Italian Cuisine

A pizza history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 August, 2011, 12:00am

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The cuisine of Sicily, although unmistakably Italian in character, reflects a range of foreign influences stemming from trade and a history of foreign occupation.

Already renowned for the quality of its food in the days when it was ruled by the ancient Greeks and then the Romans, Sicily was under Arab rule from 965 to 1072 when a Norman occupation began that lasted until 1194. The list of foreign invaders is almost endless.

Each occupying power left its, mark, but the Arab influence is particular evident in the use of fruits and nuts in both sweet and savoury dishes. The North African dish couscous is also a Sicilian staple. Some sources also suggest the Arabs brought over pasta and sorbets, the forerunner of ice cream.

Although, as in all coastal areas of the Mediterranean, seafood is an important part of the diet, the Norman influence is reflected in the rich flavours of meat dishes, an emphasis on dairy products and the savoury cr?pes manicotti. Cheeses are an important element of the Sicilian diet, and Pecorino Siciliano has a protected regional designation.

Sicily was also an early adopter of the tomato, brought back from the New World by the Spanish, reflecting the influence of trade with Spain and a period of government by the crown of Aragon. Chillies also came across the Atlantic.

Several of the best known Italian dishes are Sicilian, among them the desserts cassata cheesecake, cannoli and granita, and the heavy style of pizza popular in North America, as opposed to the lighter Neapolitan style.

Both rice and pasta feature strongly in the cuisine, and pasta alla Norma from Catania, made with tomatoes and eggplant garnished with fresh basil and grated ricotta, is a classic.

Arancini - baked rice balls covered with breadcrumbs - are believed to be Sicilian in origin, and arancini con ragu, which also contains meat, cheese and tomato sauce are another of the island's specialities.

The eggplant salad capunata is Sicilian in origin, and served on the island with fresh seafood such as lobster, octopus or swordfish. It can serve as appetiser, side dish or main course. Often known elsewhere as caponata, the dish is not be confused with capponata, a tuna and chilli salad.

Sicily is noted for the sweetness of the island's lemons, from which the liqueur limoncello is made.