Wednesday, April 04, 2007

the flavors of Sicily

I just read somewhere that when we travel to Italy, we are looking to experience the flavors of Italy. Somehow we can't put our finger on what makes it different, we just know that in Italy, the taste is authentic, things tastes the way they are supposed to. A tomato taste like a real tomato unlike the store bought ones we get in our US supermarkets. Even those we get in our farmer's markets don't taste as authentic as those in Italy. Maybe it is the soil, climatic conditions and farming methods. This is especially true of Southern Italy and Sicily. I had the best tasting salads in Southern Italy last year. The tomatoes, carrots and the lettuces were so fresh and so sweet. One bite and you can taste the difference. One bite and I wanted to sing an aria. Then I read that Sicily is home to the sweetest tomatoes in the world. So this March I went to Sicily in search of the sweestest tomatoes in the world. I found it. I had the best tasting salad in Sicily. Some nights at dinner I had a simple salad of radicchio, finichio and romaine lettuce and it was so good. The tomatoes in the spaghetti a la pomodoro were so sweet. I don't remember a time when I had so much pasta; I have been to Italy twice before. I had pasta a la vongole, a la mare, a la sea urchin and of course a la norma and con le sarde. Vincenzo Bellini, the composer was from Catania, Sicily and his opera 'Norma' was a dedication to Catania. Catania, in return, dedicated a dish to him, spaghetti a la norma which is really spaghetti in a sauce of eggplant and tomatoes. I had a lot of that while in Sicily. I had a lot of spaghetti with sardines or 'con le sarde'. I had grilled seafood for the secondi almost every night. Some nights, I'll have a 'carne arroste', some mixed grilled meat. They have a way of grilling which is so delicious. I'm a teetotaller, a pity, so I didn't get to taste their wines which I heard is very good. I drank a lot of fizzy mineral water instead which was very good too. After a whole week, I finally got used to eating dinner after 8 pm. Like all the other tourists, we would be looking for a restaurant to eat dinner between 6 and 7 pm, only to find that they don't open till 8 pm. That was the hardest thing to adjust to.
Every morning, if my hotel didn't include breakfast, I would be standing at a bar drinking a capuccino and eating a cornetto with a whole bunch of Sicilian men. They would come and go, order an expresso, drink it in one gulp, chase it down with some water and off they go. Here we are, my sister-in-law and I, 2 Asian women among all these Sicilian men. I felt at home. I wasn't intimidated.
On the way to Acireale to see the duomo one day, we stopped at a roadside market stand and bought some pears and mandarin oranges. I'll never forget the taste of that pear. It was the most delicious pear I've ever eaten. It was ripe but yet still very firm. Wow! In Palermo, at the Vucciria market I bought some alpine strawberries for one euro. They were so good. In California I pay $5 for the same thing. I've seen them in France and at 5 euros, I had to abstain.
There's a huge variety of Sicilian pastries, the names of which eludes me. I like Cassata. Everything seems to be filled with sweet ricotta cheese. They make colorful fruits out of almond marzipan. Some desserts are made with pistachio marzipan and have this pretty green color and very delicious. They were celebrating Saint Joseph's day and they have this special pastry for it. It is a fried choux pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese and absolutely wonderful. The celebration lasted a whole week in Agrigento and we couldn't get enough of that pastry. It disappeared from the shelves at the end of the celebration.
Finger food, we had a lot of - little pizette or mini pizzas and some kind of foccacia bread and arancino. Arancini are fried risotto balls with either a ragut filling or ham, cheese and peas filling- very delicious. The bread in Sicily is so good. I could exist on Sicilian bread and fizzy mineral water. In Catania, we walked a long way through some dark alley, to this restaurant which served pretty cheap food but we went more because we loved the dinner rolls and grisini (bread sticks) that they put out. We went there three times for dinner.
In Catania, we asked the hotel people to recommend a tratoria that is 'molto buono'. He did and it is a terrific trattoria, no tourists, only locals. We saw ordinary locals and men in suits eating there. When you enter, you see a display of all kinds of seafood, like a fish market on a smaller scale. You are supposed to pick your seafood, whether a lobster, a slice of tuna or a whole fish. Then they weigh it and charge you according to the weight and cook it the way you asked for. We saw this man in a suit, eating boiled shrimp for an antipasti and a braised whole fish for secondi. He peeled his shrimp with his hands, then when the fish came, he dunked some bread in the sauce and with his fork picked at the flesh and ate. Wow! He had an Italian suit on. It is fascinating to see how the locals ate. Sometimes we asked what they were eating. In another table 2 men in suits were eating some other unfamiliar food.
In Palermo we found a fast food place serving Sicilian specialties. We ate there twice. It is across from the Palermo cathedral.
I can't wait to return to Sicily.

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