As North Americans have rushed to embrace regional Italian cooking in the last few years, from heady Tuscan braises to Roman trattoria-style cacio e pepe pastas and Naples’ all-popular wood-fired pizzas, one of the simplest – and by many accounts most glorious – of Italy’s cuisines has languished in near-obscurity.
Typically light, healthy and inflected with Arab and North African flavours, Sicilian food is the most ingredient-driven of Italy’s regional cuisines, built around pristine fish, seafood, offal and fresh fruits and vegetables. Many of the region’s most striking dishes, such as pasta tossed with fresh sardines, raisins, pine nuts and saffron, are simple enough that even beginner cooks can make them. Yet the cuisine is still so unknown in North America that several food professionals I’ve spoken with in the last few weeks couldn’t name a single savoury Sicilian dish.
That’s changing, however, as the southern island’s food begins to get the attention it deserves. A brilliant new cookbook called Made in Sicily, by Giorgio Locatelli, a top chef from northern Italy who cooks in London, has just been released in North America and is getting plenty of buzz. (If you love cooking Italian food, it’s a must-have.) Ambitious chefs are increasingly heading to Sicily to eat and learn, instead of travelling to better-known regions like Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Puglia. Restaurateurs hoping to ride the rustic Italian wave that’s reshaped much of Canada’s restaurant scene in the last five years have also begun jumping on.
In Montreal, Emma Cardarelli, the young and talented chef at the Southern Italian -focused Nora Gray restaurant, has merluzzo alla Siciliana – grilled European sea bass with tomatoes and olives – on her menu at present, and often does a blood orange salad she discovered during a trip to Sicily last year, she said.
Owen Lightly, the chef behind Butter on the Endive, a catering company in Vancouver, said he was stunned at the quality and simplicity of the food he found in Sicily last year. Mr. Lightly has since added caponata, the sweet-and-sour mix of eggplant and other vegetables, to his catering menus, as well as a Sicilian octopus salad, and intends to do more Sicilian dishes in the summer, when more ingredients are in season.
Toronto, meantime, is in the midst of a Sicilian mini-surge: Roberto Marotta, the chef at Maialino Enoteca Italiana, a new Sicilian place in the city’s west end, moved to Canada from his native Milazzo, a port city in Sicily, in 2010. Mr. Marotta’s menu is stocked with classic dishes like seafood stew over couscous (I had it the other night; it’s massively flavourful and fantastic), arancini balls stuffed with veal ragu and peas, and cannoli garnished with pistachio nuts and candied orange rind. (Cannoli, the ricotta-stuffed pastry shells, are Sicilian cooking’s only well-known export.)
Chef Luca Stracquadanio, of Toronto’s La Bettola di Terroni, also hails from Sicily. He’s peppered his menu with staple dishes like cured swordfish with orange, shaved fennel and pistachios, and pasta with anchovies and chilies, finished with toasted breadcrumbs.
And at Buca, near downtown Toronto, Rob Gentile, who may be the country’s most relentlessly innovative Italian chef, travelled and ate through Sicily last month, also spending four days working at La Madia, a two-star Michelin restaurant on the island’s southwest coast. Mr. Gentile has been raving about the trip ever since. (Among his favourite dishes: grilled intestines that he bought from a vendor working a stall under a highway overpass. “It was grilled on charcoal, bowl of lemons, salt, pepper, that’s it, man,” Mr. Gentile said. “Of everything I’ve ever eaten in Italy, this was in the top three.”)
Unlike in most of Italy, where you can often find super-rich cucina nobile made with plenty of luxury ingredients, Sicily’s cooking is still overwhelmingly defined by cucina povera: peasant food. As Mr. Locatelli writes, the island’s tastes revolve around “simple but beautiful combinations: broccoli and anchovies, capers, golden raisins and pine nuts, olives and lemons, oranges and fish, almonds, pistachios and wild fennel, eggplants and bread crumbs, and in desserts fresh ricotta, candied fruit and peel, and chocolate.”
Sicilian cooks have also embraced the ingredients brought over millennia by occupying foreign armies, from the Greeks and Romans to Normans, Spaniards and Arabs. Seafood stews often get a warming, rounding nick of cinnamon and are spooned over couscous, both of which came to the island with Arab invaders in the 10th century. (The recipe in Mr. Locatelli’s book is excellent.) Eggplant, oranges, lemons, couscous, pistachios, saffron, cinnamon and sugar, all introduced by Arab occupiers, are also integral parts of the cuisine.
Yet simplicity has also prevented Sicilian food from taking off in North America until now, many chefs say. Consider that salad at Nora Gray. Though the recipe calls for just blood oranges, capers and red onion, the chef hasn’t been able to resist the urge to add more ingredients. “People want to be wowed when they go to a restaurant,” Ms. Cardarelli said. “That’s one of my biggest concerns: I get so self-conscious, is my food too simple?”
Sicilian-style simplicity also demands impeccable ingredients: a requirement that’s easier to fulfill on a Mediterranean island than here in Canada. Maurizio Persichino, a Sicilian-born pastry chef who teaches at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, in Vancouver, remembers when his mother visited him a few years ago and tried to make him Parmigiana di melanzane – eggplant parmigiana – a Sicilian classic that’s one of his favourite dishes.
The experience was disappointing, Mr. Persichino said, because the eggplant and the basil available in Vancouver weren’t the same. (Similarly, much of the cooking that arrived with Sicilian immigrants to Canada and the U.S. was heavily adapted over time to North American ingredients.)
But Mr. Gentile, of Buca, has found a way around that, he said. He’s been working to source top-quality urchins and fish, as well as Sicilian lemons, he said. And he brought some help in his luggage: more than 50 different types of seeds for Sicilian herbs and vegetables, including wild fennel, a native zucchini that trails fragrant tendrils, Sicilian broccoli, an impossible-to-find variety of radicchio and a type of catmint that tastes reminiscent of oregano. He was in discussions last week with a local greenhouse to grow them, he said.
Mr. Gentile got something else from Sicily, too: a new pastry chef, who’s due to arrive from Italy this spring. Among other things, they’ll add delicate cannoli and boozy babas to the restaurant’s menu, as well as homemade gelati that come the Sicilian way, inside brioche buns, Mr. Gentile said.
“It’s going to be straight-out hardcore Sicilian pastries,” he said.