Italian Lessons: Sicily, II

BUT YOU DON’T COME TO PALERMO TO STAY IN MINIMALIST HOTELS AND EAT AVOCADO TOAST; YOU COME TO PALERMO TO BE IN PALERMO, TO DRINK ESPRESSOS AS DARK AND THICK AS CRUDE OIL, TO EAT TANGLES OF TOOTHSOME SPAGHETTI BATHED IN BUTTERY SEA URCHINS…
~MATT GOULDIN

If I’m to be completely honest, I have to tell you that I am a picky eater. One reason I was hesitant in visiting Sicily was because of the food. I am not, by far, an expert on the food of the island, but I knew enough of it to know that seafood is an island staple, and if you know me, you know it is not a Cristina staple. I just wasn’t thrilled about having to eat meals of swordfish, tuna, and—God forbid—sea urchins.

Before my first trip to the island, though, I did my research and found that I was being a bit too persnickety. Yes, seafood is a principal ingredient of Sicilian cuisine, but so are rice, produce, pasta, and pizza, all influenced by the Greeks, Spaniards, Arabs, French, and Africans who once inhabited the island. Olive oil is king; you won’t find the heavy cream/butter-based sauces that are popular in the north. Sicilian cuisine features local ingredients, and you’ll find fruits and nuts in savory dishes as well as the sweet.

Sicilian street food menu

I have to mention that street food is an important tradition in Sicily. You’ll not only find locals grabbing a quick snack any time of day but also breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Believe it or not, Palermo is one of the top street food cities in the world.

So, what are some Sicilian foods I ate? Drool on….

Arancini

Arancio with ragu and peas

The Arabs “invented” rice balls in Sicily around the 10th century and based them on foods found in the Middle East at that time. (Actually, the Arabs introduced rice to the island.) Arancini have a filling of meat and vegetables surrounded by rice. One of the ingredients that makes arancini so delicious is saffron, another import from Arab cuisine. Saffron gives the rice a nice, golden color and a rich flavor.The balls are coated, deep fried, and served.

Arancini became popular because they were easy to carry and eat while traveling. Today, arancini are popular as street food, but you can find them in bars, cafes, and restaurants.

Fun Fact: Arancini get their name from their round shape, texture, and color which is said to resemble an orange (arancia, in Italian). That said, depending on where you are in Sicily (or the peninsula), arancini can be round (western Sicily) or conical (eastern).

Cannoli

Cannoli

I know you know cannoli, a sweet, creamy ricotta filling encased in a tubes of crispy, flaky pastry. The sweet treat date to sometime between 827 and 1091, and and there are two thoughts as to who invented them. The first is that, to celebrate Carnevale, a group of nuns developed a cylindrical pastry filled with ricotta, sugar, chocolate, and almonds. The other version of the tale is that the harem of an Arab prince spent their time creating new meals and desserts, and they came up with the fried tube filled with ricotta, almonds, and honey. Historians tend to lean toward the second version since many of the ingredients of cannoli have their roots in Arab cuisine.

While the ricotta and chocolate chip with citrus flavoring are the Sicilian standard, you’ll also find cannoli filled with chocolate, pistachio, honey, lemon, and more.

Fun Fact: Cannoli means “little tube” in Sicilian. You’ll find cannoli as small as your finger to ones larger than those you see in the photo.

Panelle & Crocchè

Raw panelle

My Italian friends insisted that I had to try panelle e crocchè when I was in Palermo. Panelle are a type of fritter made of chickpea flour, salt, and parsley mixed with water, while crocchè (croquettes) are a mix of mashed potatoes and eggs covered with breadcrumbs. You usually find them served together in a small bun covered with sesame seeds (Panino con panelle e crocchè) although many restaurants offer them as an appetizer without the bun.

Fun Fact: Due to its inexpensive ingredients, panelle was a popular food with poor people. In addition to the parsley, Sicilians would add lemon juice to the dough before frying. Both were ingredients used with fish, so they would call the fritters panelle fish.

SfiNcione

Sfincione

Yes, you will find pizza in Sicily, and more often than not, it will be sfincione, most often compared to foccaccia. The original version consisted of tomatoes, anchovies, onions, oregano, and caciocavallo cheese on a thick, soft dough. Seasoned bread crumbs crowned the top. The sfincione evolved, and today, the rectangular Sicilian pizza has a variety of toppings.

Some writers like to say sfincione has its origins in Arab cuisine. The tomato didn’t make its way to Sicily until the 16th century, so that tale is quite unlikely.

Fun Fact: In the Sicilian dialect, sfincia refers to sponges and spongy things. It follows that this delightful snack gets its name from its spongy dough.

Granita

Granitas

A semi-frozen Sicilian dessert, granita is simply water, sugar, and fruit. It originated in the Middle Ages when people would collect snow from the Sicilian mountains and flavor it with juices and honey. Today, granita is as important to the Sicilian way of life as coffee is to the Italians on the mainland. Believe it or not, they eat it at breakfast, at lunch, at afternoon snack time, or at dinner. Sicilians usually eat or drink it with warm brioche, a sweet round bun. Some people fill the bun with granita while others eat them together but separately.

The most popular flavors are lemon, almond, strawberry, pistachio, coffee, mulberry, chocolate, and peach.

And, there’s more…

Some of these I ate (*), and others I would not touch with a 10-foot pole.

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