Food in Naples and Sicily

by Jan


The pizza put in front of me was enormous. How do they expect…….. Anyway, I wolfed it down with a glass of vino blanco della casa. I soon realized that enormous and thin was the size of all the pizzas served in this famous Brandi pizzeria near Via Chiaia, Naples.

I wanted to try some pizza; Naples is reputed to be the home and origin of this famous street food. The topping on mine, however, was not typical: it was whitebait and garlic, apart from the usual tomato pasta. I expected to see a lot more basil, but it seemed to be just a leaf or two for decoration.  As Brandi has a reputation to maintain, the pizza was of course delicious.

I did a little gastronomic research before leaving Sydney to find out what to expect in this part of the world.

I arrived in Naples as an independent tourist for about a week before I would meet our tour group (through Sydney University Continuing Education) in Palermo. The plan was to visit art galleries and museums and absorb as much of the neapolitan baroque as I could.

Also, sample dishes from some of the less “tipico” menus offering spag bol or carbonara. In Italy they mostly eat typical Italian food, and in France, French food etc. Whereas, in Sydney we can sample from many different cuisines and create some rustic and stylish combinations. Occasionally, you can find restaurants in Italy and Sicily which will turn their hands to a bit of inventiveness as well.

After a few days in Naples the menus started to look the same, until I happened to pick up an old brochure somewhere about a promotional week of Neapolitan food sponsored by local government and industry bodies. It was called Mangiare con l’Arte, loosely translated as eating with art.

One of the participating restaurants was La Stanza del Gusto in Via Costantinapoli, which I happened to walk past after visiting the National Archaeological Museum nearby. I had an octopus and vegetable salad with cous cous and soda bread. The next visit I tried fish with cous cous. They serve organic, or “biologica” products, and use a lot more imagination than the “tipico” menu planning. This is why I returned for more.

During a passagiata up via Toledo, I stopped at a very crowded gelataria called “Infanta”.  As Naples and the Amalfi coast are famous for lemon products,  I had a lemon ice cream called Amalfi. It was nicer than lemon sorbet because it is creamy and less acidic. The next visit I tried Crema which is like crème patissiere with some citrus and alcohol flavouring. Gelato Messina (Victoria St, Darlinghurst, Sydney), need to know about this retailer if they don’t already. My guess is that “Infanta” is what we turn into when faced with a cone of delicious ice cream.

Around near the Riviera di Chiaia, at Piazza Samazarro I had lunch at Al Sarago, part of the Mangiare con l’Arte program. I had a seafood risotto, beautifully cooked and I didn’t have to hunt for the seafood. Even the green salad had a squeeze of lemon juice which not all restaurants offer.

Another participant restaurant was Cantini dei Mille, on Piazza Garibaldi. I had a more tipico dish of pasta with seafood in tomato sugo, with a salad as a nod to my health. I arrived a bit after midday. Italians don’t understand people who lunch before 1pm – must be “mad dogs and Englishmen…” But situated near the main station, they are probably used to foreigners and their strange eating habits.

Sicilian food is a bit different; a slightly more north African influence, with some cous cous, and fried items such as cannoli, and panelle (chickpea fritters). The landscape has more palm trees, and prickly pear trees, which means prickly pear jam. They eat a lot of seafood; sardines are on every menu, as is octopus, tuna and sword fish. Their food and wine is generally more hearty with strong flavours.

Palermo is where I met up with our tour group. Naturally, the choice of restaurants was close to the hotel, but in a few days as we became more familiar with directions, we were keen to venture further afield to a few restaurants recommended by websites for being less tipico and more adventurous.

One of these is Sant’Andrea at the Piazza Sant’Andrea for example, we had sardines with pumpkin, onion and chili sauce. And at Osteria dei Vespri, near Piazza Croce, they offered cuttlefish soup flavoured with fresh laurel and ravioli filled with tomato, peas, potatoes and saffron. Or a loin of baby pork with fennel seed sauce, roll of leek filled with mushrooms and potatoes, and stewed mandarins. Or tuna tagliata served with spicy caper sauce, potato croquette and rice flavoured with mint.

After a few days we gradually realised that many restaurants and hotels offered

Items that are slightly different from those in Italy. During the Arab period of occupation, their cuisine was influenced accordingly with the introduction of cous cous, chickpeas, caponata, citrus fruits and cane sugar.

For example, stuzzichini, are very similar to anti pasti. In Sicily though, some are slightly different from Italian anti pasti. For example, mini sfincione (small Sicilian pizze without cheese), panelle (chickpea fritters), and caponata (like ratatouille but with capers, olives, celery, and a dash of sugar and vinegar).

I tried panelle with caponata on top – it was beautiful. Panelle are little fritters made of chickpea flour. Like most fritters they are very easy to make, and via the internet, a recipe would be very easy to find.

Cannoli are often seen on a dessert menu in cafes or pasticcierie everywhere. They are the best known pastry in Sicily: basically fried pastry in a tubular form, into which pastry cream and ricotta cheese is piped. Often this has candied fruit, pistachios and grated chocolate mixed in.

Later, we found a small publication listing exclusive restaurant and hotels in Sicily. Another happy accident like the brochure I found in Naples, Mangiare con l’Arte.

A group of us went to Oinos, via della Giudecca, Syracuse, situated in the old Jewish quarter in the island of Ortegia. The chef uses local and seasonal foods which are styled a la Sydney, for example, tagliata of tuna with five peppers and salad of fennel, onions and oranges, or a cous cous of fish and vegetables.

Other interesting restaurants are:  Vite and Vitello, in Noto, which we didn’t get around to due to lack of time.   At Il Covo de Pirati, Cefalu, we ate twice in one day.  They have a specials board on which are daily dishes using fish fresh from the sea, cooked simply. That was the attraction and makes this restaurant recommendable.

We left Sicily very impressed with the food, and my expectations about Sicilian food were superseded.

Here are a few easy Sicilian recipes which have been tweaked to suit Australian kitchens:

Pesce Salmoriglio

This is basically fish which has been grilled, served with salmoriglio sauce.

This sauce is a paste similar to pesto or salsa verde, but uses oregano, which originates from the Greek colonization of Sicily.

You will need about 500gm fish fillets to suit your wallet and taste. In Sicily they would probably buy swordfish, tuna, octopus and/or squid.

For the salmoriglio, put into a food processor:

  • 120ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 – 2T fresh oregano leaves
  • 1 – 2T fresh parsley leaves
  • About ½ a large chilli de-seeded
  • Optional: a little grated lemon zest

Process this until fine and creamy, then add in a slow drizzle 60ml warm water and the juice of 1 lemon. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.

Place into a dish, and serve with the cooked fish, boiled new potatoes and a salad.

If there is any salmoriglio left over, refrigerate in a screw-top jar.

Pasta alle Sarde

This is pasta with fresh sardines.

  • 250gm dried pasta
  • 300gm sardines scaled and filleted
  • 1 head of fennel, sliced
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • ½ t each of ground cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger
  • 2 – 3 anchovy fillets
  • 2T currants
  • 2T pine nuts, toasted
  • Chopped parsley, mint and marjoram
  • 2 – 3T toasted breadcrumbs

Place a large pot of water on the heat and bring it to the boil. Using a lid will speed this up. Put in the fennel and blanch for a minute or two. Scoop it out and set aside.

Put the pasta into the boiling water and cooking according to manufacturer’s instructions. Drain through a colander and place into a large serving dish.

Heat some oil in a pan and slowly cook all the ingredients except: half the sardines, breadcrumbs, fennel and herbs.

Mash the sardines and anchovies with a wooden spoon until they disintegrate. Add the fennel to reheat. Then put in the serving dish with the pasta, and mix.

In another frying pan, heat some oil and cook the remainder of the sardines.

Arrange in the serving dish and sprinkle with herbs and breadcrumbs. Grind some black pepper over it.

Serve with some lemon wedges and a tomato salad. And a chilled bottle of crisp white wine.

Torta Ricotta

In Sicily there are many agriturismo operations, most of which only offer bed and breakfast. We stayed at Il Gigliotto just outside Piazza Armerina. It is a vineyard and also grew crops of prickly pear and olives. The dining room is open-air and we overlooked the beautiful rural landscape for dinner. Meals usually include home-grown and local products such as ricotta, cured olives, and prickly pear jam.

For the pastry, put the following into a food processor, and process until just amalgamated. (Don’t over-process or your pastry will be tough):

  • 500gm plain flour
  • 150gm butter
  • 1 egg
  • 125ml marsala  (or cold water or sherry if you’re stuck)
  • 50gm grated pecorino and/or parmesan cheese

Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

For the contents, mix the following in a bowl:

  • 500gm ricotta cheese
  • 150gm prosciutto, finely sliced
  • 200gm grated pecorino and/or parmesan cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • Ground black pepper
  • Optional: chopped fresh herbs such as oregano, marjoram or basil

Grease a 23cm pie dish, and cut off a chunk of the pastry. This is for the base so it will need to be a bit more than half. Set the oven for 200oC.

Roll out to about ¼”thick and ease it into the pie dish. Then roll out the lid.

Scoop in the cheese mix and drape over the pastry lid. Wet and crimp the edge, and cut some holes in the top to allow for steam to escape. If you like, decorate with some remaining pastry.

Bake for about 30 minutes and serve with a rocket and tomato salad.