It’s true hearing this in America, “Sicilian recipes don’t taste the same when I try to make them at home.” Whenever I attempt to reproduce Sicilian dishes in New York, South Beach, San Francisco or Los Angeles they never quite measure up. Eating at an Italian restaurant after being jaded by Sicily’s fare seems lackluster. I wouldn’t even trust Joe’s on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay. Comparing Sicilian cuisine to Italian, for me, forevermore ranks Italy’s eatables a distant second place. Italian flavors fall flat, Sicilian meals are brighter, less reserved; not only dining al fresco more months each year, courses hold sharper accents using far fresher ingredients. Regional frantoio extra virgin olive oil — basil just picked, alongside mint and oregano — rustic garlic strands — Sicily’s main stay, ricotta hours old — swordfish, langostino, mussels, squid, clams — handmade busiate pasta — scrumptious eggplant, tomatoes, artichokes — succulent chicken, its crispy skin wafer thin, while buttery from slow roasting. It wasn’t until biting into a Sicilian spring orange did I understand how Sicily could’ve possibly raised the bar on oranges — texture and citrus potency.
Half a century ago the Italian Parliament in Rome voted to help bail out Sicily’s struggling economy; those funds never reached Palermo’s intended channels — Sicily since still remains wild. By and large whatever is eaten here is grown or produced locally. Capers for instance, are from nearby Pantelleria, a tiny Sicilian island between Marsala and Tunisia. I bought a kilo of capers packed in sea salt for about 8 USD; close to a pea in size, they’re fabulous. Three tablespoons of capers rinsed, blotted, and added into a pan with six garlic cloves sliced razor thin (Paul Sorvino’s method in Goodfellas) are the makings for an amazing pasta dish. I couldn’t find red chilis to save my soul; the season come to understand starts later this month. A crucial addition to the garlic and capers, I prefer red chilis pinky size, sliced long, removing the seeds before dicing. Low and behold, our pasta was improvised seeing a grocer’s shelf displaying an array of anchovy selections — one brand drenched in olive oil with red chilis. Two teaspoons of red chili anchovy oil into the pan with garlic and capers is what I needed for an addictive pasta topping. Fusilli has plenty of nooks and crannies for those sautéed morsels; we prefer pasta done al dente. When everything is mixed together, scooped into separate serving bowls, dress each with a handful of quarter inch spicy anchovy pieces. By the time these bowls are nearly ready, they would’ve cooled enough so those sexy anchovies don’t melt in a hot pan.
Sicilians stick by stringent cooking guidelines, what goes with what is rarely deviated from. As an example: it’s a federal offense to spoon parmigiano-reggiano on any pasta with fish. On the other hand, sfincione, a foccacia bread smothered with concentrated tomato sauce, caramelized onion, hint of oregano and anchovy does include Southern Italy’s caciocavallo cheese. I feel that line-up alone gives me license to conjure whatever we’re in the mood for. Next Tuesday I’m gonna grate pecorino over fusilli with garlic, capers anchovy and red chili; I doubt the Carabinieri will storm our apartment to incarcerate me.
One night we were in a hurry and hungry — an unwelcome combination. For over a decade, Antonio has been our go-to Castellammare frutta verdura guy. He has other staples on hand: outstanding Capricciu Sicilianu limone honey, several different olive trays, homemade wine, customers quibbling with Antonio over his prices while caged chirping parakeets, alongside singing canaries keep things cheery. I grabbed a small red onion, some arugula and fennel, leaving its stalk behind as usual. Dashed into a specialty shop next door to buy the best tuna in olive oil from a company that really should export its product from Sicily; Auriga’s catch runs right off Castellammare del Golfo. For eight years, beginning 2006, businessmen from Japan brokered a deal, paying questionable Sicilian officials to cast three commercial acre-size fishing nets; exporting Castellammare’s young tuna to Tsukiji fish market, wowing Japan’s sushi connoisseurs. Excuse me, I got sidetracked from a damn good salad that would go great before the pasta by criminal profiteering. Within minutes fennel was chopped, half a red onion slivered, arugula introduced and tossed, Auriga tuna with olive oil its main dressing, drizzling Antonio’s extra virgin olive oil in as well. If someone has no idea how to boil water, may I suggest planning a trip to Sicily. A complete novice couldn’t lose, it would be impossible; everyone is aware of their palate’s cravings. When meals are prepared using vegetables which arrived Antonios at dawn in some farmer’s dusty Fiat hatchback, made with nothing but his private reserve extra virgin olive oil, fava beans, onions and sea salt harvested nearby, it’s a proud plate worthy to serve grandma.
If visitors had enough cooking on their hands before leaving for holiday, there are several options other than frequenting restaurants three times a day. The best take-out gastronomia in Castellammare is Scaraglino: eggplant parmesan, seafood couscous, lasagne, octopus salad, triangular shape chickpea fritters called panelle, arancini rice balls stuffed with ragu and peas, or oval shapes containing prosciutto and mozzarella.
Nobody, anywhere in Italy makes pastries the way Sicilians do. America’s cannolis are mere facsimiles of an authentic Sicilian cannoli. Each pasticceria here creates theirs slightly different: the amount of chocolate, half dipped, possibly shavings, candied orange peel, cherry placement, pistachio crumbs, ricotta consistency, or pistachio creme-filled and embellished powdered sugar, yet each bear Sicily’s superior quality by the shell’s delightful crunch. Many Sicilians swear up and down granita helps them digest; others are totally convinced it’s the quintessential pre appetizer consumed an hour before dinner. French pastry chefs are well-known for macarons; Castellammare though has an orgasmic almond cookie at Panificio Navarra, which upon initial bite made me blurt out, “Oh my God,” further stating, “these people are crazy.”
Tourist from Russia, China, and Great Britain spending a week or two here couldn’t possibly digest all Sicily’s kitchens have to offer during their vacation. Resourcing our hair and skin care line, along with blogging is an incredible la dolce vita experience in Felliniesque Castellammare; a chance to pace whatever we eat. It’s not necessary famiglia di Schiavo each gain fifteen pounds in two weeks gorging on La Duchessa pizza, Litus Victoria’s pane cunzato, Sfoglia d’Oro tortellini, Vernaci brioche con gelato, and Furco fig or apricot cookies.
Who knows who’s brilliant recommendation it was for Robert De Niro to spend six months in Sicily packing on weight for his Academy Award-winning Raging Bull portrayal of (post) World Middleweight Champion, Jake LaMotta? Whoever did had obviously traveled here prior; Bob certainly was shooting The Godfather Part II — apparently exercising better self-control.