We know that life is about choices. One choice that has been very successful in recent times is the one related to vegetarian food. There are many reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet. They may be ethical reasons to respect living beings or to fight pollution, or you may prefer another diet for the tastes. However, if you have decided not to eat meat or fish, but have booked a holiday in Sicily, don’t worry. You will find dishes to suit you. If you think that, in Sicily, all you can eat is fresh fish, arancine/arancini with meat sauce and street food, you’re wrong. The Sicilian culinary tradition derives from the cuisine of the poor. And the poor, in the past, couldn’t afford meat or fish, except on special occasions. To make the ‘valuable’ ingredients last longer, they used to ration or taste them without eating them.
The saying “liccari a sarda” derives from this custom. It has remained in the Sicilian language to indicate an indigence condition or difficulty (today, mainly economic). It actually comes from the habit of hanging a sardine by the tail (from the chandelier or a roof beam) and licking it. The poor used to bite the bread but did not eat the fish. We know that hunger is the mother of inventions.
Vegetarian dishes on the island are many: vegetables, pulses, spices, and cheese. You can find them everywhere on the island: maccu ri favi (cream of broad beans with pasta), pasta with tenerumi (long courgette leaves), caponata and orange salad. The choice of desserts is endless: granite, brioche with ice cream, almond pastries. We might get lost. Let’s discover another side of Sicily by tasting typical vegetarian dishes. Are you ready?
Let’s start with one of the most famous dishes: pasta alla norma. We are in Catania, the city of Vincenzo Bellini. What does this have to do with him? According to some, the name derives from the composer’s Norma. This pasta is seasoned with tomato sauce, fried aubergines and salted ricotta cheese and is a true masterpiece. Pasta with fried aubergines is a pan-Sicilian recipe and is served all over the island in many different ways. If you are in Catania, you cannot miss it. Before you leave, try it also in the “arancino” version (yes, here it is masculu – masculine -, be careful!): the classic rice ball with aubergine sauce and cheese.
We descend to the southern point between Syracuse and Ragusa. In this area, you can taste the stimpirata ( a preparation for meat, made with potatoes, carrots and olives, sautéed with garlic, mint, oil and vinegar) or the gghiotta (in its most classic form with potatoes, onions, tomato and peppers slightly sweet and sour). In the area around Modica (Rosolini, Ispica, Pozzallo, Scicli, Ragusa), you must try the scacce modicane ( or ragusane – from Ragusa), the mpanate, the buccateddi: rustic (a kind of calzoni) baked in the oven, with different fillings and preparations (ricotta and onion, tomato and onion, tomato and parsley, tomato and aubergine). If you are in the area, you can’t miss the opportunity to taste fresh pasta made with carob flour in Rosolini. Try the carrot and sesame products (slow food presidia) from Ispica and, above all, the cosacavaddu (caciocavallo) from Ragusa. Finally, there is always room for His Majesty the Chocolate of Modica.
We now head back to the island centre. After a quick stop to taste Giarratana onion recipes, don’t miss a snack of piacentino di Enna ( a yellow and spicy sheep’s milk cheese with saffron and black pepper) and Dittaino bread (a PDO bread made from ancient durum wheat semolina). In this area between Enna and Caltanissetta, the frascatula, is typical. It is a kind of polenta, mainly made with vegetables (especially wild herbs: chicory, borage, chard, asparagus, fennel, amarelli, mustard) and flour. Also worth trying in its fried version.
Let’s head back to the coast and approach Agrigento. Worth tasting are the Macco di San Giuseppe (a soup of pulses), the pitaggio ( it is a side dish of broad beans, peas and artichokes. It is cooked like a soup, or prepared like an omelette. You can enjoy it with rice. You can also eat it in the Palermo area), the cuddiruni of Siculiana (a kind of stuffed pizza). All these dishes are usually served with Castelvetrano bread. With its irresistible crunchy crust, it is delicious when stuffed with almonds.
We arrive at the western end of Sicily, in the Trapani area. Couscous is the main dish here (ask for vegetarian, of course!), along with busiate (curled pasta) with Trapanese pesto: a kind of pesto coming from Genovese pesto ( the Genovese used to take it with them on their travels and when stopping over in Sicilian ports). Trapani’s people have modified it by adding typical local products. They have added basil, tomatoes, almonds, pecorino cheese and red garlic from Nubia (a Slow Food Presidium) and voilà: lunch is ready. In this area (and in Favignana), you can also taste Frescatole. Although the name is the same as the product from the island’s centre, the recipe is different. It is a couscous by-product and comes from the nobles’ cuisine. The poor would collect scraps of badly processed couscous and combine them with vegetables. Today, frascatole are made by coarsely kneading semolina and served with a vegetable sauce. If you are in sunny Pantelleria and want a fresh dish, ask for the ammogghiu sauce. It is a tomato pesto with garlic, chilli and basil. It is delicious, fresh and simple, and you can have it on pasta, bread or fried food.
We now come to the Palermo area. The mind immediately flies to bread, thin panelle made with chickpea flour, and crocché, fried potato balls. These products fill three different types of bread: the Mafalda, the Scaletta and the Focaccia (or vastedda). We also try the gourmet arancine (here fìmmine – females – !). This dish is a recent invention (you’ll find something for all tastes) and raschiatura ( created in frying shops to avoid waste) made with scraps and leftovers of chickpeas for panelle and potatoes for crocché). You cannot leave without tasting a typical Palermo dish (but is also widespread throughout the Madonie): the cacio all’argentiera (or false rabbit). It is a caciocavallo fried in garlic-flavoured oil with the addition of vinegar and oregano. On the other hand, if you are in Ustica, you must try dishes based on the island’s small lentil, a slow food praesidium.
Let’s head back east to the Messina area. As well as the delicious cheeses and vegetables from the Nebrodi, be sure to try the stuffed olives Messina way (with a filling of breadcrumbs, Sicilian pecorino cheese, Pantelleria capers and white wine vinegar), or the pasta ncasciata Messina way. There are many variations of this baked pasta (ask for a vegetarian one, of course), but the key ingredients are fried aubergine and plenty of caciocavallo. The dishes are baked in hot terracotta pans. If you love the sea and the nature of the Aeolian Islands, try a nice plate of caserecce with capers: pasta with tomatoes, capers and, above all, cucunci, the caper fruit (what we call ‘caper’ is nothing more than the flower bud).
We finished our tour of the island with vegetarian flavours. Those listed are just a small selection and a demonstration of the traditional Sicilian cuisine. Its typical recipes are suitable for all tastes and needs. All you have to do is travel, taste and search for more vegetarian dishes. Indulge your curiosity and: bon appetit!