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The Island of the Sun
The History of Colorful Sicilian Cooking
La Vucciria, Renato Guttuso, 1974. La Vucciria is an old market in Palermo. The name comes from the French “Boucherie” (“butcher shop”). Guttuso, a famous neo-realist painter, has reproduced the busy ambiance of the most typical of the Mediterranean farmers’ markets in this piece.
Sicilian cooking is undeniably the most complex and colorful in Italy. Like hues on a painter’s palette, the dishes on a Sicilian table represent the various cuisines of the many civilizations that have passed through the island. The longtime isolation of the island and the Sicilians’ innate attachment to tradition have allowed for the preservation and evolution of an elaborate cuisine. In Sicily, new and old and East and West thrive side by side, blending uniquely together like no other place in the world.
Homer’s “wandering islands” are the islands of the Lipari archipelago with their floating pumice rocks. He depicts the strong currents of the strait of Messina, which reverse direction every few hours, with monsters sinking the ships that dare to cross.

It was amidst magic and superstition, in this land populated with gods, cyclops, and nymphs, that Greek civilization prospered. The city of Syracuse was unrivaled in those times for its splendor as well as its power. Defeating Athens in a sea battle that defined Hellenic history, Syracuse imposed her rule on most of Magna Grecia, the colonies along the coast of southern Italy.

The dominion of Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse in the fourth century BC, was larger than any other in the Mediterranean. The warm climate allowed for outdoor dining, a custom (now called al fresco) that remains alive and well today. The Greeks brought with them the foods they appreciated most: olives, grapes, wheat, and figs.
Early Greek colonizers settled on the seaside from 700 BC to 400 BC and founded most of the coastal cities we know today. For the Greeks, Sicily was a land of legend. The famous Greek poet Homer made Sicily the background for his mythological stories. Mount Etna was home to the god of the underworld, and the island of Vulcano was home to Aeolus, the god in the Odyssey who gifted Ulysses with a sack containing contrary winds.
The Romans occupied Sicily around 260 BC, but they did not contribute much to Sicilian progress. On the contrary, they made Sicily the granary of Rome, busy conquering the world and hungry for grains. It also became a vacation spot celebrated by Roman patricians such as Cicero, Martial, Apicius, and Petronius.

The Romans’ contribution to Sicilian cooking is limited to the introduction of bread in place of the flat Greek pitas and to the maccu, a purée or soup made from mashed fava beans.
Woodcut map of Sicily, 1548.
As elsewhere in Italy, the collapse of Rome set off a chain of invasions, incursions, and transfers of power from one ruler to the next. Sicily was prey to more foreign rulers than any other region in Italy. A horde of Franks sacked Syracuse, and then the Goths arrived. Finally the Byzantines, who conquered the island and ruled for more than three centuries, were able to reestablish order. The Benedictine monasteries founded during their rule revived the economy and agriculture, introducing new spices, foods, and ways of cooking.
After a period of civil disorder, the French Angevins took power in a reign that proved a complete disaster. They were followed by the Spanish Aragonese who briefly ruled the island, inspiring Spanish eating habits and dishes.

Caponata, the use of wild fennel, ‘mpanate (empanadillas), and sponge cakes all date back to this period. Next came the Bourbons (with ties to both French and Spanish royalty),, who founded the Reign of Sicily that survived until 1860. Products from the new world appeared, including cocoa, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and potatoes. These quickly became part of “traditional” Sicilian cooking. The tables of the wealthy acquired a baroque taste.

In the early 1800s, when the island was under an English protectorate for about a decade, an Englishman by the name of John Woodhouse “invented” Marsala wine. He recognized that Sicilian climate and wines had similarities with those of Madeira and Port, which the English valued and enjoyed. He successfully produced, promoted, and made popular Marsala wine.

When the northern Italian leader Garibaldi landed in Marsala in 1860, Sicily was finally united with the rest of Italy. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, French, Spaniards, English, and Northern Italians all contributed to the palette.
The seminal moment for Sicilian cooking occurred, however, under Saracen domination. Conquered by the Arabs around 830 AD, Sicily became one of the most splendid Islamic provinces. Palermo, the island’s capital, was an Oriental metropolis, legendary for its luxurious gardens and buildings. The Arabs gave a new face to the gastronomy of the island. They brought in new produce such as peaches, apricots, melons, dates, rice, sugar cane, eggplant, raisins, pistachios, oranges, and lemons, as well as new spices like clove, cinnamon, and saffron.
Under Arab tutelage, the local cuisine acquired the sophisticated flavors that still make it unique one thousand years later. Oriental taste is alive in the many sweet-and-sour dishes, and especially in the desserts, which are extremely sweet and full of honey, almonds, figs, nuts, and pistachios. Many Arabic words transferred to international gastronomic vocabulary, including sorbet, sugar, saffron, and couscous, to mention just a few. It is in Sicily that we have the first testimony of the manufacture of dry pasta, as well as marzipan and nougat. Almost all foods that we think of today as typically Sicilian are typically Saracen.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti (Saint John's of the Hermits), Palermo. The Church built in 1130 for the Benedictine Order is a fine example of Norman-Arab construction. It was built over a mosque in a particularly Arabic style, with five cupolas. The bell tower is distinctively Norman architecture. Were it not for the bell tower, Saint John's could easily be mistaken for a mosque.
At the turn of the millennium, the Normans conquered Sicily for a short but illuminated reign that restored the authority of the Christian church while respecting Arab art and culture.
The southern Mediterranean climate also shaped Sicilian cuisine. The climate favored the use of olive oil and fish over that of beef and pork fat. Religious ceremonies influenced culinary traditions, too. Pagan festivities merged with Christian holidays, and people continue to experience the occult significance of certain foods—mostly breads and sweets with ritual shapes.
Sicilian desserts—colorful, precious, and extremely sweet—reflect history very well. They were first created by the Byzantines and then elaborated by the Arabs. Then, they were handed down in the monasteries and later enriched in the kitchens of barons and peasants. In the 1500s, Caterina de’ Medici took a Sicilian baker to France with her. In 1689, Procopio de’ Coltelli, a Sicilian baker, opened his Café Procope in front of the theater Comedie Francaise in Paris, giving European stature to Sicilian ice creams. It is to Sicilian cuisine that we owe our thanks for ice cream, candied fruit, nougat, marzipan, and desserts like cannoli and cassata.
Mount Etna during an eruption. Mount Etna near Catania on the East coast of Sicily is one of the most active volcanoes in Italy.
Although this island was punctuated by orange groves, inhabited by emirs, barons, philosophers, and poets, and made lavish and succulent by Arab alchemies, survival was never easy for the Sicilians. The people of Sicily responded to hardship with emigration by the hundreds of thousands to the new world. Yet, the smell of the zagara, the blooming orange flowers, has remained in their memory. Those who left took with them their proud, passionate culture and an attachment to their traditions, as well as their dishes and cooking habits.

Anna Maria Volpi
Sicilian cannoli, one of the most famous pastries of the island. A fried crunchy shell is filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and candied fruit.
Sicilian Recipes
Involtini di Melanzane
Eggplant Rolls
Ragu’ di Tonno
Tunafish Ragu
Tomato sauce
Insalata di Arance
e Finocchi
Orange and Fennel Salad
Pesce Spada alla Siciliana
Swordfish Sicilian Style