Last summer, Martina and Irene, two members of Williams-Sonoma’s European team traveled to Sicily in preparation for our latest theme, which celebrates the area’s rich culinary history. They tried to get as close as possible to the local people, learning as much as they could about the Italian island’s traditions.
Follow along as they describe their five-day journey, which led them from Palermo’s open food markets to fisherman’s harbor in Capo Passero.
We landed in Palermo in the late afternoon, immediately feeling the high temperature. Still, that didn’t stop us from indulging in one of Sicily’s most famous snacks: arancini! We asked the local people where to find these stuffed rice balls, and they delivered — a nice man led us inside a nearby bar, where he asked the barman to serve us his best arancini.
Afterward we headed to the Vucciria area, known for its authentic open food markets. Again, we tapped the locals for advice, asking two men what is their favorite restaurant in Palermo. They recommended Toto, where we helped ourselves to buffet-style antipasti of fried and grilled eggplant, dried tomatoes with pepper powder, grilled peppers and crab salad, in addition to a salad with peppers, olives, tuna and tomatoes.
Then we sampled two pasta dishes, both featuring sardines, which are one of the main ingredients used in Palermo tradition: spaghetti with sarde alla palina, with sardines, pine nuts, raisins, tomato sauce and chili peppers; and spaghetti with sarde e finocchietto, with sardines and fennel. We noticed that both dishes were dressed with toasted bread crumbs instead of cheese, a peasant tradition that began due to the high price of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Finally, we shared grilled swordfish and prawns, dressed simply in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. We ate dinner outside on a very small street, with mopeds darting near our table and music blasting from every direction.
We began our second day by visiting two more open food markets in Palermo, Cao and Ballaro, where locals buy fresh vegetables, fish and meat daily. We were mesmerized by the richness of colors, aromas and noises while walking through the food stands and shops — fried foods, Sicilian pizza and focaccia, voices yelling to promote their products and offering a taste.
We sat for lunch at Zia Pina, located on a small lane in the heart of Vucciria. We met Zia Pina in person the night before, and she remembered us and was waiting for us upon our arrival at the restaurant, which provided the best, most authentic food we tasted on our trip.
Zia Pina has no printed menu; instead, you enter the kitchen to see what’s available and choose your meal there, where the food is cooked as you watch. When ready, the cook yells the name of the dish and a “waiter” brings the meal to the table, which is set with disposable glasses and tablecloths. We again chose antipasti from the buffet, sampling sardines; sauteed vegetables; mushrooms stuffed with eggplant, mozzarella and ham; and vegetable flans and omelettes. We selected our fish as the main course, which was fried and grilled in front of us with prawns.
Later that evening we ate dinner in a beautiful villa on the outskirts of Palermo, hosted by a Sicilian family. We sat around the table with good food and wine, talking together in typical Italian tradition. The antipasti served were oven-roasted prawns with pistachio sundae, hand-made tapenade with Robiola cheese and semi-dried tomatoes spread over toasted bread. Again, dinner celebrated the region’s produce and seafood: pasta with vegetables and ricotta was followed by authentic caponata, then by swordfish rolls stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, raisins and cheese. Dessert was gelo di melone, watermelon jelly with chocolate chips.
We started the day with a Sicilian breakfast at the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, an old focacceria operating since 1832. Their signature dish is the pani cu’ la meusa, a sandwich made with beef spleen and ricotta, but it was too early for our stomachs; thus, we tasted chickpea fritters and fried potato balls instead.
Afterward we left Palermo for Modica, arriving in the late afternoon. On the way we stopped for a quick lunch of oven-baked focaccia typical of the Siracusa area: one with broccoli, sausage and chili pepper; another with codfish, potatoes and black pepper.
We asked local people how to skip the tourist traps and find dinner true to the town’s traditions, and we were directed to Trattoria A’ Putia Ro Vinu, located in a very narrow land in downtown Modica. The place was informal, with just a few old fans instead of air conditioning, and we had the chance to ask the owner for suggestions before ordering. A couple of kind people sitting at the table next to ours offered their two cents as well, describing their dishes and even offering us a taste (we found Sicilians to be very warm in general).
Our dinner, as usual, began with antipasti: spiced olives, bruschetta, eggplant, arancini, focaccia and boiled eggs. The pasta starred a sauce of fava beans and fennel, followed by pork with tomato sauce. For dessert, we shared small cannolo with ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, in addition to bianco mangiare, or almond jelly.
Modica is a very nice, baroque town with many churches — and it’s also famous for its chocolate. The production still follows the same method the ancient Aztecs used to make chocolate in Mexico, but the Sicilians replaced the spices with sugar. The production stages occur at a very low temperature, so the sugar never quite melts, lending a grainy texture the chocolate is famous for.
We visited two chocolate shops: Antica Cioccolateria Bonajuto and Cioccolateria Don Puglisi. The first is the oldest producer in Sicily, since 1880, where you can enjoy cannoli made to order — ours was filled with ricotta and pistachio creme before our eyes. The latter is a new company focused on fair trade ingredients that served us impanatiglie, a cookie stuffed with beef, sugar, cinnamon and chocolate. A unique taste indeed!
In the late morning we drove an hour to Noto, another small town famous for its almonds. The best known place is the Caffe Sicilia, founded in 1892 and committed to making high-quality pastries and confections with recipes passed down by previous generations. We tasted six original granitas, made with crushed fresh fruit and ice and accompanied by a sweet panino.
From there we drove further to Marzamemi, a small village on the seaside known for its seafood products, particularly tuna fish and cherry tomatoes. We visited the factory of the Campisi company, which specializes in both products, in one of our most amazing Sicilian experiences. When we arrived, a worker was just positioning the cherry tomatoes under the sun to allow a natural drying process; we tasted the tomatoes in each phase, from fresh to dried.
For dinner, we went to Taverna la Cialoma in Marzamemi square, facing the old tonnara where tuna fish was collected and sold in the past. We enjoyed antipasti of mussels and potatoes and marinated prawns, then shared tagliolini pasta with tuna sauce and grilled tuna with candied onions and grilled peppers.
Following the suggestion given by our new friends in Modica, we spent the morning of our fifth day at the Portopalo di Capo Passero harbor, a true immersion in the Sicilian reality. We spent all morning there waiting for the fishermen’s boats; they go out at midnight and spend the whole night fishing, depending on weather conditions.
We were expecting to see huge boats, but in fact they were very small — sometimes with just rows! As soon as a fisherman arrives he delivers fresh fish to the people waiting on the dock, which is then sold to locals and owners of restaurants and fish shops.
We wrapped up our trip by enjoying a delicious lunch overlooking the sea in a small restaurant in Capo Passero, close to the port. The owner explained that her employees go out in a boat daily to catch the fish they cook in the restaurant. We atespaghetti buon gustaia, with tomato sauce and local herbs, in addition to risotto di mare, made with mussels, shrimp and clams.
Of course, we also shared a plate of grilled swordfish — we loved the smell and intense flavor of the fresh fish!