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Taste of Travel: Italy

An Appetite for Sicily

Rediscovering 'authentic' Italian cuisine

April 26, 1998|HELENE SIEGEL | Siegel is the author of the "Totally Cookbooks" series (Ten Speed Press). She lives in Los Angeles

CATANIA, Italy — Sicily is only three miles from mainland Italy as the fish swims, but it has always been its own place. The Mediterranean island off the toe of the Italian peninsula was influenced over the course of thousands of years by Greek, Roman, Arab, North African and European raiders, invaders and occupiers, each leaving their mark. The island's people consider themselves Sicilian first, Italian a distant second, with their own dialect, culture and cuisine.

Lately, that cuisine is being rediscovered in the United States as "authentic Italian": fish, pasta and tomato-based recipes lively with herbs and spices, edging out the recently fashionable minimalist Northern Italian fare.

After years of writing about Italian cooking, I went on a tasting expedition last summer and came away happy.

Sicily may be the last place in Europe still untouched by American fast-food chains. An advertising campaign while we were there featured a thick slice of fresh mozzarella and tomato on a bun with the word "Sicilianburger."

My husband and I and our two sons, 5 and 16, spent nearly two weeks on the island after a stop in Rome. Most of our Sicilian stay was at a working family farm--50 acres of citrus, grapes, figs and olives--outside the port city of Catania. The farm was managed by the aristocratic and charming Anna Sapuppo, who guided us to the best of the region's foods, from mushrooms to ice cream to wine. We had a little cottage that was our base for day trips; it had a full kitchen where we could prepare light suppers after days of feasting, or we could order dinner from the family cook. That was our choice the first night, when we arrived exhausted by the train-ferry-car trip from Rome.

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Served on our terrace, with the orange groves and Mt. Etna as backdrop, the first course was a simple pasta with anchovy-spiked tomato sauce, an island classic. It had a salty bite, and the topping of toasted bread crumbs (instead of grated cheese on pasta with fish) was a crunchy surprise. The entree was an involtini--thin beef slices rolled around a stuffing of ground meat, spices and bread crumbs. A tart filled with the farm's prized blood oranges topped off a meal that felt like a short course in Sicilian cookery.

After a night's rest, prepared to drive again, we headed for the interior to see the amazing 4th century mosaics of the Villa Romana in the town of Piazza Armerina and the 142-step majolica-tiled staircase at Caltagirone. Anna had advised us to have lunch at a crossroads spot between the two, San Michele di Ganzaria. She said the village had prospered due to the stream of family members leaving for jobs in Germany and the United States and returning with money. When we pulled onto the main street, hot and tired from sightseeing, we thought Anna might be playing some weird Sicilian joke on us. Nothing even remotely resembled a restaurant. But when we inquired at the local bar, all fingers pointed decisively uphill. We followed their direction and had a splendid lunch at the unpretentious Hotel Pomara.

In the dimly lighted, wood-paneled dining room overlooking rolling hills, most of the seats were occupied by ample men working their cell phones. We ate a bountiful lunch casa nostra--literally, "our house," or the chef's choice, without a menu to addle our already overstimulated brains.

The first course was three hot antipastos--a layered dish of roasted broccoli bits topped with whipped ricotta and bread crumbs, eggplant rolls stuffed with tomato-infused rice, and a melted chunk of cheese infused with fennel. Pasta was thick ribbons of fettuccine in tomato sauce spiked with fennel. Though we were well-filled by the time the entree arrived, it was the hand's-down favorite--at least for the men in my family. Each plate had one long, thin, perfectly spiced smoked sausage twirled around its rim, and in the center were three short skewers or spiedini of ham-wrapped mozzarella just barely softened on the grill.

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We decided to burn off some calories the next morning with a visit to Mt. Etna, Sicily's active volcano, before lunching at Nicolosi, a small town known for its wild mushrooms at the foot of the access road.

We settled on a neighborhood trattoria, Al Buon Gustaio, and since we were lunching late, we got to watch the owner and his son prepare the dough for the evening's pizza.

To begin, we chose from a table of cold antipastos. Eggplant, one of the island's mainstays, was prominently featured, ranging from the simply grilled to the sumptuously stuffed. But the one I craved was the classic caponata--a sweet-and-sour relish of fried eggplant, celery and peppers cut in chunks and mixed in a sauce of vinegar, sugar and raisins, served with grilled bread. The wild mushrooms came in pasta dishes of different tomato-based sauces.

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