The famous American host, great travel enthusiast and in love with our land, wrote a culinary guide for the Dai­ly He­rald – He­rald­Net of Wa­shing­ton. From Modica chocolate to pasta alla Norma, passing through arancini and spaghetti with sea urchins, here’s what you can’t miss

If you were to ask an American who Rick Steves is, you will probably get an answer. Thanks to the great success of the TV series Rick Ste­ves’ Eu­ro­pe, broadcast on American Public Television since 2000, the presenter has become a household name in the USA. His travel philosophy is all about encouraging people to explore the less touristy areas and to immerse themselves in the lifestyle of the locals. We met him a few years ago during his trip to Sicily, when he confessed to us that he wanted to work on the “distorted perception” Americans have of the island. “They think it’s dangerous, dirty and hard, ‒ he said ‒ but it is important to let people know how safe, clean and welcoming it really can be”. In the wake of that never-forgotten promise, Rick Steves has recently dedicated an in-depth study to Sicilian culinary traditions on Dai­ly He­rald – He­rald­Net of Wa­shing­ton. “I remember my visit to Sicily a couple of years ago as a parade of delicious dishes ‒ explains in the foreword ‒ each full of seasonal and local delicacies mixed with the history of this island. In Italy food is an art form, but in Sicily it is more like a religion”.

A MIX OF DIFFERENT CULTURES. “When you have to choose between fish couscous and spaghetti alla bolognese in the same menu, you know you are at a crossroads of cultures. Thanks to centuries of North African and Middle Eastern influences, Sicilian cuisine includes characteristic ingredients such as couscous, almonds, ginger, apricots, cinnamon and many citrus fruits. The Arabs who came here popularized fried foods. Sicilian cuisine also has Greek and Spanish touches”. Sicilian multiculturalism is what has most affected the American host, who, however, in his article does not forget to underline the typicality of some local products due to the temperate climate and the presence of particular soils such as the volcanic one.

“Street food is one of the best ways to eat in Sicily, especially if tasted at the market of Ballarò in Palermo”

Ballarò Market

THE BEST STREET FOOD? IN BALLARÒ. According to Steves, one of the most memorable ways to eat in Sicily is also one of the cheapest: street food. And that of the market “Ballarò” in Palermo can’t be beaten. “Here ‒ continues Steves ‒ sellers still maintain the Arab tradition of calling passers-by chanting like a crier. Food carts are scattered around the stalls, selling panelle, sfincione (soft pizza with anchovies), potato croquettes and many other foods”. The popular television host did not forget to talk about the long-running dispute between arancino and arancina :“In Palermo these rice balls are called arancine, they are made with meat sauce and flavoured with saffron. In Catania and in the rest of Italy, by contrast, they call this dish arancino with the addition of tomato to the filling. Two variations a citizen of Palermo would never accept”.

Modica chocolate

THE ORIGIN OF TYPICAL DISHES AND FOODS. The culinary excursus tells also about some typical characteristics: Trapani is referred to as the best place to taste fish couscous, while Modica for its “granular and sweet and sour” chocolate. “To discover its origin ‒ explains Steves ‒ we must start from the fact that Sicily was under Spanish rule just as explorers were returning from the New World with exotic foods, including cocoa beans. Modica has taken on this new ingredient crushing it on basalt plates and adding local sugar, thus creating a first version of chocolate bars”.

“You must taste seltzer with lemon and salt in Catania. It may seem strange, but it is a very refreshing drink”

SELTZER WITH LEMON AND SALT. “In Catania, on the eastern cost of Sicily, at the base of Etna, you can quench your thirst with seltzer made of freshly squeezed lemon juice and soda water. It may seem strange, but a little salt will make this drink very refreshing”. The city of Etna is also cited for the popular pasta alla Norma. “Named after the opera by the Catania-born composer Vincenzo Bellini, it is made with fried eggplants, tomato sauce, basil and salted ricotta. For those who, by contrast, love taste of the sea, a fancy option is spaghetti with sea urchins”.

SICILIAN WINES. Steves’ short guide then focuses on Sicilian wines and describes varieties and types with a particular attention to Etna. “The area has become attractive for producers thanks to the rich volcanic soil and ancient vines. The wineries are grouped around the northern slope, like a Sicilian Napa Valley”.

“The most famous and best desserts on the island are cannoli. After having tasted one you will understand why, in Sicily, they are ʻsacredʼ”.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST. “The most famous and best desserts on the island ‒ concludes Steves ‒ are cannoli. A kind of crispy fried pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta and sprinkled with powdered sugar”. The American host warns also on the level of preparation: “A real high quality cannolo is filled at the time you order it, vice versa you will lose its crispness. After having tasted one, you will understand why in Sicily they are sacredʼ”.

Translated by Daniela Marsala