Nowhere else in Italy can claim the rich and varied history that Sicily and its neighbouring islands have endured.
They were invaded by such powerful civilizations as the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish, all of whom left their lasting mark on Sicilian cuisine. To try to characterize the island’s food is almost impossible, as it varies completely from the east to the centre to the west, and then, within those areas, from town to town.
A Cultural Cornucopia
However, the one characteristic that links all of Sicily’s cuisine is that it is always a blend. No other group has so skilfully absorbed the best aspects of every conquering culture and then turned that into a cultural strength as the Sicilians have. This dynamic characterizes its cuisine, which is simply a creative medley of the best flavours to pass through the island.
Sicily’s climate and fertile soil make growing any crop very easy. Its main production is wheat, which dates back to the Romans who chopped down Sicily’s remaining forests to make it Rome’s granary. The region now produces 10 percent of all of Italy’s wheat supply, much of which is used on the island itself to make the delicious breads and diverse pastas.
The pasta sauces are made with a variety of ingredients; the base is usually tomato or seafood, enriched with the Arab influences of currants, dates, pine nuts or saffron or, in the Greek style, with olives and capers. Wild fennel, celery, rosemary and other herbs from the wild macchia scrub also add their distinct tang.
The sea naturally produces the base of the Sicilian kitchen—seafood. The types are endless, but swordfish is the most common, followed by tuna, octopus and bonito, tuna’s smaller cousin. These are prepared in a variety of ways, often pounded into a flat fillet and wrapped around a stuffing of breadcrumbs and herbs, called involtini.
The famous Sicilian cheeses are credited to the Romans, and they are particularly known for their fresh ricotta. Unlike the North American cow’s-milk variety, Sicilian ricotta is made fresh with goat’s milk and is aged to make the sharp pecorino. Another popular cheese is caciocavallo, made from cow’s milk into little balls that are often found hanging in shop windows. This variety can also be smoked to give it a hardier flavour.