily was beyond being the bomb. We had more fun, ate better, laughed longer and enjoyed ourselves more on this trip than on any other in recent memory. Arriving in Palermo is a gas, the stunning blue sea, the cream colored cliffs and bobbing boats look almost as good from the air as they do up close and personal. We checked into our hotel and got down to some serious eating.
The cuisine of Sicily is uniquely different from any other Italian region, strongly influenced by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the French and the Spanish, each conqueror and wayfarer have strongly left their influence on the foods of Sicily. These foreign civilizations converged on Sicily throughout it’s history and brought with them new ingredients, customs and food traditions that remained long after they left. Blend these foreign techniques with simple ingredients and the traditional respect for seasonal eating and you know all you need to about Sicilian cuisine.
We hit the Vucciria and Ballaro Markets first, food freak heaven. Bottarga, babbaluci,stigghiole (braided grilled innards of all kinds, mostly intestine), caldume, and cento pelli, all the the little offal treats that the Sicilians cant get enough of are on display. But form an eaters standpoitn the fresh lemons, the tomatoes the tuna, the grilled baby pigs, the artichokes, the bread…..can you feel me? How a bout the scincifone, a thick, spongy Sicilian pizza topped with tomato sauce, onions, salted sardines and caciocavallo cheese, baked in large rectangular tins and sold by the piece in the streets. Or the smell of grilled fennel sausage on every corner…wow.
Later in the afternoon we checked out some some traditional Sicilian fried foods from a Friggitoria: everyone loves aracine, those little rice balls, but the frittola is what I remember most. Sometimes these are the scraps from the butcher, the cartilage and the calluses, the fat trimmings, but from good stuff, veal or pork, boiled in rendered fat at a very high temperature. Then they open a tap with a sieve in it, and all the fat is drawn off and all the little pieces of meat that remain get pressed into large, round cakes. The vendor then slices these cakes and heats them up in a frying pan. Another version is simply to fry all the scraps and throw a blanket over them so no one can see what you are eating. They even spoon it into your hand, which is great for the napkin haters out there. I love it.
We ate lunch at Ferro di Cavallo Restaurant for some typical Sicilian cuisine. Spaghetti with Squid Ink, Sardine Balls, and La Golla Della Mucca (throat of the cow) a dish that is made of poached neck parts with loads of wild celery. This restaurant is packed all the time, the food is exquisite in the most rustic sense and I could eat there every night of the week.
We had dinner in an ancient building housing a killer eatery that is a serious food lovers Valhallah. Osteria Dei Vespri is located in the old historical center of Palermo near Piazza Rivoluzione. The chef-owner served up a degustation of nerves of cow mouth with veal tongue, dome of egg fondue with prawns from Mazzara, smoked pork jowl in a prawn bisque, hot cakes of mushrooms & Nebrodi cheese with candy lemon chips and ravioli neri filled with mussels and potatoes, seared refdish with sea urchin and tomato sauce…somedays my job is better than others.
We journeyed the next day to check out Cerda’s most famous vegetable and a staple in Sicilian cuisine, the artichoke. This thistle is celebrated every year with a festival that mixes art exhibits and other artichoke-themed entertainment with live traditional bands and parades through the town. More than 10 percent of the world’s artichokes are grown in Sicily, and during the festival, artichokes are used in every course of a meal. They are fried, sautéed, grilled, marinated, pickled, fresh, and creamed in soup. My favorites from the festival: Torta di Carciofi (Artichoke pie), and Carciofi Alla Giudea (Deep Fried Artichokes with baby squid) , but the topper was the artichoke gelato with lemon. Addictive.
The next day, in the remote fishing village of Marzanemi, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to go night fishing with local fishermen. In Sicily, most fishing happens at night with lanterns in hand made boats, a tradition that has occurred for several generations. We went out again at dawn and caught a little bit of everything from 3 miles of nets we laid out.
On the way back to the fishermans house we stopped off at a bottarga processors. Bottarga is known to locals as “poor man’s caviar” and its the salted and dried roe of tuna or grey mullet, or sometimes swordfish. Bottarga is massaged by hand to eliminate air pockets, salted for weeks and then dried for up to 2 months The result is a dry hard slab, which is often coated in beeswax for keeping. In Salvatore’s shop I got a chance to eat La Lattume (the sperm sac of the tuna which is considered a delicacy in this part of Sicily). Salvatore’s family has been making products like these since 1854, for five generations….so when he says the sperm is good, who am I to argue.
We drove on to Salvatore’s home for lunch and his wife and cousins made us
Bottarga Antipasti, Tuna Sperm Linguine, Pachino Tomato and Squid Ink Sauce, a delicious sauce made with squid ink, local Sicilian tomatoes, herbs and extra virgin olive oil served over pasta. Sicilian Pachino tomato sauce is the best in the world and eating all the local pickled peppers, olives and cured lemons from Sal’s wife’s garden was the icing on the cake.
On our last day we cooked and ate lunch with Eleonora Consoli, the Julia Child of Sicilian cuisine, who teaches courses in her huge Mediterranean kitchen in her home on the slopes of Mount Etna. She is a former food journalist and she teaches in her home, a typical Sicilian house of the 18Th century. The house is set in a yard filled with orange and lemon groves, just down the mountain from vineyards producing DOC wine (the red, rosé and white wines of Etna), fanmous since Roman times. Having her walk me through the preparation of Rane a Brodetto (frogs soup) and Coniglio al Cioccolato (rabbit with vegetables and chocolate) and to see her make cured anchovies from scratch is something I will never forget. We hit it off, and the bloopers on the web site prove it.
I know that Florence, Venice, Milan and Rome are awesome. I have spent a lot of time there. I know how hip Capri and Ischia are these days, I love those islands, but Sicily is special. It feels like another world, which may be why every Sicilian always reminds you, “eet eeze not eetal-ee, eeze Sicily!”