Because Sicily is at a strategic point in the Mediterranean, on a route where east meets west, it’s not surprising that everyone wanted a piece of this fertile land. Yet to understand Sicily’s complex history, you have to understand the many peoples, who have come and gone from the island, and their legacies that are still embedded in the culture, the architecture and the language.
Colonized by the Phoenicians and the Greeks and fought over in the Punic Wars, its architectural and artistic remains bear witness to its past grandeur found in the great Greek temples and Roman mosaics located in the Piazza Armerina.
The Byzantine influence in Sicily begins with the capture of the island from the Ostrogoths in 535. The clash between the pope and the Byzantine emperor prompted the emperor to give the Patriarch of Constantinople jurisdiction over Sicily, removing it from papal rule. As a result a large number of Greeks moved there from the Balkans to flee from invasions by the Slavs. It was largely Byzantine in culture by the 9th. century, when a new threat emerged. In 827 the Arab peoples began arriving from North Africa, in what amounted to a slow conquest of the island.
The last Byzantine stronghold fell to the Arabs in AD 965, beginning a century of Muslim rule. Arabs settled in large numbers and many Christians converted to Islam. Sicily in the 11th. century was a mixed community of Arab Muslims and Greek Christians, when a third element arrived in a new wave of conquest. The newcomers were Latin Christians. The pope in 1059, wishing to recover Sicily, granted feudal rights over the island to the Normans. One of them, Roger I, the first Norman count of Sicily, completed the conquest of the island in 1091 and set a pattern which characterized Sicily for more than a century. Roger I brought Christianity to the island, but he also encouraged the Greeks and Muslims to continue to live in Sicilian towns and he employed them in his army. The complexity of this culture is evident in the fact that the Normans issued their official documents in three languages – Latin, Greek and Arabic. The small palace chapel in Palermo, with its walls covered in bright pictorial mosaic, is one of the most exquisite buildings of the Middle Ages. Known as the Capella Palatina (Latin for ‘palace chapel’), it was begun in 1132 and completed around 1189. The mosaics are in the Greek tradition, created by craftsmen from Constantinople. Round the walls are sequences of scenes from the Old Testament and scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul.
The roof of the Capella Palatina, by contrast, is unlike anything in a Byzantine church. Constructed in vaulted wood and carved and painted in intricate patterns, it would seem at home in a pavilion of a Muslim palace or in a covered section of a mosque. The sturdy round arches supporting the walls are from yet another tradition – that of European Romanesque. Classical pillars, inherited from an earlier period of Sicily’s rich history, complete the influences seen in this building.
Sicily endured numerous rulers and ruling countries during the centuries that followed and in 1282 the Sicilians revolted against the Anjou French in the dramatic episode, known as the Sicilian Vespers, and ceded sovereignty to Peter III, King of Aragon [Spain]. In 1442 Alphonso V of Aragon reunited the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples. In 1738 the Treaty of Utrecht lead to the New Kingdom of Two Sicilies and in 1860 Garibaldi lead forces from the Kingdom of Savoy and conquered the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, creating the Kingdom of Italy, the first unitary government of Sicily and the Italian peninsula since the Roman Empire.
1860 was not the end of Sicily’s troubles, however. In the late 19th. century northern Italy was rapidly industrializing, while the south remained agricultural. Sicily in particular lost population to the north and in the 1890′s massive emigration to America began. Industrial growth was slow in Sicily, with the main non-agricultural activity being sulfur mining. In 1901 there were violent clashes between striking workers and police and in 1920 there was a full-blown farmers’ rebellion against landowners, in which kidnapping was first used as a political tool.
The Mafia emerged as a major force in these years, being used to break up workers’ organizations and to assassinate state officials. The right-wing Christian Democrat party was founded in Sicily. Socialist uprisings shut down Milan and Turin in 1920 and in 1922 Benito Mussolini’s Fascists seized the government in a coup. Political repression was the norm and in 1930 Mussolini sent a special prefect to try to stamp out the Mafia, who were helping Sicilian landowners fight the Fascists. Some of the Mafiosi (including the notorious Lucky Luciano) emigrated to America; those who stayed became the main anti-Fascist group in Italy. Sicily was the bane of Mussolini’s existence.
Sicily suffered badly during the war. In July 1943 US forces landed in western Sicily and the British and Canadians landed in eastern Sicily. Many hard battles were fought and a number of cities were bombed. Postwar Sicily remained very troubled. Sicilian separatists waged an armed rebellion against Rome in 1944-46. Bandits, police and Mafiosi fought battles and also switched sides in complicated double-crosses, but all three generally united to suppress Communists, labor organizers and peasant cooperatives. The Truman Doctrine, an American commitment to helping democratic European governments rebuild and fight Communism, led to very flawed outcomes. Most historians think that by 1950 a covert alliance had formed between the Christian Democrats, the police and the Mafia, with American approval, in which, preventing land reform in Sicily, was the price of keeping the Communists out of power.
Even in the late 20th. century and early 21st. century, the Mafia is a strong influence on the island, in spite of a campaign against it, by the leaders in power in the 1980′s and 1990′s. Modern Sicilians are a complex group who, dispossessed for centuries, now find themselves custodians of the cultural monuments of their oppressors and their history. The visitor to Sicily senses a resurgence of interest and pride in their past and the beauty and richness of their island and. with visitors all year round, it provides the locals with a source of sustainable economic income.
A major interest of tourists is Mount Etna, an active volcano on the east coast of Sicily, close to Messina and Catania. It lies above the convergent plate margin between the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is the tallest active volcano in Europe, currently standing 10,922 ft high, though this varies with summit eruptions and it is the highest mountain in Italy, south of the Alps.
The Food of Sicily
Sicily has gained more autonomy from mainland Italy since the end of World War II, but it has also faced many obstacles – Mafia interference, lingering ties with a defunct feudal system and devastating earthquakes – that have hampered progress and economic stability. To make ends meet many women now work outside of the home and depend on family to look after the children. Yet urban Sicilians struggle to hold onto traditional ways. Many prepare homemade meals and drive to the country to buy wine, olive oil and fresh vegetables from local growers. Those with country houses often have a garden and preserve their harvest for year-round consumption.
Regardless of economic circumstances, all Sicilians consider food a priority; they demand quality and often, especially during holidays, turn a blind eye to cost. Most people prefer a very simple cuisine for everyday using the products from the surrounding seas and the strong Sicilian sun drenched fields. Fresh fish particularly tuna, swordfish, octopus, squid, sardines and anchovies serve as a mainstay of the diet. Tomatoes have full-bodied taste, unlike any others, and sauces made with them give distinctive flavor to many favorite pasta and meat dishes. Vine-ripened tomatoes are available most of the year, but they are also sun-dried for the months when they are not. Likewise, olives and grapes are extraordinarily flavorful and, in recent years, fine Sicilian olive oils and wines have received international prizes.
Sicilian sweets are different from those you find in mainland Italy. Adorned with candied fruit, flavored with nuts and enriched with sheep’s milk ricotta (as compared with the milder cows’ milk version), they owe their origins, like lots of other Sicilian foods, to the island’s many layers of history, most notably the conquest by Saracen invaders from North Africa. By the end of the tenth century, the Saracens had introduced pistachios, oranges, lemons and dates, as well as, refined sugar and spices, such as cinnamon and cloves. They brought the art of preparing elaborate pastries, ices, candied fruit and almond and pistachio-based confections. Later, these traditions blended with others; chocolate arrived from Spain during the Renaissance and in the 19th century Swiss pastry chefs, who had migrated to Sicily, started blending it with ricotta in desserts. As a result, Sicilians have an astonishing repertoire of sweets, from gelato heaped into a brioche—the bun is a legacy of the French influence on Sicilian food—to thick puddings made with everything from coffee to watermelon juice to the ricotta-filled cannoli that are beloved around the world.
Typical Sicilian DishesAs you can tell from the recipes below, Sicilians love sardines, eggplant and anchovies.
Pasta alla Norma: Widely found all over Sicily, this dish consists of slowly-cooked eggplant chunks tossed into a basic tomato sauce with thyme, dried oregano, and grated Pecorino cheese, then tossed with pasta and garnished with grated ricotta salata.
Impanata di Pesce Spada: (Swordfish pie) This pie is undoubtedly a legacy of the Spanish invaders. It is bursting with all the wonderful tastes of Sicily: swordfish, olives, raisins, pine nuts, caper, and cheese.
Panelle di Ciciri: A fritter made with chickpea flour and parsley and then deep-fried in olive oil. In Palermo the fritters are sprinkled with a few drops of lemon juice and often used for bread or rolls.
Maccu di Favi: This very old recipe is known all over southern Italy and is the oldest of all Mediterranean soups. It was served for centuries as the midday meal of peasants, who carried it with them when they went to work in the fields. The soup is made with dried fava beans, wild fennel and chili pepper. Toasted bread is placed in soup bowls and drizzled with olive oil and the soup is ladled on top. The name comes from maccare which means “to crush.” The Sicilian touch is to add wild fennel.
Caponata: A slow-cooked ratatouille-like mix of eggplants, onions, tomato, olives, pine nuts and extra-virgin olive oil. Caponata is usually served cold or at room temperature.
Cuscusu: The apex of Arab-Sicilian cuisine; its successful preparation is considered the height of culinary art. The starting point for all couscous recipes is the same. Semolina grains are slowly poured into a large, round terra-cotta dish with sloping sides called a mafaradda and formed into small pellets by hand. The process of raking, rolling, aerating and forming the pellets is called incocciata by the Sicilians. When the couscous pellets are formed they are then steamed over boiling fish broth in a couscoussiere. The fish broth is made using a three-to-one ratio of white fish to oily fish. The fish used to make the broth is not eaten. Small fish or shrimp are cooked and eaten with couscous.
Frittedda: (Sicilian sweet and sour vegetables) Artichokes which have been cooked in water and lemon juice are sauteed with onions and sprinkled with nutmeg and salt and pepper. Fava beans and peas are added to this mixture. The mixture is tossed with sugar and vinegar and served cool.
Pollo all’Arancia alla Catanese: (Orange chicken Catania style) Chicken is not very popular in Sicily, presumably because the hens are kept for the eggs they produce. The cooks of Catania have taken advantage of the fragrant orange groves that cover their hillsides to come up with this unusual chicken dish. Chicken pieces are rubbed with garlic, rosemary, mint and nutmeg. The chicken is then sautéed with onion in olive oil until brown. Orange juice is added and the chicken is roasted in a covered skillet until tender.
Tummala: (Rice Timbale) This is an elaborate casserole from eastern Sicily, which is said to derive its name from that of Mohammed Ibn Thummah, an emir of Catania during the Arab occupation. The casserole includes chicken, celery, onion, tomatoes, carrots, bread crumbs, veal meatballs, cheese, sausage, rice and eggs in layers as follows: a layer of rice, a layer of meatballs and chicken, a layer of cheese, a layer of rice, a layer of sausage and meatballs and a layer of rice and chicken topped by beaten eggs and cheese.
Sfingi or Zeppole di San Giuseppe: a fried dough delicacy resembling a holeless doughnut prepared for the feast of San Guiseppe (St. Joseph) on March 19.
Cuccia: a sweet wheat dish prepared after soaking the wheat grains overnight. It is connected with the festival of Santa Lucia on December 13.
Sorbetto and Gelato: the Arabs mixed the summer unmelted snows of Mt. Etna with fruit-flavored syrups to produce a cooling confection which later developed into sherbet and, with the addition of milk and/or cream, the dessert became gelato.
Granita: simple ices made by pouring flavors like lemon, coffee and almond milk over granulated ice.
Make Some Sicilian Inspired Recipes At Home
Stuffed and Grilled EggplantsThis antipasto or side dish is pleasant and goes well with grilled food. It is a very convenient dish because it can be prepared in advance. The stuffing of capers, anchovies and cheese gives a typical Sicilian taste to the stuffed grilled eggplants. Any leftovers are delicious the next day.
Serves 4 to 6
- 2 medium size eggplants
- ¾ cup of olive oil, divided
- 12 slices of cheese (provolone or mozzarella)
- 12 fillets of anchovies
- 3 tablespoons of capers, rinsed
- 1 tablespoon of pine nuts
- Chopped Italian parsley
- Salt and pepper
Wash eggplants, remove stalks and slice horizontally with the skin on, about ½ inch thick. Remove excessive skin from first and last slice of each eggplant.
Place eggplants in a colander, salt lightly and set aside for 20 minutes.
Rinse the sliced eggplant and drain for a few minutes. Gently pat dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels. Brush both sides with oil and grill the eggplant slices until tender, about 3 minutes on each side.
If a grill is not available use the oven broiler, cooking it for 5 minutes on each side or until tender.
Place grilled eggplants in a pan or large dish and place a slice of the cheese on each slice, add one fillet of anchovy broken in pieces, a few capers, a few pine nuts, some parsley and a sprinkle of pepper. Fold and roll up each slice, starting at the narrow side of the slice and secure with a wooden toothpick and set aside.
When ready to serve, grill the eggplant rollatini for a few minutes until hot and tender, 3 to 4 minutes. If a grill is not available, place rollatini in an oiled pan 11” X 7”, drizzle with oil and bake in a hot oven at 400 degrees F. for about 10 minutes.
Place cooked eggplant in a serving dish; drizzle with olive oil and serve.
Mussel PieMy friend Andy recently took a trip to Sicily and ate a variation of this Mussel Pie, called Pepata di Cozze, which means Peppered Mussels in Italian, in a restaurant in Sicily. He took pictures of this great meal and I am including his pictures in this post. I searched for a recipe that would come close to the dish he experienced in Sicily and, came up with this recipe that is close, but not exactly the same. You will have to take a trip to Sicily to get the original.
- 8 oz pizza dough
- 1 1/2 – 2 pints mussels
- 4 leeks, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon each chopped parsley
- 1 sprig each marjoram and thyme
- 1 oz butter
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 orange
- Salt and pepper
Scrub and clean the mussels.
Melt the butter in the bottom of a large pan which has a lid.
Cook the leeks in the butter until just transparent.
Add the wine and the juice of one orange to the pan.
Steam open the mussels in this liquid and reserve the liquor in which they are cooked.
Put the mussels and herbs in a deep pie dish or casserole, pour the liquid with the leeks over the mussels.
Season with salt and pepper.
Roll pizza dough just large enough to cover the top of the casserole dish. Cover the top of the dish and seal the dough to the casserole dish.
Cut a hole in the top of the dough.
Heat oven to 425°F for 20 – 25 minutes until the dough is lightly brown.
When the pie is done, remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes.
Sarde a Beccafico (Stuffed Sardines)
This filling will work in fish fillets, if you do not have access to sardines.
- 1 3/4 pounds sardines
- 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 salt-packed anchovies
- 1 sprig parsley minced
- 3 1/2 tablespoons capers
- 3 tablespoons raisins
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 3 bay leaves
- Zest from 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup almonds or pistachios toasted and chopped
- 3 1/2 tablespoons black olives pitted and minced
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 clove garlic chopped
- 1 shallot chopped
- 2/3 cup Pecorino cheese grated
Soak raisins in warm water for 20 minutes. Prepare the sardines: remove the scales and the head, but not the tail.
Hold each sardine belly-side up and cut along its belly so the fish opens up like a book. Remove insides and bones. Leave tails intact.
Rinse in cold water, dry and season by rubbing with bay leaf. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat, stir in fresh breadcrumbs and saute for a couple of minutes until golden. Set aside in a bowl to cool down slightly. Drain raisins and squeeze out all excess water.
Rinse anchovies and capers in running water to remove salt. Add to the breadcrumb mixture along with chopped pine nuts and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Optional additions: chopped garlic, shallot or onion, pitted olives, toasted almonds and lemon zest and grated Pecorino cheese.
Mix well and spread a teaspoon of this mixture on the inside of the sardines, pressing down lightly with your fingers. Roll up the sardines (keeping the filling inside) with the tail sticking up. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the stuffed sardines.
Add the bay leaf, sprinkle each roll with a tablespoon of bread crumbs and drizzle on the remaining oil. Cook in a preheated 420°F oven for 15-20 minutes. Dress with lemon juice and serve.
Pasta alla NormaThis recipe originated in Catania , a city on the eastern side of Sicily that sits on the shadow of Mount Etna . Catania is a city subjected to the temperament of Mount Etna , the highest and only active volcano in Europe. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have destroyed this city several times. Yet the city has managed to rebuild. It is a vibrant and modern metropolis, with wide streets and majestic palaces; ancient monuments reminiscent of the Greek and Roman occupation and contemporary buildings where the enterprising people of Catania live and work to make it the most industrious and energetic city of Sicily. This dish is called Pasta alla Norma in honor of Vincenzo Bellini, who composed the opera Norma in 1831. The chef who created this dish wanted to honor Bellini, but he also wanted to immortalize Mount Etna. The spaghetti and the fried eggplants were the mountains, the tomato sauce portrayed the lava and the grated ricotta salata, the eternal snow of the Mt. Etna.
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 1 can of 14 oz. Italian peeled tomatoes, undrained and cut in small pieces
- 1/4 cup basil leaves, chopped
- 3 Italian eggplants cut into cubes, sprinkled with salt and placed in colander for 30 minutes
- 1 lb. of your preferred pasta
- 1/2 lb. grated aged Ricotta Salata cheese (if you cannot find it, use a mild aged feta cheese)
- 12 whole basil leaves for garnish
- Salt and pepper to taste
Over a medium flame, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a 12 inch saute pan.
Add diced onions and sauté until golden, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Add tomatoes, raise heat to high and cook for an additional 3 minutes stirring occasionally.
Add chopped basil, salt and pepper to taste.
Lower the flame and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the sauce is thick.
Pat dry the eggplants with a clean dish towel or paper towels.
Brown the cubes in the remaining olive oil. Place eggplants on paper towels to drain the oil and set aside.
Cook pasta according to package directions, reducing recommended cooking time by 2 minutes.
Drain pasta well and put back in pot with the tomato sauce.
Mix for 2 minutes on a low heat or until pasta and sauce are well combined.
Stir in reserved eggplant and toss to combine. Stir in remaining basil and season with salt. To serve, transfer pasta to a platter and garnish with ricotta salata.
Sicilian Cassata: Ricotta CakeThe ricotta cheese needs to be drained overnight before starting the recipe.
Serves: 10 servings
- 2 pounds whole milk ricotta
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup chocolate chips
- 1 cup candied fruit with citron
- 1 (10-inch) pre-baked sponge cake (homemade or store bought, pound cake may be used
Place the ricotta into a fine mesh sieve and nestle this over a bowl, place in the refrigerator overnight to allow the excess moisture to drain out before proceeding with the cassata recipe.
Place the ricotta into the bowl of a mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until the curds smooth out. Mix the drained and beaten ricotta with 1 cup powdered sugar, vanilla extract, cinnamon, chocolate chips and half the candied fruit. Set aside.
Lightly spray a 10-inch springform pan with canola oil spray. Slice the sponge cake very thinly so that the springform may be lined with it in an even layer. Line the sides and bottom of the pan with the sponge cake. Pour the ricotta filling into the cake-lined pan. Place a final layer of cake over the ricotta filling; this now creates the bottom to the cassata. Refrigerate the cassata overnight to firm the filling. Invert the springform pan on a wide platter. Open the hinge and remove the springform sides and bottom.
The cassata may now be finished by covering with a heavy coating of the remaining powdered sugar and the remaining candied fruits. Alternately, you can make a white glaze for the top of the cake or spread sweetened whipped cream over the cake and decorate it with fresh fruit. Some Italian cooks like to decorate the top with marzipan cutouts.
Slice thinly and serve.
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