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The island of Sicily, Italy’s largest island, just off the boot, is known for its rich history, traditions and culture. It’s also known for its produce, its cuisine, and its hospitality all of which lead to some incredibly tasty cooking and eating experiences. We all know the Italians really love their food, but the Sicilians probably love their food even more!!
In this episode, we talk to Sicily expert Karen La Rosa from La Rosa Works Sicily tours and travel. Karen has appeared on the show many times and that’s because if there is something she doesn’t know about Sicily – it’s past, present and future – then it is probably not worth knowing. Karen is leading our first Untold Italy tour departing this October so we thought we’d give you a tiny taste (pardon the pun!) of some of the amazing dishes our tour guests will be trying when they visit Sicily later this year.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- When you visit Italy, you eat regional specialties, seasonal foods, and things that are locally grown and produced. It’s always been that way. Sicilians especially are a population of foragers. Depending on the season, you’ll see cars on the side of the road looking for wild greens, chestnuts, fennel, asparagus, mushrooms, and various herbs.
- in Sicily, they revere farmers, and rightly so. There is a huge amount of labor that goes into growing grapes, for example – all the grapes are on the vines, but it’s a full twelve-month, 365 days a year job to tend those grapes on that vine before even the picking and the next step to make wine. It’s a similar story with the olives. You take care of the trees for an entire year before you have to choose just the right moment to pick them and get them off to the production facility in a matter of hours
- Olive Oil there is nothing more fundamental to Sicilian cuisine. Italians consume around eleven liters of olive oil per person every year
- They have Olive trees in Sicily that go back 1000 years that are still giving fruit. The most common types you’ll find are Nocellara dell’Etna, Nocellara del Belice, Tonda Iblea, and Biancolilla
- There are courses that you can go like a Sommelier, learn about the different olives, and how the different soil that they grow in affects the resulting flavor
- They’ll use certain olive oils for salad and certain ones for other types of dishes. Olive oil is used on almost everything – it goes on pastas, soups, fresh ricotta, and even pizza. Some taste grassy, some taste peppery. They might have notes of almond or artichoke, or tomato even. You can pair which olive oil you’re going to use for the dish that you’re making
- Like grapes, olives are affected by the soil in which they grow and which adds to why the oils taste different
- Many, many people have olive trees in Sicily, and generally don’t produce the olive oil themselves. They’ll take it to a local cooperative. You pick your olives, you make an appointment, you bring the olives, they press your olives for you, make your oil, and you go home with your little containers full of the golden stuff. It can be enough for a family for the year and is often, of course, shared with family and friends
- Leave room in your luggage to buy some Extra Virgin Olive oil from a farm in Sicily. Back at home, store it in a dark spot away from heat. Enjoy!
- Ricotta is another staple in Sicily. It’s made daily at all the farms all over the island. If you are at a farm early in the morning, where they’ll typically make it after they’ve milked the sheep, they’ll serve it to you warm and fresh which is to die for
- Sheep and goats need to be milked twice a day. Quite a feat when you have a herd of 600 goats for example!
- Ri-cotta means cooked twice and it is actually made from the whey, leftover from the first step in cheesemaking. Sheep’s milk is the best for ricotta. It’s richer and creamier than goat’s milk. Cows from the southeast, near Modica, also have good milk for ricotta.
- Fresh, warm ricotta that has just been made is mind-blowing – try to find a farm or producer and try it when it’s just been made
- It is used to fill all sorts of pastas and sweeten so many desserts – it’s a strangely diverse product that works well with almonds, chocolate, cinnamon, and sugar, as well as garlic, lemon, spinach, and tomatoes
- Pasta is a daily dish in Sicily and there are hundreds of ways to make it, and each sauce calls for a particular shape
- If you’re just gluten intolerant almost every restaurant offers gluten-free pasta
- Pasta alla Norma is rigatoni (or penne) pasta with fried eggplant, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and ricotta salata (a salted, hard-aged ricotta). Legend has it that this dish got its name because of the composer Bellini, from Catania. When his opera Norma premiered, it got rave reviews. Not long after, writer Nino Martoglio, tasted this pasta dish and he thought it was so superb he shouted it’s A Norma! And it stuck. Although it originated in Catania, unlike many other regional specialties, you will find this all over the island. It is simple but delicious to try making at home (though it can be difficult to get ricotta salata
- Pasta with Pesto Trapanese is made with a pesto of almonds and tomatoes, basil, and cheese and is usually made with busiate – long tightly curled pasta
- Agneletti al Forno is little ring-shaped pasta, baked in the oven in a round pan, with tomatoes and many other ingredients. Like lasagna, it is a winter pasta, often served around the holidays
- Pasta con le Sarde is also popular, although some find it an acquired taste. Legend has it that the Arab military had to feed the troops, and so they mixed together whatever they could find around them – sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts. Typically, bucatini is used or perciatelli (which has slightly larger holes) but unless you are in the Ballarò market in Palermo, or someplace dedicated to tradition, the dish can be varied, using anchovies for example, if sardines aren’t at hand. This dish is also found all over the island
- Pasta con Seppia Nera – we call it squid ink, but it’s actually ink from cuttlefish. This creates a really rich, black sauce to go on spaghetti – impossible to eat without getting a black mouth
- You will find pasta everywhere and in everything – it goes in soup and even on top of pizza
- Many Sicilian farmers today are going back to making pasta with the ancient grains. They are planting these, more easily digestible and nutritious grains like tumminia, rusello and perciasacchi. Many pizzerias use these grains to make pizza. Tradition is important and this is way of the old becoming new again. They don’t shy away from trying or adapting
- Arancini, Sicilian stuffed rice balls are their famous street food. Sicily used to grow a lot of rice when there was a lot of water irrigation on the island, put in by the Arabs in the 10th century. They no longer grow the rice but these rice balls are still a Sicilian classic. The rice is flattened and held in your hand, then the filling is ladled in. It is sealed and then coated with a batter. Into the fryer it goes to become crispy on the outside and soft in the inside (see how they are made in Karen’s YouTube video)
- Originally, they contained just meat and vegetables. On the west side of the island, the round balls are still filled with meat and vegetables like peas and carrots but now, there is tomato inside, too, making a meat ragù – an evolution since tomatoes came over in the 16th century under Spanish rule. On the east side, arancini are shaped like cones – like Mount Etna. They can contain meat or vegetables, too, but with cheese and sometimes a bechamel sauce. We know the bechamel only came over with the French, so this, too, was an evolution.
- There are entire shops dedicated to arancini, with a variety of fillings. Try a few at Savia across from the Bellini Gardens in Catania (they’re only open for lunch)
- Caponata is possibly of Spanish or Greek origin – the history is not known for sure though there are plenty of theories. It’s eaten as a condiment or a side dish and is made with fried eggplant and then depending on where you are – celery, capers, carrots, tomato, pine nuts, sometimes raisins, olives, almonds, even pear. It is essentially a sweet and sour dish where you don’t want to lose the integrity of the vegetables
- The ingredients must all be cooked separately for it to be done right. Every area has their own version based on which ingredients are local, and almost every cook has their own recipe
- Cannoli – you’ve never really had cannoli until you’ve had it in Sicily
- Here’s what to look for for a true cannolo – the shells are made with a little sweet wine in the dough, rolled thin, and wrapped around a bamboo cane tube so it resembles a bowtie. (Ok, some people now use stainless..) Then it is fried. They should be toasty dark and flaky/crispy. After they are cool, the shell should be filled right before you eat it. Never eat a pre-filled cannolo. Your shell will be soggy!
- For the cream filling, Karen prefers sheep’s milk ricotta but cow milk is also good. It is simply ricotta and sugar. It should not be too sweetened or overworked. Less is more. Fresh is best!
- A true cannolo will come with a piece of candied orange or lemon peel at the edges or sometimes pistachios
- There are many places that excel in cannoli making and oddly, one of those places is Piana degli Albanese in the northwest – the largest and most populous colony of Italo-Albanian or Albanians in Italy. There is a small town named Datillo – has great cannoli
- Bronte is part of the province of Catania, on Mount Etna, home of the famous green pistachio of Bronte Dop. Every year, the Bronte pistachio festival takes place – a great place to find cannoli
About our guest – Karen La Rosa
Karen is a tour operator and owner of La Rosa Works that specializes in travel to Sicily. For more than 10 years, she has been promoting travel to the island, bringing small to medium-sized groups to join her, and designing and arranging itineraries and tours for independent travelers.
Sicily is Karen’s heritage and her passion. That love evolved into a highly respected boutique travel business. Karen shares the island’s beating heart with her clients – from authentic, historical, and off-the-beaten-path experiences, to the contemporary and entrepreneurial efforts that represent the new paths in present-day Sicily.
Karen’s tours are immersive and fun with expert guides, wine, and food always the protagonists. Karen’s website, her YouTube channel, and social media presence are all aimed at engaging people interested in exploring Sicily’s fascinating history, stunning beauty, warm hospitality and some say, the best food and wine in Italy. Her clients write reviews that are amazing and a true testament to her kindness, generosity, and passion for Sicily.
Karen is an Italian Wine Specialist, speaks Italian, has visited Sicily countless happy times, and is now hosting Untold Italy Tours in Sicily.
You can also find Karen on these social media channels:
- Facebook – www.fb.com/LaRosaWorksSicily
- Twitter – www.twitter.com/LaRosaTweets
- Instagram – www.instagram.com/larosaworkssicily
- YouTube – Karen La Rosa
Food & Drink
- castelvetrano olives – Italy’s most ubiquitous snack olive. Bright green, and originating from the Sicilian province of Trapan
- ricotta cheese – a whey cheese made from sheep, cow, goat, or Italian water buffalo milk whey leftover from the production of other cheeses
- cassatella – a moon-shaped fried pastry filled with sweet ricotta – they call them ravioli
- ricotta salata – a salted, hard aged ricotta
- orchiete – the ear-shaped pasta from Puglia
- trapanese pesto – also known as pesto alla siciliana and pesto rosso, and as pasta cull’agghia in the Sicilian language. It is made of garlic, basil, almonds, grated pecorino, tomatoes, salt, and pepper with extra virgin olive oil
- busiate – a tightly curled pasa
- bucatini – straw-like pasta
- ancient grains – old unrefined grains such as Kamut and Spelt
Places mentioned in the show
- Modica – a city in southeast Sicily, known for its Baroque buildings
- Ballarò market – market in Palermo
- Catania – second largest city in Sicily
- Bellini Gardens (Giardino Bellini) – the oldest public park in Catania with beautiful gardens
- Savia – restaurant across from the Bellini Gardens that does amazing Arancini
- Bronte – small town in Catania
- Piana degli Albanese – the most populous place for the Albanians of Italy. The official name of the town was Piana dei Greci until 1941
- Trapani – city, and municipality on the west coast
- Salemi – a town in southwest Italy
- Taormina – a town on the east coast that has been a tourist destination since the 19th century
- Ortygia – a small island that is at the historical center of the city of Syracuse. The island is also known as the Città Vecchia (Old City)
- Plato – the ancient philosopher, who famously said that Sicilians build things like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow
- Bellini – Italian opera composer from the early 1800s
- Norma – a Bellini opera first produced at La Scala in Milan on 26 December 1831
- Nino Martoglio – Italian writer
- Bernadette Peters – American film and stage actress of Sicilian descent
Resources from Untold Italy
- Join us on tour in Sicily – details here
- Reasons to visit Sicily, read our Sicily guide,off the beaten path Sicilian towns and our favorite Sicilian desserts
- Listen: to our earlier podcast episode recorded with Karen on Sicily’s Aeolian Islands, Palermo, Val di Noto and Excursions from Palermo
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.