Sicilian food: 10 things we love
Emilia Strazzanti, co-founder of the Strazzanti shop and supper club, tells us what makes the food of Sicily so special to her and her family
Emilia and her two sisters, Nina and Sofia, opened Strazzanti in London’s Fitzrovia to celebrate their Sicilian and Neapolitan heritage. Emilia has worked as a chef specialising in pastry in Paris, Milan and Sicily but returned to London to help set up the family business. It started life as a shop before diversifying into a wholesale business supplying the likes of Selfridges and Bar Termini, and now hosts a supper club as well. In 2020, Strazzanti also started offering cooking kits called Il Piccolo Pacchetto – ‘the little parcel’.
Sicilian food: Emilia Strazzanti's guide
Named in honour of Vincenzo Bellini, from Catania – who composed the opera Norma in the 19th century – this pasta dish with aubergines is a must-try.
At various times Sicily has been ruled by many other powers and that’s left an imprint on Sicilian life and food. You’ll witness it in dishes such pasta con le sarde, jewelled with raisins – the dried fruit being an Arabic influence. From dishes that are salata (salty) and dolci (sweet), to piccante (hot), Sicily’s cuisine as a whole has no strict definition – it draws on many aspects of its cultural past.
When it rains, the air is filled with the saline notes of the caper plants that grow up and around the rocks dotting the outskirts of towns. You breathe a scent of fresh, vibrant salinity. It’s these capers that we cook into many of our dishes.
Arancina or arancino?
Palermo and Catania have a friendly feud on the correct way to spell the name of the well-known Sicilian deep-fried rice ball. Palermo favours the feminine ‘arancina’ and Catania the masculine ‘arancino’; however, it’s not just the name that differs. Palermo fills its arancina with a ragu made with mince and shapes them into balls, whereas Catania’s ragu is made with slowed-cooked chunks of meat and the arancino is shaped into cones to resemble Mount Etna, which overlooks the city.
The land plays a vital part in everything we eat. What the sheep (pecora) graze on throughout the year changes the taste of their milk and alters the flavour of the ricotta that’s made with it. Whether in a cannolo Siciliano or gateau di ricotta baked ‘al forno’ (in an oven), the flavour is incomparable and subtly changes depending on when you eat it.
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Chocolate arrived in Modica, Sicily, with the Spanish. Foodstuffs from the Americas were fashionable for those who could afford them. Stone-ground, this chocolate is never conched or heated enough to melt the added sugar, giving a granular texture. Originally it was used to make hot chocolate, and the bars produced using this method now have IGP recognition.
Walking through the food markets you’ll see enormous green Sicilian broccoli that are around the size of four regular UK ones. They’re intense in flavour and, paired with local saffron, raisins and pine nuts, make up pasta con broccoli arriminati, a favourite dish. ‘Arriminati’ means ‘stirred’. See Emilia's recipe for Sicilian pasta with cauliflower here.
Sicilian pistachios have an intense, sweet flavour and are harvested every two years on the east coast of Sicily. The pistachio trade centres around the town of Bronte – the nuts are grown on the mineral-rich slopes of Mount Etna. The area has DOC status (denominazione di origine controllata) and the pistachios are prized worldwide.
Traditional Sicilian bakes
Whether it be a panettone at Christmas or colomba di Pasqua cake at Easter, a celebration isn’t complete without its traditional meals, cakes and enriched breads.
Nonna and nonno Strazzanti were at the head of our Sicilian household – the back garden door was always open, and friends and family would call in unannounced for coffee. Nonnas often have specialist dishes, and ours made ragu with peas (we call it pasta al ragù di Nonna Strazzanti). There’s great respect for the way nonnas cook in Sicily – it’s a type of cuisine in itself.