“Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli”: Eating in Sicily

In the early evening, the day boats return and the fishermen howl through the town in beaten-up Piaggo Apes, and park, and sell their fish straight out of the back. The bills of the swordfish jut out onto the pavement and you have to walk around them; the tuna barely fit in the little pick-ups.

They use meaty fish in place of beef along the coast of Sicily. Swordfish sliced thinly and dressed with a squeeze of lemon and a glug of oil, and a sprinkle of thyme flowers and pink peppercorns in a take on the classic carpaccio. A chunk of tuna studded with rosemary and slivers of garlic and roasted in the oven like a joint. Tuna and swordfish diced and fashioned into meatballs and served with pasta in tomato sauce.

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When I think back to Sicily, I always seem to be eating. Bucatini con le sarde in the afternoon sun in Cefalù’s Piazza del Duomo in front of the splendid Norman cathedral: a pasta sauce made with sardines freshly plucked from the sea, and wild fennel picked in the hills, and sultanas, pine nuts and saffron, which – like the ruins of the Saracen castle which top the escarpment behind the cathedral – remind that Sicily was ruled by the Arabs for over a century. Palermo, after all, is much closer to Tunis than Rome.

Sarde a beccafico at a lovely restaurant down an alley in the hilltop town of Taormina: more sardines, deboned, stuffed with breadcrumbs mixed with pine nuts, currants, orange zest and parsley, then rolled and cooked in the oven.

Lunch at a trattoria among the venerable churches and half-derelict shops of Palermo, a few steps from the glorious Teatro Massimo which features so prominently in the last scenes of Godfather III. Spaghetti alla norma, showcasing the violet-skinned Sicilian aubergines, sliced, fried, drained and tossed with tomato pulp, torn basil leaves and salted ricotta.

I was too busy to stop for lunch on the day that I went to the outlying island of Lipari and charged around in the midday heat, up and down the streets, squeezing past café awnings and palm trees, and rusting old Vespas and football posters and stores hung with bunches of dried pepperoncini; so I grabbed an arancine to eat on the go. It is Sicily’s best-known street snack with ragù sauce encased in a ball of saffron-tinged rice, crumbed and deep-fried until golden. The risotti of Northern Italy, a Sicilian will tell you, are just arancini gone wrong.

After a broiling day exploring the Greek temples of Agrigento in the south of the island, I found a place to eat overlooking the sea and ordered dentice in sale: a whole sea bream buried under rock salt and baked in the oven so the salt sets hard and the fish stays moist as it cooks; then the salt is broken off and the skin removed and the fillets carefully lifted from the bone and dressed with salmoriglio, the lightest of sauces made with lemon, herbs, garlic and oil.

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The three seas around the island teem with fish; the soil is packed with minerals. The ingredients are big enough to look after themselves and Sicilian cooks serve them simply to bring out their best. Octopus tossed with potatoes and celery and doused with new season’s olive oil; orange segments, black olives and fennel in a classic winter salad; fresh anchovies marinated in citrus juice and sprinkled with finely chopped parsley.

In the springtime, when the last of the artichokes coincide with the first of the peas, the spring onions and broad beans, they are all cooked together and dressed with mint in a popular dish called frittella. It can be an antipasto, a side or a pasta sauce, as you wish. In summer, the pasta comes with straw-thin wild asparagus or delicate courgette flowers. In autumn, boring brassicas are cheered up with anchovy, garlic and chilli. In winter, there is the caponata which was made and bottled in the summer with aubergine, celery, tomatoes and capers infused with an agrodolce sauce of sugar and wine vinegar.

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Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” said the roly-poly Mafioso, Peter Clemenza, in the first Godfather movie. Moorish by origin, moreish by nature, it is hard to stick at one of these little tubes of happiness with sweetened ricotta and candied fruit folded into crispy pastry. By the time you are on your third cannolo, you will understand how Clemenza got that size.

© Richard Senior 2015

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