“In a country rich in food traditions, no region is richer than Sicily.” Gillian Riley gets straight to the point in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. It's Italy's second largest island (the slightly triangular soccer ball of “the boot”) and most southern region, which means that its history is peppered with influences from the Greeks, Arabs, French, Spanish, and North Africans who would pass through.
It was known as the “garden paradise” by Arabs in the Middle Ages: Its beautiful and fruitful coastline and luxurious vegetation, all perfumed with orange blossom—something that Roman cookbook writer Ada Boni adds “could exist only in a land of sunshine”—provide the island with plenty of exquisite produce, from the freshest seafood to nuts, wine, sea salt, vegetables, and fruit. And so it follows that Sicily's food would be exquisite as well.
An icon of Sicilian cuisine, Pasta alla Norma is named after Catania-born Bellini's nineteenth-century opera Norma. This is the Eastern Sicilian city's signature dish, and some say it represents the moody volcano, Mount Etna, that looks over Catania: the black and red of the eggplant and tomato sauce represent the lava, while the showering of ricotta salata on top is like the snow that covers the mountain in winter.
Sicilians are renowned in Italy for their pastry-making—their beautiful desserts and refreshing granita are some of the best in the country. (It might be the only place in the world where it is acceptable to eat granita and brioche for breakfast!) The strong Arabic influence over Sicily in the Middle Ages is partly to thank for Sicily's prowess in the pastry section: They introduced sugar, citrus, nuts like pistachios and almonds, and durum wheat, amongst other things, as well as the techniques for candying fruit and making sorbets and flaky pastry.
Perhaps the most famous pastries are Sicilian cannoli—one bite of the crisp, freshly fried pastry encasing a creamy ricotta filling and you will understand instantly that Sicily does desserts better than anywhere else.
In the shadow of Mount Etna, an area famous for producing the world's tastiest pistachios, you can find gems like these gloriously simple pastine di pistacchi, dainty pistachio cookies (which also happen to be gluten-free!).
Then there is that beautiful, gaudy, slightly intimidating cassata. The cassata is a surprisingly delicate cake of sponge encasing ricotta and chocolate chip and covered in green marzipan and royal icing. Whole, candied fruit—a specialty of the region—tops the whole thing. Could there be more going on here? It's the ultimate Sicilian dessert, which is made all over the island from Palermo to Trapani and which they say is over a thousand years old and.
Related to the cassata are these exquisite Minne di Sant'Agata, which look suggestive enough to make you blush. Dedicated to the patron saint of Catania, Saint Agatha, these pastries of liquor-soaked sponge or short, sweet pastry hold a ricotta and chocolate filling are made to represent the young saint's breasts.
Stop blushing and try one! You'll want to book a flight to Sicily right away so you can take a bite into one while sitting in a sun-drenched, whitewashed piazza next to a table of old men in their black fedora hats.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.
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