Depending primarily on fresh ingredients, Sicilian dishes have great versatility, needing only a sprinkle of salt, and a drizzling of excellent extra-virgin olive oil.
The ever-increasing numbers of people visiting Sicily come to enjoy the history of the island, its the ancient Greek temples, the natural beauty of the mountains, the stunning villages, and, of course, the sandy beaches. But visitors always leave the island raving about its incredibly delicious regional cuisine. Sicilian cooking is replete with recipes that are not only tasty, but also healthful and nutritious.
Four hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Tyrant of Syracuse, Sicily, implored Plato to teach his son, Dionisius the Younger. Plato tutored the young man for three months before prematurely returning to Greece, deploring the time and attention that locals devoted to the preparation and consumption of their food. As he remarked in his writings, he was greatly distressed by the Sicilian’s love for food, believing it to be superfluous and wasteful. In the midst of such decadence and self-indulgence, the youth would come to no good, he claimed. Preoccupied with overindulgence, their civilization was fated to gradually decline. However, Plato had a special appreciation for desserts, first forgiving the Sicilians for their sweet tooth and then conceding that sweets were the greatest contribution of Sicilian gastronomy to the ancient world.
It seems that Sicilians had conceived of “nouvelle cuisine” over 2,300 years ago, when Archestrato, the James Beard of his time, cautioned against making sauces too rich. He recommended reducing the quantity of condiments used, instead emphasizing the food’s own juices, combining it with a savory mixture of freshly chopped aromatic herbs, good olive oil, salt, and sesame seeds.
Still today, the appeal of Sicilian cooking is its simplicity; it is unpretentious, but savory and flavorful. It is dependent upon ingredients that are uncompromisingly fresh, in season, and at the peak of their flavor. The method behind Sicilian cooking aims to preserve the flavor, texture, and wholesomeness of the fresh ingredients.
The Sicilian repertoire includes many wonderful recipes that are made to celebrate the various holidays of the year. For example, the centerpiece of the Easter Sunday menu is the traditional “mpanata ri agnieddu,” a delectable lamb pie that will greatly reward whatever adventurous cook is willing to try it. This lamb pie is made with a bread crust that encloses well-seasoned, stewed lamb meat, bones and all. The meat juices soak into the bottom crust as the pie slowly cools, infusing it with intense favor. The Easter feast continues through to Monday, when people pack a delicious lunch and head for the country or the nearest beach to celebrate Pasquetta.
Sicily, which in ancient Roman times was called the “granary of the Italic peninsula,” still produces the best durum wheat in Italy. High quality bread and pasta continue to be staples within the daily diet, while rice makes its appearance in certain special dishes. Aracini, or rice balls stuffed with cheese or meat, covered with bread crumbs, and deep-fried to a golden orange, is perhaps the most popular finger-food dish of the countless that Sicily offers. Even so, rice in Sicily is nowhere near as widespread and prominent as it is in northern provinces.
The Sicilian dessert table is not only a delight for the eyes, but also for the palate. Many of these desserts are appreciated all over the world, perhaps the best-known of which is the granita, or the smooth and refreshing fruit ice. Others include marzipan fruits, ricotta-filled cannoli, and spectacular cakes decorated with candied fruits, along with cookies filled with dried fruits, nuts, and honey.