Holy Cannoli! Let’s go to Sicily (part 1)
My dad loves Italy. I’ve grown up with car journeys with speakers booming with Michele Thomas and his Italian language tapes. A few years ago, my dad employed a Sicilian called Luigi. Luigi has become a close family friend and in true Italian style is consistently inviting us to visit his home, to stay on his father’s vineyard and to work in October, picking mushrooms and squashing grapes, helping with the harvest. I have never had the chance to accompany my dad before, other boring commitments have come before the joy of the Sicilian harvest, yet last weekend I had a free weekend and with an invite to Luigi’s father’s 60th birthday party, I just couldn’t resist. With the promise of some amazing seafood, my sister and I packed lightly, a jumper, a few t-shirts and some seriously stretchy trousers.
The trip began in the premium lounge, I know that no one else will find this remotely interesting but I just took it as a good omen that the trip started with a complimentary salad bar and pack of Jaffa Cakes.
On arrival in Catania we were met by Luigi and driven to a seafood restaurant called Le Tre Caravelle (The Three Ships). The restaurant was full of long tables, plates of fresh fish and loud, dark-haired families yelling happily at each other. The club music blasting from old fishing-net covered speakers was just that extra Southern European bonus to make the evening as authentic and as surreal as I had hoped.
There were too many dishes and courses to count but let me explain it like this; whenever I put my fork down there was uproar and as soon as I had picked it back up, there was another treat to sample. Of course there were fried baby squids, crisped to perfection and gorgeous, tender chunks of octopus marinated in the freshest lemon juice and olive oil. There was marinated ceviche of Swordfish and sea snails baked in rich tomato sauce. At this point my dad told me off for snacking on bread and I promptly dropped the crusty slice I had begun scooping out sea urchin shells with.
After the salt-baked sea bass and grilled prawns we ate pasta nero, delicate strings of spaghetti coated in thick, luscious squid ink. I think a small part of me drifted through the ceiling at that point, still wearing my ‘plane outfit’ I had forgotten all about the journey, the turbulence in the clouds and the rough landing on an ash-covered runway. The end of the meal came with small glasses of lemon sorbet atop a small puddle of kiwi syrup. At the hotel in the centre of the city that night, I slept heavily and soundly.
We drove up to Taormina the following day and bit into thick chunks of marzipan, shaped and coloured to look like slabs of watermelon and small citrus fruits. Even the marzipan tastes better in Sicily, more almondy, more natural and of course about twenty times sweeter.
On our return to Catania we walked through the central markets, I of course sneered at the cheap high heels and fluorescent clothes hanging around the stalls but around one corner there was a table laid out with thick slices of almond and hazelnut brittle. I licked at the sweet stickiness as we trotted back up the hill to the hotel for a desperately necessary sugar-induced nap.
Luigi picked us up late and drove us to his parents’ house a little further out of the city centre. As we arrived and were kissed thoroughly on both cheeks, we began to smell something that could only be the scent of expertly prepared real Sicilian home cooking. There were trays of variously shaped golden fried nuggets; some were deep-fried batter-covered sardines, some just fried balls of ricotta but the most wonderful of all the jewels on the table were the huge arancini – deep fried balls of tomato and meat risotto, oh my goodness, they were delicious. I had seen recipes for arancini before, but they had been small balls of fried rice, almost hors d’oeuvre sized but these, these were huge handfuls of gorgeous starchy risotto, velvety tomato sauce, tender chunks of meat which fell into pieces at every bite and of course a stringy, sweet chunk of melted mozzarella in the middle which lined my face in grease but had my smiling widely all the way back to the hotel. At midnight we toasted Luigi’s father who was turning 60 the following day, we sipped champagne and then ate huge cannoli which I foolishly told the Italian grandmothers was my favourite dessert and so for the rest of my trip had them piled on my plate after every four course meal (although I’m not really complaining, merely attempting to salvage some dignity despite my horrific gluttony).
My sister and I spoke excitedly as we tried to fall asleep on our twin beds, for although this evening had been a culinary treat, tomorrow was the big birthday party and we were sure there was much more to look forward to eating.