A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Palermo (you can find that post right here). But, while I was in Sicily, I learned so much that I realized I couldn’t possibly fit everything into one post, so today I’ve decided to talk about stunning Western Sicily and the 1 Reason you Need to Make Pasta Sarde (we’ll get to pasta sarde a bit later).
I guess I should start with why I’m splitting my posts into a few areas (along with a traditional recipe in each one).
Now let’s talk about what I loved about western Sicily. When my husband and I decided to travel to Sicily, many people who found out we were spending 2 weeks in Sicily said, “well, if you get bored, you can always hop on over to Calabria or Puglia”. I get it. At first glance, Sicily seems like a manageable size but it is the largest island in the Mediterranean and the total coastal length is almost 1500km. That’s a lot to see in a few days. My first post focused on Palermo because I wanted to give you a feeling of what to expect when you land in Sicily (as most people come into Sicily through either Palermo or Catania).
What I Love about Western Sicily:
- Cefalu: If you like beach vacations, then this is definitely a place you don’t want to miss! A nice day trip, you can grab your bathing suit, a towel, a beer and pannini and head on over. It’s a beautiful old town with terra cotta roofed homes, mountain views and the Tyrrhenian sea!
- Trapeni: Although we used Palermo as a base for our western tour, I think I would choose Trapeni next time. We rented a car, but if you chose not to and stayed in Trapeni, you have access to most of western Sicily via public transport. Trapeni is a somewhat sleepy town (to me, at least) full of fishing boats and lovely people, which you’ll see when you stroll the seafront!
- Erice: A beautiful hilltop town, Erice is primarily accessed via cable car (just look down if you’re scared of heights!) although, if you have a car, you can drive. There’s a castle at the top that you can see the magnificent views!!
- Marsala: Although this is not usually a stop many people make, as a chef, I wanted to see the salt pans (where they make sea salt). if you are driving down the coast, it’s a nice stop to make…and if you can manage to get there to see the sun set, Mama Cauro, a restaurant at the facility, is a great place to have an aperitivo (if you catch it at the right time, the salt pans actually turn purple!). And, if you can figure out the timing, there is a chapel carved out of the salt rock – made by the miners to pray before their shifts.
- Segesta: You will see a few Greek temples as you drive around the island but Segesta is 5th century you should see (it can be a quick visit if you like). And it comes with it’s own outdoor amphitheatre!
- Favignana and Levanzo Islands: We went on a diving excursion to see these islands and it was a perfect day trip! Many tours leave from Trapeni (and you can even take a hydrofoil across if you don’t want to take a dip in the water on the way!!
Stunning Western Sicily and the 1 Reason you Need to Make Pasta Sarde:
If you aren’t running to your computer yet to book a trip to Sicily, let me give you a few more reasons to do so! Or maybe you just need one reason – PASTA!!
Here are a few of the pasta dishes we had..
- Pasta alla Norma is a simple dish serve in a tomato sauce cooked with eggplant and grated ricotta salata (think hard, salted ricotta)
- This was a potato filled ravioli served in a butter sage sauce and sprinkled with breadcrumbs (another Sicilian specialty – breadcrumbs in place of parmigiano)
- This was a pasta we made in a cooking class – spaghetti alla chittara – served with a simple tomatoe sauce and grated ricotta salata
- This type of pasta – busiatta or curled pasta – is often seen in Sicily. Here its served with locally caught fish, tomatoes and almonds
- This vegetarian dish was delicious – fresh tomatoes, capers, olives, chopped almonds and breadcrumbs
- This dish has all the local flavours that scream Sicily to me – gnocchetti with sardines, raisins, fennel and breadcrumbs
What Ingredients are Found in Many Sicilian Pastas:
I found that the dishes served in Sicily were so diverse and you could definitely feel the influence of the Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spanish. And I also noticed a huge difference in the dishes you found at most restaurants. What you would typically think you’d find in Italian restaurants were not always available. It was very fish-heavy (not surprising, considering you are surrounded by water), it tended to be lighter fare (compared to the north… you can see that in this post on Piedmonte) and full of vegetables (which, another surprise to many travellers, it seems is not always easy to find in many Italian restaurants).
- fresh fish
- cactus pears
- ricotta and ricotta salata
- bread crumbs
So let’s get to the recipe at hand…pasta con sarde!
We ate this multiple times while we were in Sicily and it was always very different. The points you need to take into consideration are:
- always save the pasta water – you may need it to finish the dish (pasta water has starch from the cooking process so it adds a creamy texture).
- add tomatoes to this dish or not? We had it both ways, but after much research, I found the more traditional way is without.
This dish comes together pretty quickly…like most pasta dishes that are traditionally Italian! A few ingredients – most that you can easily have in your pantry!
What About the Raisins and Anchovies?
Some of you might be a bit hesitant about the raisins (I, for one, was totally hesitant when I was in Italy and they kept showing up on menus!) while others may be hesitant about the anchovies. But trust me when I say that the raisins bring in the hint of sweetness that you need to balance this dish and the anchovies literally melt away and bring in just the right amount of saltiness!
So, now that you’ve gotten to the end of this dish and you’re still wondering, “what’s the 1 reason you need to try pasta con sarde”?? Well, you need to try it for the simple reason that, in my opinion (and almost every Sicilian), it is the most perfectly balance pasta dish. What may seem like an unusual flavour combination turns out to be a flavour explosion in your mouth!!
Give it a try and let me know what you think!! I’d love to know!!!
Pasta Con Sarde
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup olive oil, divided plus extra for finishing
- 1/2 fennel bulb (about 1 cup) diced, reserving fronds
- salt and pepper extra seasoning of your choice for breadcrumbs
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 2 anchovies
- 1 can of sardines (about 4)
- 1/4 cup raisins if they are dry, soak them in hot water
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1 package bucatini pasta you can sub in any kind of pasta
For the bread crumb topping:
- 2 pieces bread, pulsed in a blender or roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- seasoning to taste
- In a large pan (must be large enough to hold the entire dish), warm up 1/3 cup of the olive oil over medium heat, then sauté the onion and fennel. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until they just start to soften, and add garlic, salt, and pepper.
- Cook until the onion and fennel are soft then add wine, stirring to combine. Add the anchovies, breaking them up with wooden spoon. Next, add sardines and, once they are heated through, add the raisins and pine nuts. Turn the heat down to low and continue cooking, making sure it doesn't burn.
- Meanwhile, boil pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water for later (or, you can simply pull the cooked bucatini out of the water and add directly to the sauce).
- While pasta is cooking, place the pulsed bread crumbs into a hot skillet with the remaining oil and toast the breadcrumbs until they begin to brown. Season with a bit of salt and pepper and anything else you desire (some people add ground fennel); set aside
- Add the drained pasta to the sardine mixture – adding some of the pasta cooking water will add a 'smoothness' to the sauce because it has some of the starch that leaches out of the pasta while cooking. Plate your pasta and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs and drizzle with more olive oil and serve with reserved fennel fronds