The story of Sicily's people is in its food

From Aztec chocolate to soup kitchens for migrants, in Sicily, innovation is traditional
February 21, 2018

Catania’s seafront is bordered by a railway. Iron railings, tracks, and overhead cables form a black fence against the sea and sky. I could just make out the tall masts of sailboats in the marina. The port where rescued migrants are brought in is locked behind warehouses and gates. Behind the train station the Catholic charity Caritas has a soup kitchen serving about 400 people a day. Half are poor Sicilians, half Africans. Dinner on one cold January evening was pasta e lenticchie, pasta and lentils, cheap and filling; better liked by the table of Eritreans (who were once colonised by Italy) than by the Ghanians and Cote D’Ivoirians on the next table.

I sat and listened to stories of arduous migrations: thieves, beatings, hundreds crammed in the open boats. In Sicily: reception centres, asylum applications and appeals, more thieves, sleeping in abandoned houses.

When Ezio Canfarelli got himself clean of his drug addiction he left his finance job in Milan and came to Catania. He opened a restaurant called Eleven Eleven as a social enterprise dedicated to employing people—like migrants and ex-prisoners, “anyone who needs a second chance.” In the summer he cooks at the beach, in the winter he has a small takeaway pizza-lunch snack place. His pizzaiolo is an Egyptian called Ahmed. Ahmed arrived on a boat from Alexandria in 2013 when he was 16 years old. “Four hundred people, eight days on the boat, at gunpoint, in silence.” As a minor, he was sent to a children’s home and then got working papers. He encouraged his 12-year-old brother to take a boat and join him, but his brother drowned. One day, Ahmed hopes to return to Egypt and open his own restaurant in Sharm El Sheikh.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have landed in Sicily since the Arab Spring, the fall of Gadaffi and the subsequent breakdown of law and order in Libya. Over the past five or six years the majority of migrants into Sicily have been young African men, but before them came Bangladeshis and Romanians; in the 1990s it was Tunisians who came to work in the fields. Sicily’s history is the sea. Swells and waves of invasions and empires or “dominations” as Sicilians call them: Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, and most recently Italians.

“Sicilian food is stratificatzia,” said Franco Neri, the third generation padrone of the Alfio Neri pasticceria in Syracuse. He gave me a large cannolo to eat: a crispy fried pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta, decorated with crushed pistachio, candied lemon peel and a cherry. Neri explained that he uses half sheep-half cow ricotta for a lighter confection than they make in Palermo. He adds a little Moscato, the local deep amber-coloured sweet wine in place of the more usual white wine or Marsala. Neri told me that, according to legend, cannoli were first made by Sicilian women vying for the Emir’s affections during the time of the Arab domination.

“The shape is the shape of the male member, inside is the cream,” he said with a wink. “In Sicily innovation is tradition. Many have come and left their ideas. They make a condivisioni of cultures.” Neri spoke only a little English, I speak only menu Italian—he used Google translate. Condivisioni meant shares. “Stratificazia,” he repeated, rubbing his flat palms together as if gently grinding grain between them. I made a quizzical face. “Layers!” he pronounced triumphantly. Yes, that is it exactly, I thought: peoples and cultures and histories laid down over each other, not mixed and blurred in a melting pot, but each distinct and delicious together.

Stratificazia echoed everywhere I went. On the island of Ortigia, tethered by two bridges to Syracuse, I walked past a small café called Pomme de Terre with a sign advertising “Oggi Cucina Senegalese” (Today: Senegalese cuisine). The chicken stew with peanuts had already all been eaten and so I ordered the couscous Ginaa, made with dried peas and lentils and onions caramelised in a meat glaze.

I was introduced to Ndao Yoro who had left Senegal because he had campaigned against female circumcision and incurred the ire of the local imam. Now he worked for an NGO helping migrant children in Syracuse. The first time he ate spaghetti with tomato sauce, he told me, he threw up; but now he was used to Italian food and loved basil and used it even when he was making couscous. Maria Calvo, the proprietor of the Pomme de Terre, is passionate about Persian food and often served Iranian meat-and-fruit dishes at the café. It was she who had encouraged a Senegalese friend to cook dishes at the cafe.

Sicilians are immigrants, but they are traditionally poor emigrants too. As much as the recent African influx comes with ethnic, religious, economic and political difficulties, there is a part of the Sicilian make-up and the island’s culinary culture that identifies with the new arrivals. There is less of an attitude of us-and-them, one Sicilian told me, than you get “up in the north.”

Tomatoes came from the new world, spaghetti and rice from China. The great pasta dish of Sicily, pasta con le sarda is a sardine sauce often made with capers and raisins, a marine agrodolce ragu. Levantine pine nuts, pistachios and sesame seeds are scattered over gelato or spaghetti. Last year a Palestinian won the prize at the couscous festival in San Vito Lo Capo in northwestern Sicily.

I sat one morning on a terrace overlooking the southern Baroque town of Modica having a cappuccino that came with two small chunks of chocolate in the saucer. The chocolate was gritty because in Modica it is still made according to the Aztec recipe that the conquistadors brought back from South America during the time of Sicily’s domination by Spain.