Like most regions in Italy, Sicily has its own distinctive cuisine, culture and historical routes. This sun-drenched Mediterranean island has a rich history and landscape of temples, mosaics, ancient sites all sounded by a stunning backdrop of aqua sea, mountains and one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes, Mount Etna.
Sicily’s extensive and varied history has had a significant impact on its cuisine, making it highly distinctive and contrasting against typical Italian cooking, with traditional dishes featuring Arabic, French and North African influences. Having yet to visit Sicily, my only frame of reference was ‘The Godfather’, meaning I was woefully ignorant of Sicilian cuisine, my imagination stretched as far as ‘oranges’ and shamefully stopped there.
Thankfully, I was invited along with beloved husband and Italian food enthusiast Luke, to come and sample traditional and authentic Sicilian cuisine at Tasting Sicily – Enzo’s Kitchen, located in Piccadilly London, to be deliciously educated.
Tasting Sicily is the flagship restaurant of the Tasting Sicily brand and supports Slow Food organisation that promotes local and traditional cuisines. Slowfood protects ‘at risk’ unique food produce and works with growers and producers to ensure authenticity and sustainability”. This was a lot of information to absorb, I needed a big glass of red to properly disseminate all these foodie facts.
The Tasting Sicily restaurant features authentic Sicilian food, sourced from a variety of Sicilian suppliers, by Chef Enzo Oliveri, president of the Federation of Italian chefs in the UK. His extensive and varied CV includes ‘teacher, television presenter and official chef for the Italian cycle team’. I don’t think I have had food prepared for me by a man of such varying talents before, I was very excited.
We were met at the restaurant by Sicilian journalist and passionate foodie, Francesca Marchese, who was going to guide us through the various dishes we were trying. Francesca explained to us that Sicilian food is almost like a fusion cuisine at times, with saffron, nutmeg, sugar, cinnamon, raisins and cloves featuring heavily, as the lasting legacy of Arabic rule during medieval times. This coupled with Greek and French influences, the use of fresh vegetables, traditional Sicilian pasta dishes, fish dishes and Northern African inspired couscous dishes, make for a wonderfully eclectic cuisine, with rich and distinctive flavours that you perhaps wouldn’t associate with ‘Italian food’.
As the wine was in free flow we started discussing the various dishes that were on the menu, Francesca told us that Sicilian cooking is passed down through the generations, every family in Sicily will have its own recipes for traditional dishes that get passed down through the family. Tasting Sicily follows these cooking traditions, creating dishes that they have grown up with, the dishes you enjoy in today’s Sicilian restaurants are not only delicious, they are timeless.
Sicilian dishes rely on several key homegrown ingredients, including citrus fruits, fish, ricotta, pistachios and almonds. It’s not that families are stuck in a culinary rut, it’s because often transporting food around the island was historically difficult, so you had to use what was grown locally in your area. This seems like a rather alien concept when you have grown up in Britain with 24-hour supermarkets catering to your 4am Pot Tart cravings.
A selection of traditional dishes started to arrive for us to taste, including ‘Chef Enzo’s Signature Salad’ which featured juicy Sicilian orange and fennel salad with red onion, black olives and mint. It was a wonderfully zingy and refreshing salad, not to mention highly instagrammable!
Next up was Sicilian rice balls with ragù, crispy chickpea fritters and potato croquettes. These typically Sicilian snacks were deep fried to delicious perfection, crisp on the outside and molten on the inside. Francesca explained that arancini are said to have originated in Sicily during the Arab rule in the 10th-century, often made using leftover rice, they are now an extremely popular street food snack in the towns of Palermo, Messina and Catania. The most common type in Sicilian cafés is arancini con ragù, which mostly consists of rice, cheese and meat in a rich tomato sauce. Other varieties such as arancini con funghi, (with mushrooms) and arancini al burro (with butter or béchamel sauce). All of these were sounding like delightful little reasons to visit Sicily.
Next up were some main dishes, we started with Involtini di pollo alla siciliana, which are chicken rolls filled with ham and caciocavallo cheese in breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs are everywhere is Sicilian cooking, added to chicken dishes, sprinkled on pasta and used to pad out a variety of dishes. Whilst it may seem like a rather simplistic addition to dishes but I can assure you when they are fried to a delicious golden brown they are utterly moreish. Chicken in crumbs is no exception, this dish strikes the critical balance of moist and crunchy. It was wonderfully complemented with bronte pistachio, a slow food presidia protected ingredient and topped with salmoriglio sauce, a traditional sauce of lemon juice, olive oil and minced garlic.
Next up was Chef Enzo’s Signature dish, ‘Casarecce con Guanciale di and Casarecce con Guanciale di suino nero dei Nebrodi e Pistacchio di Bronte’ and in English, ‘Ribbon pasta with Nebrodi cured Black Pig cheeks slow food presidia protected ingredient and Bronte pistachio slow food presidia protected ingredient pesto.’ That is a pretty comprehensive title for a menu choice, after several failed attempts to order it in Italian, I meekly opted for ‘errr, the pasta please’. This was a pasta unlike any I have ever tasted, deliciously salty with a smooth, creamy pistachio pesto, the black pig cheeks were also utterly sublime, this is not your average Danepak my friends.
This dish is special because of its key ingredient, cheeks from the indigenous black pigs of the Nebrodi mountain range. Francesca explained that these small, free roaming pigs have very high-quality meat and a thick coating of fat. Due to their diminishing population, products obtained from these pigs are being monitored and being preserved, these are by all accounts, extremely well looked after little piggies.
I felt as if I was slowly drifting towards a food coma, I started to ponder how inappropriate it would be to take a very small nap, can you sleep on the job as a blogger? Luckily my senses awakened with the question ‘shall we have dessert?’ We opted for Cannolini Siciliani, which are tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta cheese.
One of the most traditional of Sicilian sweet treats and pastry shop staple, these are frankly little parcels of heaven. History tells us that this was an ancient Roman recipe that was reinvented by Arab pastry makers, sparking the infamous Sicilian sweet tooth.