The food is glorious, the scenery breathtaking, as we stand almost at the toe of Italy’s boot-shape mainland. Sicily has rightfully gained distinction as the stepping stone into Europe as visitors and conquerors have come and left their mark.
Sicily remains a haven for immigrants, but is noticeably divided into two sections by cultural traditions.
Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is a northern seaport with strong Arab influence. Typically, dinner in Palermo would almost certainly include tuna fresh from the sea, simply grilled, and topped with chopped mint and almonds.
Fried chickpea fritters were originally an Arab street food that has become a popular and delicious addition to most antipasto buffets around the city. They are usually served with an assortment of olives and Sicilian peppers.
Pasta is perfectly cooked to highlight the beauty and flavor of fresh vegetables, possibly eggplant and tomatoes, to their best advantage.
Other vegetables, notably zucchini, are served as they come from the rich volcanic soil. Simply dressed with the very best olive oil, lemon juice, and aged vinegar they reveal flavors and nuances usually lost to less than perfect ingredients.
Desserts are often light, icy, and fruity to counteract the summer heat.
Feast days, especially Shrove Tuesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten fast, are filled with an excess of food and drink. There are large offerings of meat and sweets, items which are not usually eaten during the Lenten fast, but are strong expressions of the sense of abundance and opulence natural to the food of Sicily.
Costal towns of Catania, Syracuse and Messina are more reflective of the Greek culture, but are highly characteristic of the difference between Sicilian and Italian food. The unique character of Sicilian food is more evident in the coastal cities because so much of the diet comes from the surrounding sea which is abundant with some of the world’s most prized fish.
During their extended occupation, the Greeks taught the cultivation of fruit, olives, and the production and use of olive oil. Sunshine is almost relentless, and combined with the characteristic volcanic soil, flavors of fruits and vegetables are intense and unlike any other.
There is a sense of “Excess” about Sicily. The sea is too blue; the sun, too bright; the tomatoes, too red; the eggplant, too purple. Everything in Sicily seems intense, food flavors are intense; life and enjoyment seem to be lived almost to excess. Welcome to Sicily.