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Food on Sicily: a cultural mash-up

Off the northeast coast of Sicily lies the island Vulcano.

STEPHEN MEUSE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Off the northeast coast of Sicily lies the island Vulcano.

PALERMO — You would expect to be served a plate of spaghetti here, the long strands rosy with tomato sauce. After all, this is southern Italy.

What you’re probably not expecting in your pasta are fresh anchovies, plucked from the sea that day, tasting nothing like the salty canned variety. Or sweet raisins, plump in the light sauce, along with toasted pine nuts. And what looks to be finely grated cheese on top are actually lightly toasted breadcrumbs. The spaghetti of the moment on this sunny Mediterranean island is a dish that might have been made by the chef’s grandmother, or great-grandmother.

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Sicilian cuisine is a mash-up of cultures. Over the centuries, local cooks absorbed ingredients and techniques from the colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. All these years later, you can see on the table what they brought to the island. Greeks developed agriculture, according to the editors of “Sicily,” a Phaidon book translated this year, which included growing olive trees, planting grape vines, and raising bees. Romans farmed wheat and barley, and Arabs introduced rice, citrus fruits, dates, nuts, saffron, spices, and other North African ingredients. They also brought the technique of stuffing vegetables, preparing couscous, and the art of making marzipan, the classic almond paste candies.

As a result, Sicilian food tastes distinctly different from the mainland. It is island cuisine (a lot of fish, some lamb and wild pig, and whatever grows here), sometimes highly spiced, or sweet-sour, or aromatic.

Every port has rows of small fishing boats used by the locals to catch their supper. Drive along the rugged landscape — as we did recently with a dozen Boston Globe subscribers who accompanied us on food adventures through Sicily — and you’ll see long stretches of olive trees growing quite close to the road, lavender buds on thistle-like plants, and wild orange poppies. Then pastoral, cultivated squares, vegetables in neat rows, compose the panorama. But this ancient, unspoiled land is also dotted with wind turbines off in the distance, dozens of them on the hilltops, jutting into the vista.

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With technology’s inexorable advance, chefs worry that food traditions will get lost. Some they don’t have to worry about: If you want whole onions roasted in embers, they’re at the open markets. Grandmothers might still make Sicilian bread golden with semolina, but these loaves are sold everywhere.

“We have plenty of time to go on Facebook, but no one has time for culinary tradition,” says Angelo Pumilia, chef of Planeta Estate winery, which has several locations around the island, including a stunning property in Menfi with guest rooms and the stylish restaurant La Foresteria. Pumilia makes his traditional caponata relish of eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers using his own sun-dried tomato paste. “Sicilian tomatoes are the best in the world,” says the chef, who runs Angelo Court Tokyo in Japan.

Pumilia handles fresh sardines and anchovies carefully, boning hundreds of the tiny fish by hand. Using scissors, he snips off the heads and the openings to the bellies, removes the entrails, and drops the fish into cold, salted water. After 20 minutes, the bones release from the flesh and he strips them off like unfastening zippers.

These little fish might be served, as Pumilia did, stuffed with breadcrumbs in a sweet-sour Marsala and wine sauce with currants. One night after service, we watch through the kitchen window as an assistant fries a panful for the chef. Typically the fish are dusted with flour and fried to an incredible crispness, served with a lemon wedge and nothing but a little salad of steamed potatoes drizzled with olive oil. Or the fish might be set on a piece of toast, like crostini, as it was at the superb Ristorante Portobello on the Aeolian island of Salina, where you have to turn the toasty bread over to find the sardine surprise underneath.

Little on the table seems new. At Osteria Pub Peper’s in the shadow of the stunning Cathedral of Monreale, owners Veronica and Filippo Peper toss their pasta with fresh sardines (sweet, and again, nothing like canned), shaved fennel, and currants, and sprinkle it with breadcrumbs browned in butter. Their involtini, little beef rolls, begin with slices of very thin meat rolled around a breadcrumb and raisin filling, then grilled.

Involtini has a make-do quality, something a frugal cook would do to use up every scrap. In this case, it’s stale bread. Arancini, golden fried balls of rice, don’t have any sort of leftover quality, but they’re formed from risotto, cooked in hot fat, and often served with a light tomato sauce.

Some restaurant chefs stick their necks out. The menu at the small, adventurous Antica Filanda restaurant, near the Nebrodi Mountains in northeast Sicily, is so unusual that even the translation doesn’t help. A dish called “Revisited Sicilian Parmigiana” arrives in a martini glass, delicious layers of fresh tomato sauce, creamy eggplant puree, and basil. A timbale of potatoes and mushrooms, garnished with “goose ham,” is actually topped with something that looks like a bird’s nest. Giuseppe “Peppe” Parafioriti, son of the Filanda owners, doesn’t know the English word for the meat, which is why he wrote goose ham, he tells us, so we start guessing with typical animal sounds. We “moo,” “baa,” “cluck,” and finally “neigh.” He nods enthusiastically. “Si, si,” he says. Forks drop.

Swordfish, tuna, pistachio or pine nuts, capers, olives, sesame seeds appear often. On a small boat one night anchored off the Aeolian Islands, the captain pulls out a big stock pot from the boat’s hold and serves dinner his mother made. Inside the pot is a kind of panzanella, the traditional Italian salad of tomatoes and other crisp vegetables tossed with stale bread. This version is a feast: It contains all that, along with fresh tuna, chunks of potatoes, capers, green olives, fresh rosemary, oregano, and plenty of olive oil.

Chefs do offer swordfish in steak form, but they also grind the fish into balls and cook them in a sweet-sour sauce; pistachios are made into ice cream but you might also get them pounded into pesto; sesame seeds adorn the crusty semolina loaves or the seeds are turned into chewy candies that seem very Middle Eastern.

And every chef seems to make ricotta. One day in a clearing behind the Antica Filanda restaurant, we watch a shepherd make ricotta from his sheep’s milk over an open fire. Stirring a kettle that was once copper and has blackened over the years, using a worn fig branch, he waits for the milk to coagulate. When it doesn’t, he picks more fig branches, uses a pocket knife to strip off the bark, rinses the branches in boiling water, and adds the water to the milk. Like magic, something in the branches acts as a setting agent in the milk, which quickly turns into curds.

Parafioriti passes around big hunks of semolina bread, fresh from the restaurant’s ovens, ladles scoops of ricotta and whey into bowls, and instructs us to break the bread and drop it into the whey to sop it up. This is technically not ricotta (the word means “recooked,”) but it is remarkable tasting nonetheless.

Whey from making Parmigiano-Reggiano in Parma, an Italian cheesemaker in the region told me some years ago, goes to pigs raised for prosciutto.

In Sicily, whey from ricotta goes to the hotel guests. We know we’ve come to the right place.

Sheryl Julian accompanied a group of Globe Insiders to Sicily in the spring, arranged by Cultural Crossroads. She can be reached at julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.
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