Sicilian First

One day, I will go back to Sicily, even if it is just to eat a meal.

I do not exaggerate the above sentiment because I don’t think I can get the same mind-blowing meals anywhere else. It’s not just about the astoundingly fresh ingredients each meal was made with, but it’s also about the attitude, passion and pride that came with the dishes. 

Catania had me at first bite. My first meal included Pasta alla Norma - a dish born in Catania made from fried aubergine, grated ricotta salata cheese, pasta and tomatoes. It's a definite favourite and a very traditional Sicilian dish to boot! We arrived at Trattoria de Fiore at 3 p.m. This is considered very late for lunch. No one else was in sight except for a couple of locals sitting at a table by the door. We were unsure if the kitchen was still open. The diners gave us a hand gesture, suggesting that we should knock on the kitchen door.  A young guy came out to greet and sit us. I took a peek inside, as he opened the door, and saw an older lady cooking alone. 

I’ve never seen a restaurant of that size (about 20 tables give or take) with just one person cooking. I thought to myself, this is either going to be an epic meal or a disastrous start. Obviously, I hoped for the former.

The picture of the lady I saw in the kitchen was on the front cover of the menu. Rosanna is her name. Mamma Rosanna as the locals call her. 

It was a very long wait after we put in our order, but we were in no rush. The Sicilian wine kept us in good company. After 30 minutes, the wine started to talk and convinced me to knock on Mamma Rosanna ’s kitchen door. 

I wanted to see her cook. 

I don’t speak Italian, let alone a Sicilian dialect. I do know that in this part of the world, hand gestures are everything. I thought I could communicate with Mamma Rosanna in that way too, although less eloquently than her. 

I asked to enter Mamma Rosanna's kitchen as she swung the door open, after a few of my knocks. I smiled, pointed at myself, at my eyes, at her, then inside the kitchen. It worked. She waved her hand and granted me the permission to go inside.

After I entered the kitchen, she started talking passionately. I could only assume she was giving me cooking instructions. She pointed at the pasta and then the aubergine, then back at the pasta. I didn’t understand anything she said. I smiled, nodded and occasionally repeated her last sentence just to express that I got her. Not that I got what she said, but her enthusiasm. 

The Pasta alla Norma that day was no doubt THE BEST pasta dish I’ve ever tried.

During my trip, I felt the national passion and pride of Mamma Rosanna's cooking everywhere. 

In some countries, my habit of taking food pictures would be frowned upon. In Sicily, however, the people seemed to encourage it. Whenever I stopped to take pictures of the foods, two things happened.

First, the person making or selling the food proudly put their foods in front of my camera so that I got a good shot. 

Second, someone would inevitably come to talk with me, trying to tell me what the food was and nudging me to eat it. I usually don't turn down food, but on one occasion, I had to tell a lovely lady that I couldn't possibly eat anymore.

I rubbed my belly and pointed at it, suggesting that there was already too many things inside: Pasta alla norma, caponata, vino, cannolo, cassatella. I tried to tell her that I'd eaten so many Sicilian foods already. She laughed and squeezed my arm affectionately. 

The next day, I struck up a conversation with Fabio. He is from Catania. He told me that anywhere I ate in Sicily would be good. He suggested that, even if I were to cook for myself in Sicily, the meal would still be good because the ingredients are so fresh. "Anything can grow in these soils and it all tastes good" He said.

I told him that I had done exactly that. The day before, I went to the fish market, bought some ingredients and cooked Pasta ai ricci (Pasta with Sea Urchin), another well-known Sicilian dish. I threw in a few clams because I like them. He looked impressed and asked if I bought the uni that already came cleaned. 

"Oh no", I told him that I bought the fresh ones from the market, cleaned and prepped everything myself.  He gave me an approving nod and smiled. Just like that, I was in his circle. He said if we need anything while we were in town, just to let him know.

The only thing I needed at that point was for him to adopt me. I felt that I was part of the family and that I belonged right there in Sicily.  I get their love and passion for foods. In some way, I felt that they understood me too. 

They say that if you are from Sicily, you are Sicilian first, European second and Italian third.

During the few days I spent on this magical island, I definitely felt like I was Sicilian first while everything else came second.