Monday, October 31, 2011

My Sicilian Table: Preparing the Tomato Sauce Step by Step

My maternal grandmother, Leonarda Bilello, a refined and artistically gifted woman who was born shortly after the reign of Queen Victoria and who passed away this year, four months shy of her 100th birthday, made an unforgettable tomato sauce that everyone in my mother's family emulates.   Mamma Bilello's sauce (I  have always called my grandmothers Mamma and my mother Mammina)  utilizes sautéed onion and garlic in addition to the core ingredients of tomatoes, olive oil and basil.  More distinctively she added sugar resulting in a deliciously sweet and soul-comforting tomato sauce. This is the tomato sauce that I learned to make from my mother and which I have taught my sons to make.  This version is most common in my family as in many Sicilian kitchens.  Other Sicilian kitchens omit the onion and use whole garlic only which is later removed, and they do not add sugar.  In honor of my grandmother Leonarda, the beautiful and gracious matriarch of my maternal family, we will make her version here today.

4 lbs ripe tomatoes
3 large cloves of garlic peeled and whole
1 small red onion very finely sliced
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
a generous handful of fresh basil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 of a small red chili pepper, dried or fresh

You will need a medium covered stock pot for the tomatoes and a large stock pot for the pasta.  You will also need a food mill fitted with the smallest holes.  As the food mill is an important tool in the Sicilian kitchen, it is worthwhile to invest in a high quality one such as the Rosle I use in my kitchen, which is pictures here.

Fill the medium stock pot with water and bring it to a boil.  Add raw tomatoes and par-boil them for about 10 minutes. You'll know they are ready when the skins start to break open.  Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl to drain and discard the cooking water. 

Transfer the tomatoes to the food mill fitted on top of a bowl to capture the sauce, and begin grinding them to a velvety consistency. Occasionally turn the handle counterclockwise to clear the mechanism.


In the same pot that has been cleaned and dried, add the olive oil and heat it, adding the thinly sliced onion first.  Allow the onion to saute gently at a low heat. When it is translucent, add the whole cloves of garlic and continue gently coaxing the flavor with a very low heat for about 2 or 3 more minutes, without allowing them to burn or crisp.
Add the ground tomatoes and raise the heat slightly.  Stir and add salt to taste, followed by a tablespoon of sugar, basil, and about a quarter piece of  the hot pepper (called "peperoncino" in Italian or "cornetto" in Catania).  Add the peperoncino  in one piece as it will be removed when the sauce is cooked. It should  be the milder Italian variety. Never use flakes or cayenne powder in this sauce. The idea is to heighten the flavor, not to add a lot of heat.  Allow the sauce to cook for about a half hour, or until it is thickened, stirring it occasionally and adjusting seasonings.

 As you near the completion of cooking, fill the large stockpot with cold water and bring it to a boil adding a handful of salt to taste. An elegant choice of pasta is a "casareccia"  or hand made pasta. Whether you use a good quality imported dry pasta or a fresh pasta from your local artisan, cook the pasta al dente according to the manufacturer's instructions.  In Italy as in Sicily, it is the mark of authenticity to cook the pasta al dente.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it quickly and divide it into portions in individual plates  Remove the garlic, basil and peperoncino from the sauce so that they don't find their way onto a plate.  Very little sauce is needed on the pasta and Italians never eat their pasta swimming in tomato sauce.  A small ladle of sauce placed on top is more than sufficient.  Basil makes a beautiful and fragrant garnish.  Your pasta can be served with cheese, but I suggest that if you use cheese try something more typically southern such as sheep milk "pecorino" with black peppercorns or "ricotta salata," a dried aged ricotta that has a unique flavor.  At the Sicilian table, cheese is presented whole, and grated directly on the pasta for each guest. 

One final word before we go. Sicilians do not mind the onion in the sauce and many of us rather like it.  If sliced finely the onion will all but disappear.  But if you do not like the onion texture in your sauce or you are feeding children who may not like it, you can make a small modification. Par-boil tomatoes as before and drain them. Add them whole to the onion and garlic saute and cook them for about 20 minutes, crushing them with a fork. Season as usual.  Remove the garlic, basil and peperoncino when done cooking and then run the entire contents through the food mill.
Buon appetito, and....

Ciao a presto!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pomodoro: The Golden Apple of Sicily

The tomato made its appearance only very recently in Italian and Sicilian cuisine--somewhere around the 1500's.  ("Recent" is a matter of opinion in Italy!) Introduced most likely by Cristoforo Colombo on his journey back from the Americas, it was named “golden apple” or “pomodoro” by Renaissance physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli.
Such a late-comer to the Sicilian table doesn't necessarily deserve to be mentioned first before the classical ingredients of the Greek, Roman and Saracen table, but in the interest of clearing up some misconceptions about the use of the tomato in Sicilian food, I'll start my discussion here.
There is a rumor afoot in the United States that Sicilian grandmothers cook tomato sauce all day long, and in large quantities.   There is also a rumor that an authentic Italian tomato sauce requires a lot of complicated ingredients.   While I cannot dispel the rumor that Sicilian grandmothers like to cook in large quantities, I can tell you without hesitation that making an authentic Sicilian tomato sauce  is a simple proposition, requiring very few ingredients and simple tools, and employs a cooking time of less than an hour.
Salsa di Pomodoro
In Italy tomato sauce is referred to as "sugo" while in Sicily it is called "salsa di pomodoro".  Sicilian tomatoes are  particularly sweet because of our warm African sun.  Among the most popular are small round ones called pomodorini.   If the tomatoes are truly ripe and sweet, they can be sautéed in a good quality olive oil, seasoned with salt to taste, and finished with handful of fresh basil and a dusting of an excellent cheese like a sheep milk "percorino" or "ricotta salata".  Nothing more is needed when the ingredients are fresh.

"But," my friends in America object, "what about  the Italian spices? 
What about Clemenza's recipe?"    "You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste. You fry it--you make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil. You shove in all your sausage and your meatballs, hey? And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick."

First, I'd like to advise you that if you have a bottle of anything in your pantry called Italian Spices, please stop what you are doing now and throw it away.  There is no such thing as bottled Italian Spices in Italian cooking.
Secondly, many Italo-Americani or second and third generation Italians whose forbearers emigrated from Italy, most likely remember their grandmothers canning tomato sauce, which indeed did take all day to cook because the tomatoes were prepared in batches. The sauce was not the same batch from start to finish, however, thus the misperception regarding cooking time.  It's true that sauces which  include meats take longer to cook, but a simple sauce cooks relatively quickly, in less than an hour.

Finally there are many variations on Sicilian tomato sauce that have to do with tastes and family traditions, but the core ingredients are the same: fresh tomatoes (or an excellent quality canned tomato such as San Marzano), a good quality first press olive oil and freshly picked Italian variety basil. Garlic and onion are also used in the Sicilian kitchen. Join me in my next post as we prepare a delicious tomato sauce together step by step here on BlogSpot. 
Until then,

Ciao a presto!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Entrepreneurs of the 8th Century BC: The Phoenicians of Motya

Amphoras from the Museo della Nave Punica.
These amphoras are representative
of those used by Phoenicians for the transportation of goods.

 The Phoenicians, who made their appearance in the Mediterranean around 1500 BCE, were one of the most influential and intelligent civilizations of the ancient world. They were, in my opinion, a modern people, recognizable to us today, assigned by fate to live and flourish in in a far off time. They were explorers and maritime traders--early entrepreneurs of sorts which surely must explain, at least in part, my fascination with them. It is known that Phoenicians, who originated in the area of modern day Lebanon, reached as far and Spain and England in search of silver, tin and other commodities. Some scholars believe they succeeded in circumnavigating Africa and possibly even reached America. 

They distinguished themselves not only as merchants and explorers, but through the spread of their written alphabet  which is believed to be a precursor of  the Greek, Roman, Aramaic and Hebrew alphabet.

Phoenician appeared on the western coast of Sicily sometime around 800 BCE  because of Sicily's strategic position. The Mediterranean in antiquity was at the very heart of known civilization and Sicily was located in the heart of the Mediterranean.

The island of Motya was an ideal Phoenician outpost because the surrounding lagoon of Lo Stagnone offered a protected area that could be easily defended

Today Motya is an important archeological site.  To visit Motya you can board a ferry for a short but very scenic 15 minute ride from  the Salt Museum of Ettore Infersa at Lo Stagnone.  Tickets are purchased at a stand adjacent to  Mama Caura, a charming espresso bar /restaurant where you can sit and savor a  gelato or granita  or a glass of local wine.  Above Mamma Caura, are apartments--bed and breakfast accommodations which can be booked on a weekly or daily basis.  I am told by reliable sources that they are pricey but the views are priceless. If you happen to be there on August 15, the feast of Ferragosto, you can dance and eat and watch fireworks from Mamma Caura.

Among the Phoenicians'  many legacies to the modern world, was their knowledge of viticulture or wine making which have survived to the present day. Several ancestral varieties of modern wine grapes in the Mediterranean are attributed to them. As you take your perch on the patio of Mamma Caura, to take in the natural beauty of the salt ponds and the lagoon,  you can lift your glass the the impresarios of centuries past.

Mamma Caura 
 where the "traghetto" or ferry to Motya departs.
In the background is the salt museum and Lo Stagnone lagoon.


Ciao a presto!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tahiti in Sicily? The Islands of Lo Stagnone

View of Motya from the lagoon
There are four islands in the lagoon of Lo Stagnone. Archeologically speaking, Motya (pronounced and often spelled "Mozia"), is the most intriguing.  The official name of this island is San Pantaleo, but it is rarely called that.  The largest island in the lagoon, Motya's significance in the Mediterranean world began in antiquity,when sea-faring Phoenicians chose it as a trading outpost sometime around 800 BCE.  Motya was of such significance to the Phoenicians in western Sicily, that I will dedicate a separate entry to it.

A view of the Stagnone with Motya in the background
taken from the top of the Windmill at the saltworks Ettore e Infersa
Among the most fascinating sights of Motya is an ancient underwater stone road leading to it from the Sicilian mainland.  It emerges at low tide and is swallowed again when the waters rise.  When my paternal grandfather was a boy, goods were transported between Marsala and Motya on  horse drawn carts via this underwater road. Occasionally, tides would rise and carts were abandoned until the tides receded once again. 

Schola, the smallest island, a mere 80 by 50 meters, gained prominence during the Roman empire when it was a school in which young Roman men pursued the final stages of their education through the study of Rhetoric. After Rome annexed Sicily in the early 400s BCE, Rome had greater access to Greek influences because Sicily at that time was a Greek colony, having been ruled by Dionysius the Elder and later by his son Dionysius II.  The Rhetor level of education, I am told, was of Greek origin and common in Greece, although it took a long time for the Roman empire to adopt  it. Few Romans went on to this level of education.  I have always found this detail so fascinating-- the ancient equivalent of a high brow graduate education!                                           
More recently, in the 1930s, Schola was used as a sanatorium, most likely to house patients with tuberculosis. A few small building were constructed for this purpose, and although they are now abandoned and overgrown with foliage, they remain surprisingly and eerily intact. My sense of Schola has always been of a Saint-Exupery-esque world. One can walk the entire circumference of the island in minutes.  Despite its size, or perhaps because of it, there is a lingering and unmistakable sense there of its ancient inhabitants.

My son Carlo
 heading toward Tahiti by inflatable motor boat

Santa Maria, whose name comes from the Santa Maria Vallverde Sanctuary, is a privately owned island.  I visited the island only once with my uncles and grandparents when I was a young girl and remember a lovely estate house, likely dating to the 19th century and its genteel caretakers, an elderly husband and wife. .
 Isola Grande, called Isola Lunga by locals (which translates to Long Island) is the fourth island in the lagoon.  It is believed that this island is really two islands that merged at the time of the formation of the lagoon. The island is separated from the beach of San Teodoro on the mainland of Sicliy by a small stretch of water which can be easily crossed on foot.  This island is a paradise and it’s no wonder that one of the most beautiful beaches in the area is on Isola Lunga. This isolated paradise-lost with golden sands and clear turquoise waters is known locally as "Tahiti".   Large scale tourism on Isola Lunga is discouraged in order to protect the fragile ecosystem and fauna. The regional government accomplishes this by leaving the island in an untouched state.  Sea grasses wash up on the beaches and are left to accumulate year after year, making entrance to water from the beach very difficult.  The best way to reach Tahiti and enjoy its golden sands and crystalline waters is by boat, and the effort is very worthwhile.
San Tedoro Beach
on the main island of Sicily adjacent to Lo Stagnone

Ciao a presto!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lo Stagnone--The Blue Lagoon of Sicily

Fabrizio racing us to Motya
When my sons were very young, (and still now that they are grown men), a favorite pastime  of ours was to kayak in the lagoon "Lo Stagnone," near our home in Marsala.   Our excursions into the blue waters were always an adventure as we explored the four islands found in the lagoon. As we paddled, I filled their imaginations and hearts with stories of their illustrious Phoenician and Greek ancestors who once loved these same waters.   
Carlo kayaking with a friend
Lo Stagnone has a special place in my own heart as well. As a child, my summers were spent exploring it shores with my cousins.  Because the waters of  Lo Stagnone are warm and shallow (about a meter deep with a few rare spots of up to 3 meters), the children were allowed great freedom in playing and swimming  there. During my childhood, Lo Stagnone was a kind of treasure chest, filled with every surprising and unusual form of sea life-- mollusks and clams and sea snails; tiny keyhole limpets attached to rocks, which we ate raw; velvety red sea hares that left a trail of indigo ink when touched; and the ubiquitous sea cucumber which would send us into spasms of laughter watching its escape.

Sometimes on Sundays my aunts prepared "pasta al forno" a delicious baked pasta of the region, and along with my uncles and cousins we would picnic along the shores of Lo Stagnone.  While the aunts prepared the makeshift table, my uncles would go fishing with the children.  Fishing consisted of walking along side a small row boat or “varcuzza”, toward Motya. The water never reached higher than their waists. As the children collected mollusks, they collected "ricci" or sea urchins, which is a delicacy in Sicily that is eaten raw in the shell with lemon and scooped up with crusty bread.  The sea urchins of Sicily are very small and reddish or often blond in color and extremely sweet.  My uncles also collected exquisite little fish called "triglie" that were later roasted in a makeshift pit on the sand, as the main course of our rustic picnic.

"i ricci"
I remember that era as a time of plenty.  Since then, the world has grown and changed and while new appetites have been satisfied in my own life, I have never again experienced the sheer unquestioned bounty of life as I knew it then  and the carefree delight of those simple days of childhood.

Today Lo Stagnone is a protected reserve and visitors may swim or use flat-bottom boats but fishing is no longer allowed. With progress (and heightened tourism) came a need to protect its fragile ecosystem for future generations.
An ariel view of Lo Stagnone.
containing four islands: 
Motya, Isola Grande, (called Isola Lunga) ,
Schola, and Santa Maria
I would add a post-script here. It is  quite interesting to me that life has brought me full circle in so many ways.  Today my husband and I live on edge of one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. Each morning we step outside and breathe in the salty marsh air, the very air of Lo Stagnone--a fragrance that is seared in my soul--and I smile in recognition.
Ciao a presto!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Sunset at the Saline Ettore Infersa
taken from the ferry landing to the island of Motya
"Cu' voli puisia venga in Sicilia(collected proverbs Giuseppe Pitre')

An ancient Sicilian proverb says, "if you are searching for poetry, come to Sicily".  In Sicily, poetry is everywhere.  It's in the air, perfumed with orange blossoms  and salt and a faint but unmistakeable hint of spices of the Levant; it's in the warmth of the sun, and the intensity of its colors-- red oleanders, cobalt waters and ocher sands.  Like Odysseus called by the sirens' songs, the island casts an inescapable spell on travelers.


My sons fishing at San Vito Lo Capo, Trapani
As a child, following our initial move to the United States, my mother and I would return to Sicily every summer until the start of school year. With each return, the memory of stepping off the plane at Punta Rais airport in Palermo is imprinted in my psyche. I vividly recall being greeted by the intoxicating fragrances of the island, the smell of sea and salt and spice. Descending the plane's stairs to the tarmac below, a wave of soft warm air embraced me as if to welcome me home.

One memory in particular stands out for me. The very first time we returned to Sicily, my mother and I stepped off the plane to find our entire family waiting for us--some 60 people or more! They had rented buses and come to the airport to welcome us back, and, amid tears and kisses and embraces, my mother and I rediscovered our homeland and re-connected to our souls.

Ciao a presto!  

Monday, October 24, 2011

What Makes Sicilian Food Special

 An image that is often portrayed of Italians, is that of  passionate, loveable, rule-benders who thrive on creative chaos. Roberto Benigni receiving an Oscar at the 2008 Academy Awards comes to mind.  And while this image may be valid for many aspects of Italian life, when it comes to cooking and food
in general, Italians have a very precise notion of the rules--of what is correct,
what is allowed and what is simply--well, not Italian.  
The most strictly observed rule has to do with the freshness of the ingredients.  What makes the food of Sicily so uniquely special is its freshness.  The ingredients are produced locally --grocery shopping is done daily in most homes; produce, meat and fish are brought to market fresh every day; and cheeses, cured meats and breads are produced regionally with great pride, and according to time-honored traditions and standards. Those who live in more rural areas almost always have gardens. Those who live in cities still manage to grow gardens however small and makeshift they may be..

The late Calabrian artist Italo Scanga, a dear friend and mentor, once said to me: "People ask me how do you make Italian pasta?  I tell them that to make Italian pasta you need Italian flour and Italian water."

Fresh, local ingedients define Italian food.  In Sicily, tomatoes are grown is vast quantities and hung in patios to keep fresh while others are dried  for use in winter.  Lettuce, eggplant,  zucchina and and sweet and hot peppers are a staple of most gardens And all are delicious in their simplicity.

Ciao a presto!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Benvenuti and Welcome

Welcome to my new blog.  I have had the good fortune in my life to have lived in two countries, Italy and the United States, and to have been culturally  part of each. Although my travels have taken me far from my native city of Marsala, I remain deeply connected to it through my love of my homeland and family and of the richness of Sicilian life.   I arrived in the United States at a time when the "melting pot" theory of American integration was still an ideal to be achieved.  Happily, I confess to you that I did not meet that standard. My sense of self as native Italian woman, my love of the Italian language and of our Sicilian dialect, both of which I speak fluently, my love of the Sicilian culinary world and the many traditions that define it, and of the enchantment of everyday life in Sicily --these all are things I have kept sacred throughout my life, as all connect me to a world of great depth and beauty which I have had the good fortune to know intimately and which I hope to share with you.  In this blog, I would like to bring my Sicilian world to you; my memories growing up in a beautiful baroque city--a jewel on the sea, made famous by ancient Phoenician, Greek and Saracen people; my experience of life in Sicily today, and the delicious recipes and culinary traditions associated with my island and of course the amazing people of Sicily whose warmth, intelligence, creativity and love of life is unsurpassed anywhere in the world.  The picture above is of the salt works Saline Ettore Infersa in a neighborhood of Marsala known as Birgi, barely a kilometer or two from where I was born. The ancient salt trade continues to this day.  But more about that later...

My blog is dedicated to one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known, my husband, Michael Volkov, who shares my love of Sicily and of all things Italian and who deeply understands the beauty and spiritual nourishment that comes from the embrace of a loving people.  To whatever shore this life may take me, his love will always be my true home.

I am excited by the opportunity to bring the beauty of Sicily to my readers.  I hope you are able to share my joy and excitement. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and sharing your experiences as well as we embark on this journey.

Ciao a presto!