Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Art of Eating Well In Sicily: Anatomy of a Meal

Cups by Sicilian ceramic artist,
the late Giovanni de Simone and a Stella
 (Arianna) espresso coffee pot
A full appreciation of Sicily’s food requires not only an understanding of its history, but also of its gastronomic traditions. As in all of Italy, there are very precise rules surrounding the consumption of meals in Sicily.
Breakfast generally consists of a demitasse of espresso or “caffè latte,” coffee with milk, and a “biscotto” which is the generic word for cookie. As children we were given a bowl of warm milk for breakfast, flavored with coffee and lots of sugar, and filled with pieces of crusty bread or cookies that were eaten with a spoon.  If breakfast is consumed at the “bar,” what Italians call a cafe, one might order a “cornetto, or “little horn,” a type of croissant filled with marmalade or pastry cream, along with an espresso or cappuccino. In Sicily the range of piping hot, fresh-out-of-the-oven morning pastries is as varied as the pastries are delicious.
My son Carlo at Bar Enzo e Nino in Marsala
where you can find classic, traditional Sicilian pastries.



The main meal of the day, "pranzo," begins sometime between 1pm and 2pm. Stores close at about 1pm and everyone goes home to eat with their families. As you wander through the residential streets of any Sicilian town at this hour, you will be greeted by sublime cooking aromas that waft from every balcony and window.  

Pranzo has at minimum four elements: a first course of carbohydrates, a main entree of protein and a vegetable, a fruit course and finally coffee.   The first course is typically pasta prepared in any number of ways, or sometimes “minestra,” a soup which can incorporate “pastina” a small-cut pasta. Rice and other grains like couscous are used as well, although less frequently. 
The second course consists of a protein such as fish, meat or poultry, or occasionally eggs and a salad or vegetables. An important rule of thumb with regard to Sicilian food, and Italian food in general, is that balance is everything. Italians do not typically eat only carbohydrates in one meal-- for example, pasta and rice or soup and pasta. A carbohydrate is usually paired with a protein in separate courses. An exception to the rule is pizza, which in restaurants is served at dinner time.

 In Sicily a meal ends with seasonal fresh fruit which is usually brought to the table on a platter, whole and unpeeled,  and served on a separate plate as the third course.  This is true in restaurants as well as homes and most Sicilians are practiced at peeling their fruit with a knife and fork. You may notice at fancy meals or in elegant restaurants, a smaller knife and fork, placed horizontally above the plate, pointing toward the entree knife. These are fruit utensils and mastery of this culinary detail distinguishes the natives! 
The Sciacca clan at a family meal with my late uncle
Matteo Sciacca and my Zio Ciccio and Zia Dora Sciacca
along with numerous cousins
Sciacca clan summer time family meal
At the weekday meals, desserts are rarely eaten but on Sundays or other special meals,  dessert is served after the fruit and before the coffee.  Espresso is consumed at the end of a meal and Italians hold it in such high regard that it is served as its own course, not with a dessert as is the custom in the United States.  A critical rule to remember is that milk products are never consumed after 11am and never-ever after a main meal. Ordering a cappuccino after a meal could be grounds for expulsion! Break the traffic laws or other rules if you must, but please don’t end your meal with a cappuccino!
A light meal  or "cena" is eaten at about 8pm. This may consist of a soup or "frittata," a type of egg omelet, or vegetables, along with local cheeses, olives and bread. Once again most Sicilians end this meal with fruit followed by espresso.
My son Carlo "resting" after a family meal in my cousin
Michele Sciacca's patio. Look closely
and you will see he is not the only one!
Eating  in Sicily is all about enjoyment and meals have a  rhythm that requires time, both in the preparation and the consumption.  As a rule, Sicilians don’t just eat to live, they live to eat and meals are one of the most creative and restorative parts of their day. Most Sicilians come home to their families to eat in the middle of the day.  They re-energize and refuel before going out into the world again. At home they spend time talking, laughing, catching up on the day.  After the meal, many will rest or nap and then freshen up before going back out to resume the business day at 4pm. They generally return home for the night at about 8pm, and have a light meal with their families.

The structure of the day always gives me a sense of harmony and wholeness when I am in Sicily. The days are long enough to accommodate the world of work and the world of family, friends and relaxation. People are productive without compromising their right to live full lives every day. This is one of the most beautiful parts of Italian life and  it is among the things I miss most when I am away.

Ciao a presto!

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