Italian Islands’ Enogastronomy Unveiled

Today we will tempt our taste buds as we journey from the island of Sicily, the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea, just off the ‘toe’ of Italy’s ‘boot’, and home to Mount Etna, one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes, to the island of Sardinia, with its rugged landscape dotted with thousands of ‘Nuraghi’ and mysterious Bronze Age stone ruins shaped like beehives.

Sicily: a journey back in time

In this region, we find a cuisine with a tasty and rich variety of products which displays a fantastic balance between land and sea, and a gastronomic tradition which is quintessentially Mediterranean. Nevertheless, Sicilian cuisine is like an artist’s palette, showing influences from various cultures and echoing the differences in products found in the interior, versus those along the coast.

“It is impossible to understand Italy without seeing Sicily: the key to everything is to be found in Sicily”, wrote German writer and statesman Goethe while in Palermo in April 1787, on the occasion of his first trip to Italy in search of the roots of western culture. The largest island in the Mediterranean is a place whose natural beauty is fused with the heritage of many who have settled on this magical island, each leaving their mark on the eno-gastronomic tradition, and why Sicilian food is today considered one of Italy’s richest and most appreciated.

First to arrive were the Greeks, who founded Siracusa, Catania, and Gela and introduced into these areas a cuisine with delicacies such as olives, salted Ricotta, and barbecued lamb. The Romans followed and introduced ‘Maccu’, broad bean puree flavoured with aromatic herbs, excellent with pasta or simply spread on bread such as ‘Pane nero di Castelvetrano’ or ‘Pani Nìuru’ in Sicilian dialect, prepared by mixing Sicilian blonde wheat groats with a variety of local rare durum wheat, ‘Tumminìa’, both whole.

Other dishes dating back to Roman times, are stuffed cuttlefish; baked onions; ‘Pasta cu Riquagghiu’, pasta served with beaten eggs, parsley, and pecorino cheese, which some suggest as the Sicilian version of Carbonara. Then came the Arabs and with them rice, sugar, spices, seeds, and almonds. A dish clearly of Arab tradition is ‘Couscous alla Trapanese’, a fish soup served with couscous, is typical of Trapani. The Arabs are also responsible for the introduction of the island’s two most famous sweets, ‘Cassata Siciliana’, a sponge and Ricotta cake, topped with fondant icing and candied fruit; and ‘Sorbetto’, a cold dessert made with water, sugar, and fruit; the most common taste is lemon. In the Middle Ages but still today, this dessert was served in the courts, between meals, thus helping diners to cleanse their palate from contrasting flavours.

The Normans taught the Sicilians how to prepare stockfish, while other Frenchmen brought ‘Rollò’, a stuffed veal roll to the island. The Spanish introduced the locals to ‘Pan di Spagna’ [Spanish Bread], a sweet sponge cake, along with chocolate, tomatoes, and above all aubergines. The Spanish influence is also seen in a myriad of traditional dishes with interesting and contrasting flavours such as ‘Pasta con le sarde e l'uvetta’ [Pasta with sardines and raisin]; orange and fresh fennel salad seasoned with chilli; and ‘Caponata’, a hearty salad based on vegetables but also containing aubergines, celery, capers, olives, and sweet & sour tomato sauce.

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Remember never tell a Sicilian that the aubergines should not be fried, as you risk offending them. When visiting Palermo, we suggest you stop in the town of Casteldaccia and savour Sicily’s traditional flavours at 'Home Food Casa Mia Sapuri Siciliani’, where Chef Rita Del Castillo will host you in her home, for you to truly dine like ‘uno del posto’ [one of the locals]. Rita was awarded the silver medal in the global IDS Vegetarian Challenge, in February 2020.

Wherever you are in Sicily, you will find traditional and unique flavours. Siracusa is famous for its spaghetti with anchovies, while Trapani for its spaghetti with lobster. Apart from fish, many pasta dishes are based on vegetables and cheese, such as spaghetti with zucchini, or pasta with Ricotta and semolina. Speaking of Ricotta, if you are in the Monti Sicani area [a mountain range in the central south of the island], you can immerse yourself in a unique experience by tasting the cheeses showcased by shepherds who still roam the various villages. Sheep are milked by hand and the taste of the milk varies according to seasons and vegetation consumed.

A particular delightful cheese is ‘Ricotta Siciliana’. It is thanks to a very rich biodiversity that dairy products are the gastronomic driving force of this area. Catania’s specialty is ‘Pasta alla Norma’, with aubergines and tomatoes, named in honour of Catania’s composer Vincenzo Bellini’s famous opera Norma.

Pasta is a Sicilian excellence, but when you visit this island there are two delights you cannot miss, especially if you are a street food lover – ‘Arancina’ and ‘Pane e panelle’. The first is a breaded and fried rice ball, with fillings that vary, the most common being: ‘ragù’ [minced meat tomato sauce], peas, mozzarella or caciocavallo, and besciamella; it is an ancient finger food of Arab origin, loved throughout Italy and envied by the rest of the world. The second is a typical Palermo style sandwich; chickpea flour pancakes fried in sesame oil, prepared similarly to polenta, and potato croquettes called ‘Cazzilli’ are tucked in a sesame sandwich, with added pepper & parsley.

The series of little towns lining the endless coastline offer fish and other seafood of unquestionable quality. In Trapani, tuna is prepared in a never-ending variety of ways, conserved in oil, or as ‘Noseddu’, salted and dried. Messina is famous for swordfish and a local specialty is ‘Impanata di pesce spada’, which consists of a sweet pastry satchel filled with swordfish and then baked. All along the coast sardines are fished in large quantities and served with currants, pine nuts, and anchovies.

Italy's islands have their own individual delicacies

Visiting Sicily without tasting its sweet delicacies would offend the residents of this magnificent island. The famous 'Cannolo Siciliano' is traditionally made with a fried tube-shaped wafer filled with sheep’s Ricotta from the Sicani Mountains, but the filling can vary from custard cream to Chantilly [custard cream plus whipped cream], and from buffalo ricotta to chocolate pistachio cream. ‘Granita Siciliana’, is semi-frozen and made with water, sugar and various flavouring, most famously with local fresh-squeezed lemons.

Last but not least the ‘Sfince di San Giuseppe’, fried balls of cream puff batter, stuffed with sweet Ricotta, chocolate chips, crushed pistachios and candied citrus, now found everywhere in western Sicily. The Sfinci are originally from Palermo and traditionally consumed on March 19, during the feast of San Giuseppe, considered the first feast of the new spring season throughout the island, as well as Father’s Day. The word ‘Sfince’ in Sicilian dialect, may derive from the Latin ‘Spongia’ [sponge], or from the Arabic ‘Isfanǧ’.

Wines & Liqueurs

In Sicily, wine and viticulture have been present since the dawn of history, it is believed that vines grew spontaneously long before the arrival of the Greeks. Many grape varieties, now considered indigenous, were introduced to the island by the Phoenicians. Although proper wine-making techniques were introduced by the ancient Greeks, it is during the Roman Empire that Sicilian wines became famous, highly appreciated, and widely exported throughout the empire. Waves of invaders, beginning with the Greeks, then the Arabs, and later the Normans, praised the strong and fragrant Sicilian wine.

Today, Sicily is one of the biggest wine producers in Italy, accounting for over double the yearly production of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.

This island’s lord of wines is, without doubt, the sweet and unmistakable ‘Marsala’. Curiously, this wine was created by an Englishman who had the crazy idea of strengthening the local white Marsala with cooked grape must, grape syrup, and distilled alcohol. The result was the Marsala we all know, a great dessert wine which also goes so well with gelato.

Sicily’s most famous native grape variety is the ‘Nero d’Avola’; wines made from this grape have notoriously intense aromas and unmistakable taste. Some must-try wines include ‘Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG’, ‘Alcamo DOC’, ‘Moscato di Pantelleria’, and ‘Malvasia delle Lipari’, from the Aeolian Islands, and ‘Etna DOC’, which comes in red, white, and rosé. One of the many wine trails in Sicily, the ‘Strada del Vino dell’Etna’ [Etna Wine Trail] is dedicated to this wine, the first in Sicily to obtain DOC status.

In 2019, the region inaugurated the ‘Strada del Vino e dei Sapori della Valle dei Templi’ [Wine and Flavours Route of the Valley of the Temples], connecting some of the region’s best wines with its ancient history. Along this path, you will visit small local vineyards producing wine from the ‘Nero d’Avola’ variety while also admiring one of the most important UNESCO heritage sites in the world. Sitting right outside the town of Agrigento, you will find ancient Greek temples dedicated to Hera, Hercules, Zeus, and Hephaistos.

Festivals

For the past 400 years, the most important festival in Sicily has been ‘Santa Rosalia’; held in its regional capital Palermo in mid-July and dedicated to the city’s patron hermit saint. The festival, locals simply refer to as ‘Festino’ [Small festival] includes a religious procession, traditional regional entertainment, and like everywhere in Italy, the opportunity to taste various regional Eno gastronomic specialties.

If you are in Sicily in mid-August, do not miss the ‘Sagra della Provola Basicotana’, held in Basicò, a small ‘borgo’ [village] at 500m above the Tyrrhenian sea in the province of Messina. You will enjoy locally produced ‘Provola di Basicò’, a delicious cheese famous for its pear like shape and served after a long period of seasoning. This cheese is best enjoyed paired with one of the local wines, but only after participating in a traditional Sicilian dance.

Sardinia: aromas of the northern Mediterranean Sea

This region’s cuisine is as varied as its landscape, offering dishes from both the surrounding sea and its rugged interior. Sardinia has always integrated culinary traditions of past invaders, recent rulers and guests such as Catalans and Arabs, and during the period of Marine Republics, Pisans and Genoans from the Italian Mainland.

Almost all coastal towns boast a rich tradition of seafood, often masterly combined with food from pastoral produce, leading to flavours, traditions, and cooking techniques which result in surprising dishes such as ‘Minestra di verdure’, a soup of seasonal vegetables prepared in Alghero, to which small morsels of sea bass and bonito are added; or pan-cooked fish and potatoes, a specialty of Porto Torres and Stintino. In Olbia seafood enjoys almost cult status, above all mussels, which are eaten in soup or with pasta, in herb or tomato sauce, in gratin, or as filling for crispy fritters.

One of the most beautiful tourist areas in Sardinia, the Costa Smeralda, is also a paradise for taste buds where summer dishes include salad with crustaceous and seafood, ‘Pasta con bottarga’, which are dried, salted, cured roe of grey mullet or tuna, and ‘Carpaccio’ of sea bass or swordfish. Near Porto Cervo, on the Costa Smeralda, you will find ‘ConFusion Lounge’, an elegant Michelin star restaurant, offering amazing fragrances and delicacies, with particular attention to typical Sardinian products and seafood crudités.

Chefs also use some of the traditional recipes of the Gallura area, such as ‘Zuppa Gallurese’ whose ingredients are bran bread, beef stock, fresh Pecorino cheese or ‘Casizolu’, a Sardinian cheese, grated mature Pecorino cheese, and chopped parsley. Gallura is a great destination for discovering mushroom based gastronomic delights. To find other traditional food you will need to go to Porto Torres and Sassari, where an extraordinary dish called ‘Lattume’ or ‘Lattante’, similar to oriental Milt, is prepared, using the bag of seminal fluid of tuna and amberjack males. Sassari is also famous for its dishes based on snails in spicy tomato sauce, in herb sauce, pan fried, or baked.

An excellent must have accompaniment is ‘Pane Carasau’, a very thin and crunchy disc-shaped bread, suitable for storage. Due to its particular crunchiness generating sounds, outside Sardinia it is sometimes called ‘Carta da Musica’ [music paper]. Italian bakery doesn’t stop here, you could almost certainly bake a different delight every day and never run out of choices.

The town of Alghero, in addition to its natural and architectural wonders, boasts an interesting Hispanic-Catalano history, the link with Catalonia is so strong that the Algherese dialect [a variant of the archaic Catalan] is still spoken. There are also some interesting ways of cooking eels caught in the waters around Oristano, which may be pan fried with white wine, garlic, onion, mint, basil, and laurel, or baked with Pecorino cheese.

Alongside seafood recipes, other regional gastronomic traditions derive from sheep farming. From the pastures of Logudoro and the many dearies spread over the territory comes a vast array of sheep’s cheese, ranging from soft Pecorino to the more seasoned versions. From Barbagia, the mountainous area in the heart of the island comes ‘Pane Frattau’, which is based on the typical thin and crusty regional bread, seasoned with stock, tomato sauce, poached eggs and Pecorino.

If you are looking for a truly unique challenge, you should try ‘Casu Marzu’, also called ‘Casu Modde’, ‘Casu Cundídu’ and ‘Casu Fràzigu’ in the local dialect, a surprisingly tasty traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese containing live insect larvae. Production is no longer allowed, and sale prohibited by law, however, if you know where to look for it, there is still plenty around. Barbagia is also home to ‘Sanguinaccio di pecora’, a sheep sausage considered to be the forerunner of all sausages and still prepared today in the same traditional way.

Naturally, as it is the case all over Italy, pasta dishes are found in this region and along with Genoa and Palermo, funny enough, the city of Cagliari is attributed as the birthplace of pasta. The most popular in Sardinia is ‘Gnocchetti Sardi’, also called ‘Malloreddus’ and served with plenty of tomato sauce, chopped sausages, and grated Pecorino cheese. Another well-known type of pasta with a somewhat unusual shape often confused with Couscous is the ‘Frègula’, coming in irregular balls with a diameter ranging from 2mm to 6mm, produced by rolling the semolina which is then placed into a large earthenware bowl and toasted in the oven. Frègula can be prepared in many ways, each a real discovery, all rich in tradition and taste such as with fish, clams and mussels, or simply seasoned with good olive oil.

The area of Sulcis, southwest of Cagliari has felt the strong influence of seafood cuisine from Carloforte, a town with north African and Genoan influences; here you can taste ‘Pesto Carlofortino’, very similar to pesto from Genoa, or ‘Cascà’, a local version of couscous, served only with pulses.

One of the most famous sweets in Sardinia is ‘Torrone’, the debate on its origins is still alive, with two currents of thought colliding. One claiming the Romans introduced the recipe to the island, learning it from the Samnites; the other, that the nougat recipe was brought to Sardinia by the Spaniards, who in turn learned the recipe from the Arabs. What we can be certain of is its mouth-watering taste.

The ‘Pabassinos’, also called ‘Pabassinas’ or ‘Papassinos’, are typical sweets of the ‘Festa di Ognissanti’ which includes the ‘Festival of All Saints’ and is followed by the ‘Day of the Dead’ the successive day. These shortbread biscuits, enriched with dried fruit and decorated with sugar glaze, owe their name to ‘Papassa sultanas’, of which they are rich.

Wines & Liqueurs

According to archaeological studies, both vines and wines were introduced to Sardinia around 5,000 years ago by the Phoenicians when they occupied this area. Among the many kingdoms which claimed Sardinia as their own, it was the Spanish who introduced important wine-making techniques, contributing to the island’s current winemaking tradition.

Among Sardinia’s most famous wines are ‘Vernaccia di Oristano DOC’ from Oristano, with its characteristic almond aftertaste, dating back to the 1300s, and ‘Cannonau di Sardegna DOC’ from Nuoro and Cagliari, a red ideal to accompany the intensely flavoured local meat; while the white version is best with cheese and especially ‘Pecorino’. The DOCG wine of the island is the ‘Vermentino di Gallura DOCG’. Excellent dessert wines include ‘Moscato di Sardegna’, and ‘Malvasia di Bosa’.

The town of Berchidda in the province of Sassari is home to the ‘Museo del Vino di Berchidda’ [Berchidda Wine Museum], offering visitors a fascinating journey into the world of wine production.

Sardinia is also famous for the production of ‘Mirto’, obtained from the alcoholic maceration of wild Myrtle berries and leaves, which grow naturally all over the island. Legend has it that Sardinian pirates smuggled the liquor to the nearby island of Corsica [France], where it is also considered a delicacy.

Last but not least, the world-renowned ‘Ichnusa’ beer is produced in Assemini near Cagliari since 1912. This beer is best when very cold and enjoyed on one of Sardinia’s mesmerizing sandy beaches.

Festivals

In Tonara, in the province of Nuoro, the ‘Sagra del Torrone’ [Nougat Festival] is held every year on Easter Monday and is one of Sardinia’s oldest. This town is considered the home of nougat and this festival is a perfect opportunity to taste all varieties, including those with almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, honey, and even lemon. Other various regional sweets are on offer during the festival, together with wines, folksongs, traditional dancing and local crafts to appreciate.

If in the province of Nuoro in mid-July, the little town of Baunei hosts the ‘Sagra del Maialetto’ where the Sardinian dish ‘Porceddu’ is served, a whole suckling pig roasted for hours with aromatic herbs. It is a delicacy which you can only taste on this island and is best eaten with a piece of ‘Pane Carasau’.


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