My Sicilian Food Diary
Roki Prunali | Thursday May 3rd 2018
Unlike the states, our bank holidays here are the same calendar date every year, which means some years they magically fall on a weekend. The vacation gods were on our side this spring when two of them fell on a Wednesday and then the following Tuesday, equaling one big mega-long weekend. Realizing late in the game that our calendars were rather clear, my husband and I eagerly took the chance to head down to Sicily. Coming from a couple of months in Los Angeles being poured on every day (they say they hadn’t seen so much rain in 43 years) to the ever-so-famous incessant rain that is Milan, let’s just say I was not letting my husband (and my in-laws) win by going to the mountains for this vacation – where mind you it snowed. No, I wanted – scratch that – NEEDED to go to the beach. The California girl in me was screaming for some sand and surf. Naturally, when my husband suggested Sicily, I did not hesitate, because not only did that mean warm weather, but also some of the best Italian food in the country. And of course, I documented for you Pretty Birds all the yummy and typical Sicilian things we devoured.
Arancini and Pizza Siciliana
I set out on a quest to find the best arancini on our trip. Any kind of rice ball, meatball, potato ball that is fried is my glutinous pleasure. So, obviously, I scoured the streets (and internet suggestions) to find the best Sicilian version. Arancini are stuffed rice balls filled with ragù and mozzarella covered in breadcrumbs then fried. The shapes may vary from city to city, some are perfectly circular or others are round and come to a point, but no matter the shape, the gooey goodness is exquisite.
While having the best arancini on our trip at a restaurant called Don Camillo in Ortigia, my husband admitted to our maître d’ that I was on a hunt for the best arancino. Loyal to their arancino, he pointed us in the direction to a famous bar close to the Duomo of Ortigia, Bar Artale. Arriving to the bar a smidge before lunch time, once my eyes caught sight of the freshly fried pizza Siciliana and arancini I knew I had to eat them even if it was early.
Pizza Siciliana, aka pizza fritta, is what you may consider a calzone filled with tuma and anchovies, and then fried. Tuma, or toma, is a stage in the production of Pecorino cheese that comes before adding salt and maturation. If it is made right, and boy was this one made right, it should not be soppy or oily.
It is only natural that the tradition of fishing on the island is also tradition in their indigenous dishes. Most of the latest historic sites are old “tonnara” or tuna processing plants. We travelled to Marzamemi, a gorgeous seaside village that continues the artisanal fishing and processing. Now specializing in canned tuna, dried tuna roe (bottarga), smoked swordfish, and marinated anchovies. This seaside location is vibrant with color and filled with little bars and restaurants that line the tiny streets.
We stopped by Taverna La Cialoma, recommended by a friend, for a quick lunch. Unfortunately for us the weather was iffy, so we did not take advantage of the magical terrace overlooking the water. No complaints here because our lunch more than made up for the wind chill.
You know those dishes that, if it is on the menu, you have to order it, no matter what? For me, it’s gamberi rossi (red shrimps). I eat them however they come, raw, breaded, grilled; I can’t get enough. I ordered my gamberi rossi crudi appetizer, and then opted for the pesce fritto, a plate of mixed fried fish… just to make sure I was keeping it light. Lol!
Pasta con la Mollica
It is safe to say that Sicily tops the list of best primi, or pasta. With a long list of pasta dishes originating in the area, (pasta alla norma, pesto Trapanese) Pasta con la Mollica is a delightful, mouth-watering dish. Having never heard of it before, or even what it meant, my husband had inquired at our hotel where would be a good place to get it. My husband makes friends fast, and gained a quick friend in the hotel restaurant. Long story short, he was able to finagle the restaurant to make this Pasta con la Mollica especially for us.
Mollica is the soft internal part of bread and is broken up to become breadcrumbs for the pasta. So basically you are eating carbs on carbs. There are different versions around Sicily of this pasta, but the version we ate was from Catania, which calls for sardines instead of the most commonly used anchovies. The mixture for the sauce then includes pine nuts, fennel fronds, raisins and oil mixed in with the breadcrumbs. Thrown in with spaghetti, this is a carb lovers’ dream.
On my first night upon arriving in Sicily, I needed my token aperitivo drink. After a day of travelling, a sick crying toddler, and need of a break, I asked for a glass of wine. Since I am the only one in our family that drinks wine (my husband is allergic, too bad for him), I normally have to get whatever is served by the glass. To my luck, on the menu that day was Insolia. It is a rather dry white wine with a nutty aroma and is found on the western side of Sicily, and is also the name of the grape. When our friends arrived the next night, I made sure they tasted my newfound love. According to them, the wine was rather heavy, but I guess that is how I like it.
I am a firm believer that wines located at the base of volcano are that much better. I am no sommelier; I just know what I like. In Sicily, Mount Etna is active and seems to erupt from time to time. Needless to say, it is odd to see whole towns built at the bottom of the volcano let alone wineries. The technicality that goes into producing wine at 1) this high of an elevation, 2) such a slope of the mountain 3) the heat not only of the volcano but Sicily in the summer (HOT) makes it daunting on those that try to attempt. Leaving the job to experts, the volcanic nutrients and harsh environment make for a delicious menu of wines. If I see an Etna wine on a list, you better believe that I will be ordering it.
The battle for sweet versus salty in the morning is a struggle for an Italo-American. Scrambled eggs or a crème filled brioche, decisions. When I discovered that granita is most commonly served with a brioche in the morning, I was even more shocked. Somewhat related to a sorbet, it is a semi-frozen dessert made from sugar and water with different flavors. With all the citrus plants in Sicily, it may be the more obvious route to take, but I opted for almond. Not being able to eat this for breakfast, I decided to get it as an afternoon snack, nothing wrong with that.
While in Noto, Internet research brought to my attention a bar that makes a cappuccino ghiacciato. Now that was more my speed for a morning delight. It was still a granita (always almond) but mixed with coffee. Bar Sicilia, a 124-year-old bar, located on the main street of the small fascinating town was a perfect setting for my first morning granita.
Saving the best for last. Probably the most recognized Sicilian plate, Cannoli are a must when travelling the south. There are many imposters and many bad ones, but in Sicily it was hard to find one that I did not like. Even at breakfast at our hotel, they served make-your-own Cannoli. On our last day of vacation, my husband thought it best to eat three mini brioche and a massive Cannolo. To no surprise, he complained a serious stomachache, lamenting he should of eaten one brioche less. Telling him that was not the case, and should have just eaten the Cannolo, how could I blame him? He was on vacation and the Cannolo was damn good.
Literally on every menu as a dessert or at every bar as a snack with your coffee, it was hard to say no. As I journaled my eating through Sicily, I have just now realized that mostly everything I ate was fried. Even Cannoli, which in my head was baked (maybe to make myself feel less guilty), is a tube of fried pastry dough filled with ricotta. Normally it is decorated with pistachios and a cherry on the exposed ends. Oh well, no regrets!
Still buzzing from my trip to Sicily for five days, I am ready to start May on a fresh clean slate without having any food FOMO. Only fitting as well that I am joining Tamu on her 30 day No Alcohol Challenge (more on that to come). I love trying trendy diets or just detoxing, because I truly believe that I need it every once in a while, but I will be honest when I say that I indulge just as much as diet. So, indulge every once in a while, but don’t forget to rein it back in.