7 Italian Foods that Are Not Italian (They’re Sicilian)
Not all Italian food is Italian. Today the distinction between Italian food – and where those foods come from in Italy – is exceedingly blurred. Many of the items you’ll find in the “Italian” section of your supermarket come directly from the largest island in the Mediterranean. That island, coincidentally, has undergone some of the richest cultural development over human history. Thanks to the seafaring nations who implemented their own culture here, today we have a wide variety of food coming from Sicily.
Remember: Italy as we know it today was a broken and fragmented peninsula until the unification of 1861. For centuries each region has its own customs, culture and cuisine.
So before you head to the store to get ingredients for “Italian Arancini,” get your facts straight. Here are 10 Italian foods that are not Italian, but Sicilian:
Ricotta is Sicilian
Without any doubt, it comes from Sicily. Glancing over the word ricotta you’ll see the latinate origins of ri-cotta: cooked again. Some sources argue the Roman Empire “created” ricotta cheese in some Roman province near the eternal city.
According to the Oxford Companion to Cheese, the Greek essayist Athenaeus referred to ricotta during 170-230 BC, describing, “a soft Sicilian cheese.”
Although many believe ricotta comes from an Arab tradition, it is very possible the locals here in Sicily used an Arabic term to describe ricotta. According to Sicilian historian Santi Correnti, the Sicilian word for ricotta is zammataru. The Arabic word for dairy farmer is za’ama leading to the suggestion that ricotta came to popularity during the Arab domination of the island. Yet it had been around long before the Moors set foot in Sicily. One stop in Vizzini during the ricotta festival will tell you a lot more about this amazing food, in addition to some other connotations worth looking into.
Arancini Are Sicilian
Rice balls stuffed with meat sauce and cheese, breaded and then fried in olive oil? Sounds like another Arab influence here.
The only uncertain argument is whether you should call them arancini or arancine. That depends on where you come from. Catania favors arancini; Palermo likes arancine. In Sicily, locals argue which which city created the first fried rice-balls. The jury is still out on that one.
These local favorites are perfect during the summer. This is the heart of Sicilian street food and you can find them with butter and peas inside, or with spinach and pistachios for vegetarians. They also make a great snack when you’re biking through Ragusa.
Gelato? Look South at Granita
Tuscans pay a lot of attention to a man named Bernardo Buontalenti. Legend accredits him with bringing gelato to the attention of the Medici nobles in Florence. If you read most articles promoting Florentine tourism, they will convince you that gelato was born in this beautiful renaissance city.
But history tells us another story.
Gelato’s Ancient Origins
A frozen dessert was already present in Asia around 3,000 BC. As this practice moved westward into Mesopotamia, Ancient Egyptian pharaohs began offering nobles a treat of shaved ice with fruit juices. Even the Ancient Romans had their tendency for cold desserts. But the Arabs – again – brought sherbet to Sicily. It was an iced drink typically flavored with fruit juice or rose water.
Already in the 9th C. Messina nobles would gather the winter snow that would fall in the Nebrodi Mountains or (as well as on Mt. Etna) and would keep them in li nivieri: antique ice containers. During the summer, these containers were full of ice which became “scratched” – grattata or ‘rattata – and then covered in fruit syrup.
From Granita to Gelato
In the 16th C., there was a major change in sherbet technology. Sea salt lowered the general temperature of the ice mixture. Thus, ice went from being an ingredient to a refrigerant. It kept other items colder. Local ice-men invented a bucket system (a smaller tin pail inside a larger wooden bucket) and between them a mixture of snow and salt to lower the temperature. Now other ingredients – like cow’s milk – could be incorporated in the making of a primitive gelato.
The brioche you eat today in Sicily comes from a lack of cones. In the summer vendors had limited time to serve granite or gelato. Cups were not available so vendors would sell granita in small bread buns. This bread – initially salty – became sweet. You won’t find too many Sicilians who don’t eat their granita with a sweet and fluffy pastry today. In fact, when you arrive in Marina di Ragusa, you need little more than an almond granita and a brioche for lunch.
Depending on their city of origin, Sicilians make caponata differently all over the island. However, there is no doubt this Italian specialty started in Sicily.
Eggplant grows all over the island and it is a main ingredient in caponata. Other fried vegetables (such as celery, onions and peppers) accompany the eggplant, served as a cold dish. With a tomato sauce and capper dressing, you have the fundamental mix of this regional favorite.
Today we eat caponata as a side dish. However, in the 18th C., locals considered it a main course, eaten with bread.
The etymology of the word caponata, gives away its unique Sicilian character. In old Spanish, caponata or capone means Mahi-Mahi. Many villagers used this dialectal for many villages. The aristocracy served this fish, typically dry, with a sweet-and-sour sauce of mixed vegetables. The commoners, much too poor to purchase such an expensive fish, used economic eggplants in their recipes, which is the one we have today.
If you’ve never tasted cassata – or worse, you’ve never heard of it – be prepared to get your mind blown.
Simply put, cassata is a sponge cake filled with sweet ricotta, covered with almond paste, and topped with candied fruit. This combination of cake, ricotta cheese and almond paste is delectable and makes a perfect finish to any Sicilian dinner, so make sure to have one in Caltagirone or Taormina.
But where did this idea come from?
Anything sweet must involve the Arab domination of the island. Locals say Arabs introduced sugar cane, lemon, citronella, bitter orange, mandarin to the island. They also increased the cultivation of almonds brought by the Greeks and Phoenicians centuries earlier. Sheep’s-milk ricotta was already in existence since prehistoric times. Hence, Sicily had the basic ingredients for an amazing dessert. Cover this with a short crust pastry and you have a fine treat.
But it was the nuns, during the norman occupancy, in the Martorana convent in Palermo, who perfected almond paste. A mix of almond flour, sugar, and herbs, substituted the pastry dough and made the cassata a cold dessert, replacing the over-cooked version.
Blood Oranges: Sicilian
Sicily can’t lay claim to all Italian oranges, but it can claim the famous tarocco blood orange.
Tarocco is another variety of the daddy of all Sicilian blood oranges the sanguinello. Nonetheless, tarocco grows vibrantly along the low valleys of Francofonte, in the Syracuse province.
This is one of the sweetest citrus fruits on the planet and has the highest concentration of Vitamin C. As a winter crop, Sicilians find them in February and March. They are a natural way to fight flu season.
Walk through the dessert section of your local Italian grocer. Let’s see if you can find these uniquely Sicilian cookies.
The secret ingredient, is carob. Carob has a long and important history in Sicily. A part from its health benefits, the ancients used carob for centuries as a standard system of weights.
But what they didn’t know, is carob exhibits antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. A 2011 study in the International Journal of Food Microbiology demonstrates the preservative effects of Carob powder against certain food-borne pathogens.
Thus, the locals used carob in the well-known ‘mpanatigghi from Modica. For centuries these sweet cookies – made with chocolate, almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, cloves, and carob – contained a quantity of ground beef.
It was a form of preserving the beef and its benefits over the course of a week and turning it into a sweet delicacy. Today in Modica you can still find these cookies stuffed with all kinds of sweet goodness, and ground beef!
Need to know more about Sicily? Contact our office and get on our 2020 Sicilian departures to discover more secrets of this ancient island. And make sure you know what to bring with you on your adventure.