Sicily was first colonized by the Phoenicians and Greeks in ancient times, and today its cuisine carries influences from across the Middle East, including couscous and saffron, arancini and preserved citrus. Not surprisingly (as it’s an island) there is plenty of seafood, including swordfish and tuna. Overall, it’s a robust and often vegetarian peasant cuisine, with plenty of ingredients known to American consumers – garlic, tomatoes both canned and fresh, spicy pepperoncino, and plenty of olive oil. It’s also where most of the first generation of Italian immigrants to the US came from, so what we know as Italian American food is derivative of Sicily.
In this series, we look more closely at lesser-known region of Italy in every issue. As consumers continue to clamor for authentic, regional foods from Italy, it pays to be in the know! This month, we travel to the southern-most part of Italy and to the island of Sicily.
Featured dish: Pasta alla Norma
This dish is an iconic dish of Sicily, the simple but satisfying vegetarian “Pasta alla Norma.” Legend has it that the dish gets its name from Vincenzo Bellini's opera "Norma." In the 19th century, Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian writer, poet and theater director, was so impressed when he first tasted this dish that he compared it to “Norma”, Bellini’s masterpiece. And the name lasted ever since. To make Pasta alla Norma, the eggplants are salted, cubed and fried in EVOO, a crucial step to develop the right flavor and texture. The cheese is ricotta salata, the local pressed and salted version of fresh ricotta. Fresh basil adds a finishing touch to this simple tomato-based classic.
Bella Gioia in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood celebrates all of the authentic classics of Sicily, from pasta alla norma to arancini and even a pasta dish with Trapani pesto. The latter is totally unlike the Ligurian pesto you know—it’s got basil, but also tomatoes and almonds along with romano cheese, and it belongs on casarecce, the scroll-like pasta shape native to Sicily.
One of our favorite Sicilian chefs in the US is Chef Accursio Lota, the 2017 World Pasta Champion from Solare Ristorante in San Diego. His winning dish took the rich, meat-centric carbonara, paired with Barilla spaghetti, and turned it into a celebration of the seafood that makes his home region famous. Fish roe replaces the hen egg, cooked seafood replaces the guanciale, and there’s even a bit of green mandarin zest for another Sicilian signature.