20 Sicilian Pasta Dishes You Must Try
"Adelina had made him a Pasta 'Ncasciata and, as a second course, Rabbit Cacciatore. She did not often make these, but whenever she did, it brought tears of happiness to his eyes" excerpt from an Inspector Montalbano novel by Andrea Camilleri
Even today, it is not clear who invented pasta. It is likely that any culture that had mastered the art of baking bread would have also made noodle-like foods from flour and water. But in no other country does pasta (meaning "dough") have such significance as in Italy. Statistically every Italian enjoys an average of 27kg (60lb) of pasta each year. Italians devote more time and attention to it than to any other foodstuff and no other food product in the world better represents a countries cuisine. Pasta combines all the virtues of an Italian kitchen. It is made from simple, but very good ingredients and is cooked with dedication, creativity and love.
A major contribution to the development of pasta was made in ancient times by the Arabs who invented the process of drying fresh noodles and the production of tubed shaped pasta. When the Arabs conquered Sicily in the ninth century they brought this technique with them to the island. The Arabs also introduced new and highly sophisticated forms of irrigation and so grain cultivation flourished in style on the once dry Sicilian soil.
In the Sicilian hinterland you will see fields of wheat that turns the plains and hills into fields of gold. It is a sight unchanged since the island was described as the granary of Rome, 'the nurse at whose breast the Roman people are fed' as a Roman statesman once wrote.
The first recorded pasta production in Sicily on a commercial scale was in Trabia near Palermo in 1150.
The earliest surviving recipes date back to the Italian Renaissance times and in the fifteenth century a cookbook by the famous personal chef Maestro Martino da Como includes a recipe describing how to make "Con Siciliani" in which the dough was wrapped around a small metal rod so that the noodles remained hollow inside.
Pasta was at one time not a staple food but rather a luxury food for the well-to-do, but by the eighteenth century it overcame class barriers and was cooked and sold by street vendors and eaten right on the spot using fingers whilst standing. As recently as one hundred years ago noodles were hung in long strands on wooden poles in the open air to dry ready to be sold.
Pasta is made from semolina, which is produced from coarsely ground durum wheat. Golden durum wheat has a higher gluten content and a different structure than soft wheat. The higher gluten content makes pasta dough elastic with a firm consistency which ensures that the pasta retains its shape during cooking.
In Italy, there are more than 600 different types of pasta. They differ in terms of shape, size and diameter. Some of the classic types of pasta have beautiful names such as conchiglie (shells), farfalle (butterflies), orecchiette (little ears), penne (feather or quill) and capelli d'angelo (angel hair) amongst many others.
Then there is tortellini which legend says that Venus herself, the goddess of love, served as a model for the beguiling pasta rings. According to the legend, during a visit to earth she stayed at a simple inn and the innkeeper on bringing a refreshment to her room saw her naked and was overcome by her perfect navel and so rushed immediately to his kitchen to replicate it in pasta form.
One of the oldest known words for pasta is "maccarunne" from the Sicilian word "maccare" meaning to crush grains to make flour.
In Sicily few people make pasta at home anymore but occasionally it is companionable to sit around a large family table making maccheroni and exchanging gossip whilst rolling the pasta dough around a "busi". Busi can be made from a time honoured method of a wiry stalk of dried grass or a more modern method of using a knitting needle.
I can remember my first visit to a supermarket in Sicily and was lost for words to see the length of the pasta aisle jammed packed on either side of me with packs upon packs of different size, shapes and brands of pasta. I was there for quite a while and do not get me started on the first time I visited our local pastifico, a shop where they make and sell fresh pasta.
In Sicily the most traditional pasta shape in the old days would have been "bucatini" as the hollow inside would suit Sicilian sauces the best.
My personal favourite Sicilian pasta shape is "casarecce" which are short twists of pasta that appear to be rolled up on themselves. We cannot get this pasta shape in the UK so I always bring several bags home with me that create a talking point when we have guests for dinner in London.
The perfect combination of pasta and sauce (sugo) is an art in itself and it is only with the right sauce that the pasta shape can develop its full flavour.
A pasta kettle or saucepan should be generously sized and as wide as possible. Pasta should be cooked as according to its packaging. When the pasta is 'al dente' it is ready to eat. Translated literally as "to the tooth" al dente means that the pasta is still firm to the bite and not too soft or mushy. It is then ready to be drained and mixed with its sauce and served.
So what kind of pasta dishes will you find in Sicily?
A lot of pasta dishes in Sicily make use of the abundance of fresh produce that the island boasts such as vegetables, seafood, nuts and even meat. Therefore here are twenty pasta dishes that you must try in Sicily, most of them you will find on restaurant menus but some you might experience if you have the pleasure of joining a Sicilian family around their table for dinner or Sunday lunch.
Buon appetito .....
Pasta 'Ncasciata is one of Sicily's famous TV detective Inspector Montalbano's favourite dishes that invokes tears of happiness when he finds it left in his fridge cooked by his housekeeper Adelina. It is basically a baked dish consisting of short pasta (often rigatoni) tossed with a meat ragu, then encased (ncasciata) between slices of aubergine, provola cheese and sometimes meatballs and hard boiled eggs which all comes together to create a delightful dish.
Pasta alla Norma
Probably Sicily's most famous traditional pasta dish which completely embodies the flavours and fresh produce of the island. This dish originates from the city of Catania and there are numerous versions of this homage to music and food based on a theme of aubergines, tomatoes and ricotta salata (hardened salted ricotta). This Sicilian sauce is usually served with penne or casarecce.
Pasta con Sarde
Another of Inspector Montalbano's favourite dishes. Legend says that when Euphemius of Messina returned from exile in Tunisia to mount a military expedition in 827, his Arab cooks, on landing at the harbour of Mazara put together the first ingredients that came to hand. This dish is made using wild fennel, pine nuts and the freshest of sardines.
Tomatoes (pomodori) in Sicily taste of the South Eastern Sicilian sun by which they have ripened. My friends in Sicily shout "WHY!!!!" when I order just a simple Spaghetti Pomodoro but they do not understand that we do not get the same kind of tomato sauce in the UK. It tastes completely different in Sicily and it is like pure comfort food.
Pasta con Pesce Spada e Finocchio
One of the most prominent things that you will see at the fish markets in Sicily are the heads of the swordfish (pesce spada). The best swordfish is caught between April and June when the fish swim through the Straits of Messina. Swordfish is often filleted into loin steaks and then grilled but this fish is also delicious cut into cubes and paired with fennel (finocchio) for a delicious dish made with short pasta.
Maccheroni con Salsiccia Ragu
Sicilian sausages (salsiccia) are made from coarsely chopped pork and fennel seeds. In the street markets and butchers shops they are sold skewered in continuous coils and the best way to cook them is 'alla brace' grilled on a barbeque. However if you squeeze the meat out of its skin casing, it can make the most delicious ragu to serve with a short pasta such as handmade Sicilian maccheroni.
This popular Sicilian curled shaped pasta is great served with cured black pig cheeks and pistachio pesto from the town of Bronte. The 'Nero Siciliano' is a breed of pig that is raised mainly in the province of Messina, particularly in the Nebrodi Mountains. Known as a cheap cut of meat, pig cheeks have recently become popular in modern cuisine and is best cooked by braising or slow cooking.
Paccheri alla Eoliana
The Aeolian Islands (Isola Eolie) are located like gems rising out of the sea north of Sicily and not be left out they have their own pasta dish. This pasta dish varies on each of the seven volcanic islands but the main ingredients are usually canned tuna, capers, olives and parsley. The pasta is usually paccheri which is a very large pasta tube. The Aeolian Island of Salina is renowned for its spectacular caper production.
Being an island you can only imagine the abundance of freshly caught seafood that we enjoy. Clams (vongole) are sold at fish markets in huge net bags. Spaghetti Vongole is one of Sicily's most popular seafood pasta dishes and it is so simple. Garlic and chilli are softened in a pan that is then joined by the clams and white wine and left to steam for a couple of minutes. Once the shells are open the whole lot is tossed with spaghetti and served. As easy as that.
Anelletti al Forno Siciliana
This is a very ancient dish that comes from Palermo. This baked pasta dish takes a lot of time to construct but it is so worth it. It is traditionally eaten at Sunday lunch and is a dish full of ingredients which are layered including anelletti that are small pasta rings, a meat ragu, prosciutto, sliced aubergines, mozzarella or a similar cheese and hard boiled eggs. Then it is baked like a cake and you all know how much I love baking cakes.
Pasta alla Trapanese
Pesto alla Trapanese is a Sicilian variation of Genoese pesto and originates from the Province of Trapani. This pesto is made using almonds and tomatoes instead of pine nuts. On menus across the island you will probably see it called Pasta con Pesto Siciliana. This pasta dish is one of my favourite TV chefs Rick Steins favourites and he makes it in his episode of his series "Long Weekends" when he visits Palermo. (Photo credit: BBC)
Linguine ai Funghi dell'Etna e Tartufo Nero
In the autumn months if you visit Mount Etna as you ascend the volcano, past the forests, you will notice cars parked on the edge of the road with Sicilians foraging for the delicacy that is the Etna mushroom (fungi). Etna mushrooms have a pungent and earthy taste and in a pasta dish this delicacy pairs superbly with black truffles (tartufo nero) which are foraged in the Nebrodi Mountains. A Sicilian taste bud explosion with just a simple garlic and olive oil dressing.
Maccheroni con Speck e Pistachio
Speck is a dry cured, lightly smoked ham which is delicious served in a creamy sauce topped with pistachios. Sicily is home to the world's most prized variety of this nut which is known as "Sicily's Green Gold". In the town of Bronte pistachio trees grow across some 3000 hectares on the slopes of Mount Etna. The pistachios of Bronte have a very unique taste.
Linguine Rosso di Mazara
With their distinctive red colour, even when raw, red prawns are considered a delicacy. For decades they have been Mazara del Vallo's, on the western coast of Sicily, signature product. So much so that they became its official symbol and the towns name appears along side them on menus and in cookbooks all over the world.
Linguine Ricci di Mare
Sometimes when we take our dog Daisy to the beach in the morning we will see someone in the sea with flippers flapping around looking for sea urchins (ricci di mare). The most common way to eat sea urchins is raw with a squeeze of lemon scooping out the orange meat inside with a small spoon but the meat can also be scooped out and added to a long pasta to create a fishy pasta dish.
Spaghetti alla Scoglio
Scoglio literally translates to "on the rocks". This pasta dish is normally served with spaghetti and contains mixed seafood and shellfish often with clams and mussels still in their shells hence the name "on the rocks".
Triofe con Pesto di Noci
Motta Camastra is a hilltop village situated in the Alcantara Valley between Mount Etna and Taormina. It is known as the village of walnuts (noci) especially giant ones. Every autumn in October there is a walnut festival where you can taste and buy produce made with this wonderful nut and a jar of walnut pesto stirred into a short pasta will be sure to make your taste buds go nutty. Triofe is a short, thin, twisted pasta from Liguria in the North of Italy best suited to pesto sauces.
Spaghetti Nero di Seppia
Spaghetti with Squid Ink is a dramatic pasta dish and definitely not recommended on a romantic dinner for two. Tender squid is cook in a sauce containing its own ink which is black. The Nero di Seppia adds both a tangy sea salt flavour and a deep black sheen to the sauce which can turn both your teeth and lips the same colour. If you do order this delicious pasta dish be sure to have your napkin close to hand.
Spaghetti with Aglio, Olio d'Oliva and Limone
Bursting with an abundance of big juicy lemons Sicily produces what some say are the best lemons in the world. They can add a citrus twist to a simple spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, dried chilli and a pinch of black pepper. The Sicilian climate and fertile volcanic soil creates a long growing season and the gathering of lemons takes place over three periods. First is the autumn harvest or Primo Fiore followed by the cultivation of the Bianchetti in spring and the small green Verdelli between June to July. Lemons can be grated and the zingy zest added with all the other accompanying ingredients to create a delicious summertime dish which is perfect for sultry Sicilian summers.
Bucatini con Aggiuche e Muddica
This pasta dish comes straight from the heart of Sicilian peasant cooking using ingredients from the land and sea. The main ingredient is anchovies (aggiuche). The essential ingredient is "Muddica" which are toasted breadcrumbs that would have been made from stale bread and used as a topping. No Sicilian kitchen is complete without a jar of muddica made from leftover bread.
Ristorante Pippo Lupo di Mare (Giardini Naxos), Trattoria da Antonia (Giardini Naxos), Ristorante Spizzicanu (Giardini Naxos), Ristorante e Pizzeria Royale (Giardini Naxos), A Massaria (Giardini Naxos), Ristorante Taormina (Taormina), Ristorante Rosmarino (Taormina) Agriturismo Il Giardino del Sole (Lentini), Tasting Sicily Enzo's Kitchen (London)
If you enjoyed this Foodie post then you might enjoy these ones from my archive:
Making Pasta alla Norma https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2020/04/making-pasta-alla-norma.html
Making Anelletti al Forno Siciliana https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2018/12/making-anelletti-al-forno-siciliana.html
14 ways to use Sicilian Lemons https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2017/03/14-ways-to-use-sicilian-lemons.html
14 Ways to use Sicilian Almonds https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2019/03/14-ways-to-use-sicilian-almonds.html
Salsiccia ... the Great Sicilian Sausage https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2016/09/salsiccia-great-sicilian-sausage.html
20 Sicilian Sweets & Desserts You Must Try https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2020/09/20-sicilian-sweets-desserts-you-must-try.html
Sicily ... a Foodie's Paradise https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2016/01/sicily-foodies-paradise.html
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