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Eat Smart in Sicily

Joan Peterson and Marcella Croce 

Those who know about the history of Italy know that Sicily was an early Phoenician colony and in the trade route of the Mycenaeans from Greece. The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, at various times Sicily was ruled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Spaniards, French, Arabs, and Normans, plus a few others; and because of its varied past rulers, the food of Sicily is different than that of mainland Italy.


In 2006, Joan Peterson, award-winning author of the Eat Smart series – a collection of culinary/travel guides – visited Sicily and decided to write a guide about its food. Eat Smart books provide an overview of a country or region’s food history, a menu guide of popular dishes, useful phrases, a food guide of common terms used in cooking, and authentic local recipes. Joan collaborated with journalist, author, and teacher Marcella Croce, a Sicilian native. Marcella wrote about the local foods of Sicily, the menu guide, and the list of Italian phrases, written phonetically, that are useful for ordering in a restaurant or making purchases from a market.


In the first chapter of Eat Smart in Sicily, Joan provides a history of Sicily’s cuisine, giving an account of what the early tribes and other nationalities contributed. She explains how the Greeks were responsible for much of Sicily’s early agricultural growth and why the Romans were more concerned with harvesting the wheat, and details the Arab contribution of dried pasta, skewered and stuffed foods, and sweets to Sicily’s cuisine.


The chapter on local foods is quite extensive, with a detailed overview of the prominent regional foods, and a description of the foods of the provinces, grouped by geographic area—western, central, eastern, and southeastern Sicily. The chapter titled "Tastes of Sicily" offers a variety of regional recipes, from antipasti to dolci, contributed by restaurant chefs, cookbook authors, and cooking instructors. The recipes are demonstrated for Joan, tasted on location, and then cooked and tested in her kitchen. Recipes in Eat Smart in Sicily include Tortini ai Porcini (Porcini Mushroom Tarts), Linguine all’Aragosta (Linguine with Lobster), Maiale all’Arancia (Orange-Flavored Pork), Foglie Fritte di Carciofi (Fried Artichoke Leaves), Froscia (No-Crust Sicilian Ricotta Pie), and Genovesi (Genoa Cakes).


Mostly hills and mountains, Sicily was the first region in Italy to produce commercial pasta, is one of the largest exporters of salt, a principal exporter of olives and extra virgin olive oil, a primary contributor of oranges to Italy, and a major producer of organic foods. Mount Etna provides the fertile soil for the flavorful pistachios from Bronte and a bounty of exquisite vegetables and fruits. Eggplant is the main ingredient for one of Sicily’s most popular vegetable dishes, caponata; eggplant and tomato are the foundation for Pasta alla Norma, said to be named to honor Vincenzo Bellini’s 1821 opera, "Norma;" and vegetables, along with meat and cheese, are the filling for arancini, the fried rice balls that take their name from the oranges they resemble. Several varieties of blood oranges—the sweetest and most intensely colored, known as Arancia Rossa di Sicilia—are cultivated throughout the eastern third of the island.


The "Menu Guide" is "an extensive compilation of Sicilian menu entrees in Italian." In this chapter, the dish is listed in the Italian or Sicilian dialect and a brief explanation of the ingredients and/or cooking technique is offered. The "Foods & Flavors Guide," as a companion to the "Menu Guide," is a list of Italian terms for kitchen utensils, cooking techniques, and the ingredients used to make the dishes. Rounding out the book are helpful phrases for navigating a market or ordering at a restaurant, resources, and tips for shopping in the markets.


Throughout Sicily, frutta di martorana, marzipan fruit, is a specialty. The art of crafting marzipan into fruit began at a monastery in Martorana in Palermo. The nuns, wanting to impress visiting clergy, crafted marzipan into fruit to decorate the trees that were bare. Gelato, derived from the Latin word, gelare, meaning to freeze, and granita originated in Sicily; it’s said that the snow from Mt. Etna was flavored and served to the wealthy. From Sicily comes cannoli and cassata – the delectable sponge cake filled with sweetened ricotta, candied fruit, and chocolate; and flavored with Marsala, the sweet wine from the town of the same name, which is also the base for the very popular Vitello alla Marsala, Veal Marsala.


A great resource for anyone interested in Sicily, Eat Smart in Sicily received the National Best Books 2008 Award for Travel Guides and was awarded 2008 Food Book of the Year by This year it received the U.S. Review of Books: The Eric Hoffer Award 2009 First Runner-Up (Reference Category) and was a Finalist in the Travel/Travel Guide Category for the 2009 Indie Book Awards. For those visiting Sicily, Eat Smart in Sicily is a handy reference tool to take along, and for those not currently planning a trip to Sicily, it provides a preview of the culinary treats Sicily has to offer.

Copyright 2007-2016 Janice Therese Mancuso
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission except when published with this credit: Excerpt from Thirty-One Days of Italians, 2015 Janice Therese Mancuso.