The lineup held promise, the name not so much. When I arrived at Castello Fiorentino, a pizzeria down a narrow lane of this fabled Sicilian city, about a dozen people were waiting in the glow of a streetlight outside. The "Florentine Castle" had come recommended by a shopkeeper, and each time the door swung open, revelry worthy of the Sicilian villagers' chorus from Cavalleria Rusticana echoed from the dining room. Yet I wondered: Authentic southern Italian food at a place with northern pretensions? Authentic anything at a "castle"?
I didn't have to wait long for an answer. A local couple I'd queried earlier about where the line formed turned to me as their number came up. Would I like to join their table?
A Canadian jump the queue? Well, when in Sicily…
Danilo, Annalisa and I each ordered the alla norma , pizza with eggplant and salted ricotta, a classic Sicilian combination said to be named after an opera by local hero Vincenzo Bellini, but argued by others to mean, in Sicilian dialect, "the normal way." My pie, frankly, looked like a kitchen accident. Either that or the toppings had been applied by one very blind and hasty cook tossing from a metre's distance. But it was the second-best pizza of my life. Of this I was instantly certain because the best, also an alla norma , had been dished up (with more symmetrically arranged toppings) only the night before at Syracuse's Gran Caffe del Duomo around the corner.
The pizza double play triggered my first epiphany about Sicilian cuisine. So bred in the bone is it, so ingeniously simple and wedded to fresh, local ingredients are the dishes, that the gap between hidden gem and supposed tourist trap can be negligible. If even the café across from the cathedral manages to cook up magic, you know you're in the culinary promised land.
And it's not just the pizza. Few, if any, regions of Sicily's size - at least in the West - can boast of an everyman's cuisine that is so varied and consistently well-executed. Occupied at times by Arabs, Greeks, Carthaginians, Spaniards, Romans, Normans and others, this large island in the Mediterranean was practising "fusion" cuisine a couple of millennia before Wolfgang Puck landed in West Hollywood.
Rice was introduced by Arabs and is the main ingredient in dangerously addictive arancini , deep-fried golden balls that resemble oranges (or aranci , another Arab import) and are stuffed with meat or vegetables. You'll see these all over, but the best I had were in Marsala, a town on the west coast best known for the sweet, fortified wine of the same name.
Greeks are to thank for the popularity of Sicily's ubiquitous eggplant, or melanzana , a vegetable so surprisingly adaptable and substantial in Sicilian hands it might almost make a carnivore forget meat.
So magical is Sicily's way with the purple nightshade that I developed a dependable system of restaurant dining by ordering anything with the word "melanzane" in it. Such as caponata , an intense ratatouille made with eggplant, capers and olives.
You can also see the pan-Mediterranean cultural influences in the fish chowders that came from Spain and in couscous from nearby north Africa, the granular pasta popular in the western province of Trapani, where it's usually flavoured with fish. Then there are the local takes on Italian pasta, typically vegetarian or featuring fish - as in cannelloni with eggplant, penne with artichokes, and bucatini with sardines and sultana raisins.
To most visitors, though, the most obvious evidence of the revolving-door cultural past is Sicily's architecture, especially the Greek and Roman ruins. Come for that, of course, and don't forget your sunblock in the summer. But here's my No. 1 recommendation for a Sicilian vacation: Come hungry and plan to make plenty of time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maybe also a 5 p.m. glass of sparkling zibibbo and a postprandial digestif of Averna or Marsala.