With Dr. Scelsa, Museum Director of the Italian American Museum
During my recent lecture at the Italian American Museum in Little Italy, I spoke about the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet and drew on my travels in Sicily and the flavor profiles to illustrate eating Italian style!
As a Registered Dietitian, I have known for years about the numerous studies about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. What I thought was equally important to present was what I see as the “Italian Style” of eating as well. With a background in psychology, I also study human behaviors as part of my work and have learned that the way we eat is just as important as what we eat.
The Mediterranean diet traditionally refers to the dietary patterns of Southern Spain, Italy and Greece. It was first studied by scientist Ancel Keys in the 1940′s when he was stationed near Salerno in the region of Campania. He noticed the paradox of a culture with relatively high rates of fat intake but lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Through the years, numerous studies have shown why this is the case, as well as more medicinal benefits of this way of eating.
The diet is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, coupled with high quality fats such as olive oils, use of nuts in cooking and dairy. There is also a high intake of fish as their main animal protein. Fruit is eaten frequently as dessert and of course paired with wine!
So as a dietitian, I know that the fats found in nuts and olive have anti-inflammatory properties and by nature are lower in artery clogging saturated fats, which lowers risk of heart diseases. The fruits and vegetables are filled with nutrient dense vitamins and antioxidants that have anti-cancer properties. The major component of this diet is that it is high in fiber and is one of the main reasons it is so beneficial to cardiovascular health and weight maintenance. Fiber binds to fat and helps remove it from the body and this can lower cholesterol. Fiber is integral in weight loss because it keeps you fuller longer. It also provides pre-biotic properties that aids in the health of your digestive tract.
I love Sicily--it has everything that want while traveling: ancient history, rich music (Tarantella-Sicilian is so much better than the Neapolitan!), dance (celebrate in Operi dei Pupi) and culture--every terrain and the food! Sagras (food festivals) are found throughout the year with entire towns celebrating their particular crop or harvest. For example, Bronte, world famous for their pistachios, is filled with every food product you can possible find made from their delicious nut. Their culinary history is influenced by the Greeks who brought the olive trees, artichokes, figs and hazelnut trees. The Arabs contributed lemons, peaches, pistachios, eggplant, capers and cinnamon as well as marzipan and the granita! The Spanish explorers brought tomatoes, pine nuts, raisins and chocolate. All these flavors are still mingled to define the true taste of Sicily.
The other secret ingredient to Sicilian food is Mount Etna which provides the fertile soil filled with minerals like magnesium, phosphorous and sulphur and is responsible for the nutrient dense foods and enhanced flavors as found in the blood oranges, cactus pears and grapes along the mountain.
My trip began with a bang on the Island of Stromboli, one of the Aeolian Islands, where I climbed up an active volcano, stayed in a very rustic hotel (if you can call it that) and drenched my food in the delicious Sicilian olive oil from the Verdello olives. I also tried true Sicilian pizza that had crusty burnt edges, but a more billowy center that the Neapolitan thin crust. The classic Sicilian pizza is covered in anchovies, tomatoes, herbs, caciocavallo cheese or tuna cheese and of course, I used it to sop up the olive oil I poured on my plate. The waters around the Aeolian islands are filled with their legendary tuna, that you can eat raw, grilled and even jarred, which is the best in the world.
Next we ventured to the very touristy and very beautiful hilltop town of Toarmina--a very popular wedding destination, lined with cobble-stoned streets as well as high end clothing stores and antique shops. Good restaurants were scarce as "real Sicilians" do not eat their best food in restaurant. So I bought my meals at a local salumeria and combined it with some crusty bread and fresh fruit. Sicilian cheeses to try are: Caciocavallo, Pecorino, Canestrato and Ricotta Salata.
Next, I went to Cefalu located on northern coast.The town has a youthful nightlife and you will have ample opportunity to taste the frutti di mare like spaghetti all Ricci (sea urchin), moscardini (tender baby octopus cooked in its own brood with cherry tomato and olives, Alici (grilled sardines) and Spada (swordfish). Then I moved down to the city of Catania, which is more metropolitan yet Baroque in architecture, with a thriving University culture. There, we sampled the famous Pasta al Norma, a sauce made from eggplant, bread crumbs, cherry tomato and ricotta salata (see crostini recipe) and the granita in luscious flavors made from the ice off of Mt. Etna. Here we sampled the famous Marzipan artfully shaped to look like real fruit--the cassata (cake) and of course the cannoli-it was not until I tasted them here that I understand why my aunt back in Naples asked me to bring some back for her!
Marionettes (Pupi) in Catania
My final stop was Palermo--and it was my favorite city in Sicily! It was gritty and ancient, filled with spice, vast food markets. The people were real and raw. I remember craftsmen on the side of the road making their famous marionettes (pup), the fig trees lining the streets, the gorgeous churches ornate with black marble (basalt lava) and one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to-The Catacomb of Capuchin Monks. A 30 minute walk outside the city --it is one of the most macabre and accessibly dark examples of preserved corpses.
Catacom of Capuchin in Palermo
Piede e Musso
The most exciting food in Palermo was the street food found around the clock! The food is by nature peasant food, which I love, and never have I seen it more vibrant than in Palermo. I had the classic Arancini, Panelle (chickpea fritters), peace fritto, cozze crude, piede e musso (Pig snout and tripe) in a paper cone with just a squeeze of lemon. La Stigghiole (beef spleen sandwiches that are served with caciocavallo cheese) for the more adventurous eater are a night time street staple!
La Stigghiole (Spllen sandwiches)
Special thanks to Dr. Scelsa, the Museum Director of the Italian American Museum, who has his own collection of marionettes that can be seen at the museum and the vendors!
Also a special shout-out to CA'PISCI, Pallini Limoncello, Raos and Di Stefano Cheese Company for providing delicious samples for my guests at the Italian American Museum last Thursday!
With Alessio Fallone from CA'PISCI
With Angela from Pallini Limoncello
Thanks Rao's for the special gift basket and congrats to Janis & Geraldine for winning it!