Sicilian Food and Wine Pairing
Sicilian cuisine is just as exciting as its wines. It is exotic and bears the imprint of the different peoples that have occupied the island over the centuries: Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish, Arabs, French and northern Italians. Homer’s Odyssey describes the island’s bounty of fresh apples, pomegranates and grapes. The Normans introduced fish curing with salt, while the Spaniards brought tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables. But it was the introduction by the Arabs of almonds, eggplant, couscous, saffron and sugar cane that defined much of Sicilian cooking as it is today. During our visit to Sicily we had the good fortune to taste a wide variety of dishes at lunches and dinners around the island.
In this article, excerpted from our Report #36 Wines of Sicily, we identify many of the key dishes of Sicily from antipasti to desserts and offer suggestions on pairing them with wine. Sicilian dishes are usually simple and savory, and Sicilians value fresh ingredients. They also like to roll and stuff different foods. Rolled meats like Farssumagru, rolled fish like Involtini and, of course, Cannoli. Sicilians also like fried foods, stuffed fried dough, fritters, and Arancine, of course.
Sicilian appetizers are a wonderful prelude to the main meal, but can also be a meal all by themselves. Marinated mushrooms, prosciutto di parma, Sicilian olives, carciofi (marinated artichoke hearts), peperoni ripieni (baked yellow and red peppers) frittata, omelets of all kinds, carmelised onions , cheesy arancinette (miniature rice ball croquettes) and polpette di melanzane (fried and braised eggplant fritters) are among the appetizers we enjoyed for antipasti during our travels in Sicily.
Wines: Red and white wines pair well with most antipasti. For most of our meals in Sicily we drank both reds and whites for starters. Fuller bodied whites work well with spicy olives and marinated vegetables. Light-bodied reds are ideal for just about all antipasti, especially fried foods like arancinette or dried cured meats like proscuitto di parma.
Fish and Seafood
Fish and seafood are widely available in Sicily. One of the most popular fish dishes is Involtini di Pesce Spada, swordfish roll-ups stuffed with pine nuts, raisins, bread crumbs, and anchovies. Sicilians also love the taste of anchovies. Fresh and canned anchovies are featured in local dishes such as Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica Rossa (spaghetti with anchovy, fresh tomato sauce, and toasted breadcrumbs). Fresh sardines are also very popular and are usually fried or grilled but can also be stuffed and baked or featured in the popular pasta dish Pasta con le Sarde. Fresh tuna is plentiful in late spring and is cut into thin steaks, grilled and served with fresh tomatoes or other vegetables. Tuna is also preserved as in Tonno Sott’Olio and eaten sparingly as an antipasti or in salads.
Wines: Sicily produces a variety of white wines that are ideal for pairing with fish and seafood. Young, unoaked Inzolia, Grillo, Catarratto, and Carricante are all good choices for simple fish dishes and seafood. For richer fish and seafood dishes, anchovies and tuna, we recommend blends of these traditional grapes with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and perhaps Viognier. Other good choices would be barrel fermented single varietals like Chardonnay and Inzolia and barrel fermented blends of these wines or red fruit forward wines such as Frappato or darker more complex wines such as Cerusolo di Vittoria.
There are many distinctive pasta dishes served throughout Sicily. Pasta con le Sarde (pasta with sardines) is one of Sicily’s most famous pasta dishes. It is made all over Sicily, but the traditional recipe of Palermo is reputedly the best. Spaghetti alla Siracusana is another heavenly sauce of crunchy breadcrumbs, sardines, and parmesan cheese served with plain olive oil. An equally popular and delicious pasta dish is Pasta alla norma, which we ate at small restaurant in Etna. It consists of slowly cooked eggplant chunks with spices tossed into a basic tomato sauce and then tossed with ricotta and pasta. Pasta is often blended with vegetables such as Pasta con Broccoli e Zacca (green cauliflower and squash)or Spaghetti con Verdure di Campo e Ricotta (Spaghetti with Wild Greens and Ricotta) This simple and delicious dish in the creation of Anna Tasca of the famed family of Tasca d’Almerita Winery.
Wines: Because of the wide variety of pasta sauces in Sicily, pairing them with wine requires attention to the main ingredients. Red wines are usually paired quite successfully with pasta with tomato sauces. While visiting Etna we found the high acidity and fresh flavors of Etna Rosso pair magnificently with fresh tomato sauces. Big reds work well with more complex and earthy pasta sauces.
In our travels in Italy we seldom ate meat. However, there are some wonderful meat dishes in the Sicilian culinary repertoire. Farsumagru (rolled steak, stuffed sicilian style) is perhaps the most celebrated meat dish in Sicily. It is a steak stuffed with meats, cheese, eggs and vegetables and then rolled to look like a roast. Other tasty meat dishes are rolled up Braciole alla Sicilian, veal cutlets or scaloppini filled with olives and capers and grilled over coals, and Involtini di Carne, emat roll-ups stuffed with ham, cheese and pistachios. Spezzatino di Agnello con Patate (lamb stew with potatoes) is one of many savory stews served in Sicily. Another is Spezzatino di Vitello, or veal stew made with onions, tomato paste and vegetables.
Wines: Big, flavorful reds are ideal for pairing with meat dishes such as steak and lamb. Nero d’Avola is an excellent choice for most meat dishes, especially the darker riper styles that offer blackberry and earth flavors. However, blends of Nero d’Avola with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah also work well. Syrah by itself also usually pairs well with beef and lamb dishes. We couldn’t resist ordering veal Marsala at a fine restaurant in the city of Marsala and enjoyed it with a red-fruited Nero d’Avola.
Cannoli con Crema di Ricotta
Sicilian meals always feature a sweet ending. Desserts made with fresh ricotta cheese are regularly served at lunches and dinners and are often the high point of a meal. Cannoli con Crema di Ricotta is very popular in Sicily, and during our visit, we tried many different recipes. The best ones have crisp shells and are filled with freshly made ricotta cream. Cassata is Sicily’s magnificent Arabian -inspired sponge cake with sweetened ricotta cream, marzipan and candied fruits. It is a specialty of western Sicily, especially Trapani, but is a big production to make at home. Casatelle are ricotta-filled, fried turnovers stuffed with sweetened ricotta. These decadent sweet pastries are also common in Trapani and served with coffee in the morning or as a dessert. Tarts of almonds, figs and other fruits are also popular desserts and are usually made with Pasta Frolla, a flaky pastry dough sweetened with sugar and grated zest of lemon. Sicilians also often have plain fruit for dessert, and there are wonderful choices like yellow melons, figs, persimmons, blood oranges, kiwi fruit and dates. There are also mild local cheeses like caciocavallo, a semisoft cow’s milk cheese.
Wines: Sicily’s sweet wines, known as Passitos, pair beautifully with desserts. So long as they are sweeter than the desserts themselves and have adequate acidity, passitos are excellent accompaniments to many of the desserts listed here. Marsala also pairs well with some desserts like cannoli and cheeses like Pecorino. A bold tasting Parmesano will go best with a bold Nero d’Avola.
Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler