The common stereotype is that real Italian food—you know, the stuff Italians ate before Olive Garden came around and started suffocating everything with mozzarella—is light, subtle, ingredient-driven food that makes the Italian-American version feel crude and clumsy by comparison. So when we set out on this trip with the intention of tracing some of the most famous Italian-American dishes back to their historic roots here in Sicily, I expected to find featherweight versions of the dishes that have become standards across the Atlantic. This has not proved to be the case. Instead, we have come across an astounding number of dishes that actually exceed their Italian-American counterparts in overall size and decadence.
Surely there are many deep, anthro-socio-historical reasons for how Sicilian food came to be so heavy—at least in its most modern iteration. Maybe it’s because the relative prosperity of contemporary Sicily allows for some extra bells and whistles in its cuisine. Maybe the massive waves of immigration to the United States in the early 20th century has made an impact on the way native Sicilians cook. But mostly I think it’s because Sicilians are among the original progenitors of that now-familiar American dictum: more is more. Below, three examples of the Sicilian’s unwavering ability to gild the lily.
Melanzane alla parmigiana
The first Italian dish I ever cooked was chicken parmesan. I was a senior in high school, cooking for a few friends, and the union of crispy chicken, warm tomato sauce, and melted cheese proved a heroic combination to a group of 18 years olds with an aggressive case of the munchies. When I tried to make it for an Italian friend a few years later she told me that she appreciated the effort greatly, but that what I made wasn’t Italian. I protested, said that I had eaten pollo alla parmigiana in countless Italian restaurants, seen it made on countless Food Network programs, but she couldn’t be convinced. I was crushed.
She was right. You can look up and down the peninsula and you won’t find a plate of fried chicken smothered in melted cheese anywhere in Italy. But as you work your way south, through Campania and Puglia and finally to Sicily, you will find dozens of versions of the dish that inspired it: eggplant parmesan.
When I heard that our friend Sabrina’s mom made a superlative version of the Sicilian staple, it became an imperative part of our itinerary. We planned it as a collaborative effort, a dish dictated by Giuseppina Di Caro, but with a sturdy helping hand from two American prep cooks. When we arrived four hours late to her hometown of Ribera, the eggplant parmesan had long since cooled on the countertop.
Still, I managed to extract the meaningful details. First the eggplant is salted, expunged of its bitter flavor, then fried in olive oil and smothered in tomato sauce. Now comes the fun part: the slices of browned eggplant are laid out in a baking dish, covered in milky slabs of fresh mozzarella and fresh basil, and baked until bubbling. Like so much of what you eat in Sicily, this dish bears “i tre colori”, the colors of the Italian flag: red, white, and green.
All of this would be perfectly normal as is, but Giuseppina is Sicilian, and for Sicilians normal is never enough. Her special pro move—simple, but deeply impacting—is to slip a layer of prosciutto between the eggplant and the mozzarella. As it cooks, the prosciutto releases its fat into the eggplant below, which are all too happy to soak it up.
The end result is a vegetable dish in name only. Really, it’s a meaty lasagna with eggplant standing in for the noodles. As you work your way through this gorgeous slab, long ropes of mozzarella will stretch from the plate to your mouth and snap just as you bite down. For anyone who has ever eaten in an Italian-American restaurant, this will be a deeply familiar experience.
(Fried rice balls)
It may be Sicily’s most famous street food, but arancini would be perfectly at home in Little Italy, Little Rock or at the Iowa State Fair. That is, after all, where the idea of taking food perfectly good on its own and deep-frying it has reached its most exaggerated iteration. A friend of Nathan’s calls it “making food out of food that is already food,” and it is a black art that Sicilian cooks excel at.
Arancini starts with rice, sometimes cooked risotto-style until creamy with starch and butter, other times simply laced with saffron until yellow like paella. That would be enough on its own—and it is in the north, where risotto calls home—but here in Sicily, enough is never quite enough. Instead, the rice is formed into fist-sized balls, stuffed with any variety of fillings (slow-simmered meat ragu laced with green peas is most common, but you’ll find prosicutto-mozzarella, spinach and mushroom arancini, depending on which region of Sicily you are in) then breaded and deep-fried a crispy golden brown. It looks like an orange (hence the name, which means orange in Italian) and tastes like a heart problem in the making.
These orange rice bombs will follow you everywhere you go in Sicily: city bars, beachside cafes, autostrada gas stations. Eventually you will have to have one, which means that shortly after you will be having another.
Brioche con gelato
(Ice cream sandwich)
It would be ridiculous enough at any hour of the day—two hulking scoops of gelato shoehorned into an eggy sweet brioche bun—but the fact that I’m eating this thing at 10 in the morning only exacerbates the absurdity. Making it even more absurd is the fact that I’m not the only one. In fact, eating an ice cream sandwich roughly the size and density of a softball for breakfast is perfectly acceptable behavior here in Sicily.
And why not? Italians in general prefer to start their days with sugar. Other common breakfast staples: soft rolls stuffed with sweetened ricotta, chocolate cake and, perhaps the greatest pastry ever invented, croissants stuffed with pistachio butter.
But nothing competes with ice cream for breakfast. It’s the dream of every four year old the world over, being realized on a daily basis by Sicilian adults across the island. Gelato flavors here mostly mimic those offered up and down the peninsula: hazelnut, fior de latte, amaretti. All excellent enough, but Sicily excels at two types of gelato: pistachio, since they grow the world’s sweetest, fattiest pistachios all over the island, and anything fruit-related, because eating Sicilian fruit is like having fruit for the first time.
The wisest general strategy for ordering ice cream in Sicily is this: If it comes from a tree, it deserves your attention. Lemon, fig, peach, almond, pistachio: these are your tickets to paradise. Skip the pale, anemic cones and have your scoops stuffed inside brioche. Just be sure to do so before 10 am; you’ll fit right in.
Check out more entries from our Red Sauce Diaries:
The Sicilian-American culinary connection