Wine & Food

    A guide to Sicilian dining: from capers to caponata

    18 August 2020

    Sicilian food is pretty much what you would expect if Italian cuisine had a bruising encounter with a Mafioso down a dark alley. As befitting the home of the mafia, the food of this island is a bit rough around the edges, but big in personality, bold and, well, punchy.

    There is a sense in Sicily of living in an earlier time. Its inhabitants have still a culture of a daily rather than weekly shop. The island is poorer than mainland Italy and you can see it in the food—in frugal cuts like pork spleen stuffed into sandwiches, or jaw cooked for hours until meltingly tender and served simply with lemon and salt.

    Sicily’s strategic location too informs its cuisine, which draws inspiration from both mainland Italy and North Africa. You taste it in couscous di pesce alla trapanese (fish couscous in a broth flavoured with saffron, parsley and garlic) or the preponderance of brik (a savoury pastry hailing from Tunisia filled with tuna or shrimp). If you can’t get away, pay a visit to Norma in Fitzrovia, which has been met with critical adoration since it opened last year. It focuses on those Moorish influences in, for example, a spice-roasted cauliflower with pine nuts, raisins and Bronte pistachio pesto.

    Sicilian cuisine at Norma, London

    This is the largest island in the Mediterranean and the food exhibits all the regional variation you would expect. In the capital, Palermo, you will want street-food snacks to keep you sustained as you sightsee. I Cuochini is the Palermitan stalwart at which to try them, including arancinette (miniature arancini). In Palermo you should also try pane e panelle (a chickpea fritter sandwich) and pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines and wild fennel). Or start a meal with sarde a beccafico, where the sardines are butterflied and then stuffed. Giorgio Locatelli, who has authored a book on Sicilian food, has a good recipe for the traditional dish.

    sarde a beccafico, stuffed sardines

    Worth a visit on the outskirts of Palermo is the port town of Bagharia where the city’s seventeenth and eighteenth century elite built grand baroque villas as holiday homes. You can feast on the freshly landed catch on the roof terrace of Bitta Ristro.

    All along the Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Mediterranean coasts you will eat excellent seafood, tuna and swordfish. But do not neglect the seven Aeolian Islands: I remember vividly sailing into Salina, and seeing its verdant slopes lush with caper fields. Eat (and stay!) at Hotel Signum, surrounded by citrus and jasmine trees, gazing out to the Tyrrhenian Sea, sampling pasta all’eoliana which employs the famous capers and olives in its sauce. In London, you will find Luce e Limoni worth a visit if you’re on the hunt for a coastal bounty such as swordfish—it’s open frontage onto Gray’s Inn Road allowing you to recreate, somewhat, the feeling of al fresco dining on a balmy Sicilian evening.

    Back on the main island, journeying inland you encounter earthy, sustaining staples like fava beans in Syracuse and the south-east. Eat at Osteria da Seby, on Ortygia, the small island at the heart of historical Syracuse. Or if that defeats you, there is always Brixton: Franzina Trattoria is a cute spot that uses the Syracusan Ragusano DOP cheese in one of its well-priced ragu pasta dishes.

    Sausages, wild game, mushrooms and wild asparagus are to be found in the hill stations around Enna in the central part of the island, along with the region’s famous Leonforte peaches. If you are exploring the Roman ruins at Piazza Armerina you could stop for lunch at the family-run La Ruota. You will find chestnuts, hazelnuts, wild game aplenty and Basilico mushrooms in the Madonie Mountains in the north. Head east and pistachios, Zafferana Etnea honey and grapes for volcanic terroir wine all grow on Mount Etna’s fertile slopes.

    Like on mainland Italy, the pasta is spectacular. Jamie Oliver explains how to recreate the pleasure of a large spoon of pesto alla trapanese (made with fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and almonds) stirred through gnocchi, and pasta alla Norma (pasta topped with eggplant, basil, fresh ricotta and tomatoes) which harks from Catania on the Ionian Coast. If you are eating meat serve it with another Sicilian staple, caponata, on the side.

    Iconic: Sicilian caponata

    As for the sweet-toothed, this might be the only place on earth where it’s acceptable to eat ice cream for breakfast. In summer the typical breakfast of coffee and pastry gives way to brioche con gelato or granita con panna (crushed ice mixed with coffee or perhaps mulberries, topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream).

    Aperitivi meanwhile make the early evening the most civilised hours of the day—a chance to sip on a Linno Linno, a long drink made of vodka and bitter Crodino (the name, meaning “clean clean” referring to the ostensibly innocent drink’s ability to get one pleasantly drunk without realising it). With dinner, or as a digestif, a glass of Marsala—the fortified wine made in the west of the island—is obligatory. It is everything la dolce vita should be.