Sicily has a wonderfully variegated cuisine, its plate is filled with influences from all around the Mediterranean from the Middle East, to North Africa, Greece and many more.
There is great pride in preparing local specialities and showing off the abundant talent of each chef.
Like in most of Italy each region, even town from town will have its own local variety of wine, interpretation of pasta, bread, cheeses, salami, desserts and even biscuits.
Each place embraces its individuality and has proudly perfected its particular type of local cuisine in the way of distinguishing itself from other towns and in turn showing off the richness of agricultural fertility and skill in the preparation of century-old products.
One way to taste the best of each place is to hunt down a Sagra or food festival, where for only a handful of Euro you are able to sample the best of local fare.
The Sagra event calendar in Sicily is never ending through the year and coincides with the seasonal calendar as Sicilians like all other Italians believe in eating what is strictly in season. So in the summer expect to see a dedication to products like strawberries, melons, tomatoes and peaches. While the winter/fall the Sagra gives you a taste of wine, salami, pork, mushrooms and fried specialities.
Most of the events are annually around the same date and are proudly sponsored by locals as a way of fostering local tourism. The events are local, so the best way to learn about them is through the local press, picking up flyers at your local cafe and looking at posters pasted up on the side of the road.
An excellent general guide for the usual events is the site Sicilia in Festa which will give you a good indication of what’s happening around Sicily during the year month by month and province by province.
Here is my own personal list of the more significant, more well organised and famous food festivals you really shouldn’t miss filled with the best Sicilian ingredients, tastes and music.
Every town and city in Italy has its own Saintly patron or protector which has its own dedicated festa or celebration during the year with associated religious processions and events.
In Sicily alone, there are three hundred and ninety town halls which means many lifetimes of Saint day celebrations.
Apart from the religious celebrations, the locals take pride in celebrating the grandness of their particular Saints miracles and the intimate connection with their specific town. The statues of each Saint is a work of art, and the parades are filled with music, prayer and colour. The locals take their saints seriously and try to keep up the traditions.
Sicily’s nine major provincial capitals each have big celebrations which have been practised uninterrupted for centuries, and today each is a significant event in each cities calendar filled with holiday markets, art exhibitions, food preparations and epic fireworks.
Some towns have more than one Patron which means several celebrations throughout the year. While other cities whose Saints celebration happens in the dead of winter, so they have decided to have a summer version of the festa for visitors to experience too.
Here is a list of the important Patron Saint-day celebrations of the main cities in Sicily (Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse (Siracusa) and Trapani.
To round the number up to an even ten I’ve included an extra location at Cefalu where the festivities feature the Saint’s statue being loaded onto a boat, the procession continuing out into the sea, something which is common for many celebrations around the island particularly with coastal towns.
As a writer I’m eternally in love with words, I’m continually hoarding them trying to put them together in elegant poetical phrases, only to cut them out when editing, because simplicity works better.
The Italian language is in a constant state of change, every year new words are added to the vocabulary, as is usual in any living, used language. In 2016 the Zingarelli Italian dictionary listed and defined 500 new words, which brought the total to more than 144,000.
Some of these have been introduced from English, either translated into Italian or adopted in their original form into the dictionary, only to be pronounced in an Italianised way. Others express developments in technology others new ways of describing the current economic climate.
Of those words introduced to the Zingarelli, the new ones include acquaponica (hydroponics), adultità (the state of being an adult or adulting), banking, coding, cheating, bartender, criptomoneta (cryptocurrency), dipsofobia (the fixation of hoarding objects), fotodepilazione (UV hair removal), open toe, cooking show, svapare (vaping).
The words added from other languages included: expat, macaron, netsuke (small Japanese statues in wood or ivory), pastrami and to run flat.
Purists complain about every batch of new words added to the Italian language the lexicon is being watered down, desecrated or cancelled. But this is a normal function of a vibrant, growing and thriving language.
As a language is spoken, it changes and adapts to the contemporary situation. How many old words have been lost to English since Shakespeare’s time and yet his works maintain their relevance today because the core of the language is universal and timeless.
Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with delicate baroque patterns. The most original pieces and those who stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars which depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.
Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often impressive features of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history.
Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome mixture of violence and folly. The story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091 when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily (Arabic: إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).
This intriguing tale has been interpreted many times, and the characters at its heart have inspired many artists throughout the centuries.
The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots in an attempt to recreate the bountiful fertility.
A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city is also featured in the religious procession.
The gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina, after the island was finally liberated from the Arab domination in 1071.
Roger, I was a Norman nobleman he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.
In 1547, when archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos which used to roam prehistoric Sicily, this discovery lead to the widespread belief that Sicily was founded by giants. The elephant skulls were also taken as proof that the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey existed. The elephant skulls peculiar shape, and a typical single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.
Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods, the pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone who was the daughter of the goddess of nature Demeter and who was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancients afterlife. There is a secure connection to many other pagan gods representing contrasting elements which coexist such as night and day, male and female and winter and summer.
The tale told at Messina is a love story, with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman caught the eye of Grifone a general in the invading army who had just conquered Messina.
Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did and then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.
Probably the most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is the one retold by Boccaccio in the Renaissance short stories from his Decameron. Boccaccio sets the story directly in Messina, the main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella an orphaned noble girl who is jealously guarded by her three brothers.
Isabella falls honestly and spontaneously in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to put an end to the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and on their return home tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
But when her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream telling her he was killed by her brothers and where his body is buried.
Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief she cuts off Lorenzo’s head. At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it. The plan blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears.
Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.
In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotive moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story.
The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore, for example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it also a symbol of mourning.
Romantic poet John Keats used the story as the inspiration behind his poem Isabella, or the pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly idealistic romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers who treated her like an object.
The Romantic’s version is set in Florence, the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder occurs. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus who killed Medusa the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
Behind every work of art, there is always a story, Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy and loss.
The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the islands rich yet dark mythology.
Sitting on the bumpy, stony Sicilian beach I soak up the eccentric backdrop. This isn’t a beach; it is a rock mine, full of large pebbles, boulders and blocks of concrete dropped along the coast to create artificial barriers between the shoreline and the eroding sea. You can’t dive into the water without putting yourself in danger of serious concussion or spinal injuries, there are endless craggy boulders skulking under the water.
Walking down the beach my shoes begin to fill with pebbles. As I spread out my towel, my body is roughly fondled by the intruding stones. How I wish I could be cushioned by the sand and let my feet bury themselves under fine grains. Apart from a total lack of sand, there isn’t the convenience of a single shop or public toilet. It is harsh, rugged and rustic.
Watching beach umbrellas, pop up along the seaside, I begin to smear myself with sunscreen, as this is the standard procedure for people with milky coloured thighs left unexposed to the sun during winter. In Australia the sun is one danger of many to protect yourself from, an Australian doesn’t go to the beach without sunscreen nor do they go walking in long grass without boots or ever forget to check their shoes before they put them on to look out for poisonous spiders. Around me I see at least half a dozen women roasting themselves in the sun, I can smell barbecue meat.
Italian women take an enormous risk during the summer, turning themselves the colour of roast chicken. The tanned look is very fashionable and according to popular logic; the darker you look, the healthier you are. Obviously, they are in denial about the existence of skin cancer.
We’ve come down to the beach with a large collective group of in-laws, friends, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and their children. All the kids jump into the water without sunscreen. Here the sun doesn’t seem to be so harsh, you can easily stay out for a few hours and not burn to a crisp. I guess Italy is far away enough from the hole in the ozone layer to worry about the risk of melanoma.
All my female companions are in bikinis and I am in a full piece bathing costume complete with short pants to cover myself from the sun and hide my flabby stomach. It’s strange to see so many women in bikinis. I’ve always been self-conscience about exposing my body at the beach, I’ve never been part of that tall tanned beach going Ozzie set. I’ve never spent an entire summer at the beach, neither am I the athletic type.
These conservative Sicilian women, usually cover their bodies so carefully and fashionably during the year, yet in the summer they easily strip down without a second thought into the bare minimum of beach attire. They abandon themselves to the ideal bohemian fantasy of summer, without looking at themselves in the mirror.
Italians hold their right to a seaside holiday as dearly as their right to vote. It is a sacred privilege. Those who have left Sicily to work in the large industrial cities like Milan and Turin, return every summer for their obligatory beach time. Those who live in Sicily, who really don’t work very hard during the year, at least by European or Australian standards, relax and spend summers by the sea as rigorously as those who are fully deserving of a restful holiday.
Beach-going is extremely fashionable, as it was once a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes their little turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our own little-isolated strip of Sicilian coast, there are people who have convinced themselves the world is watching them in their seductively draped sarongs, strategically exposed tattoos, the latest shaped fashion sunglasses and the occasionally freshly styled hair and makeup. Everyone is ready to roast their abundance in the Siculu sunshine.
Trying to be social and fit into the beach going routine, I lie on a towel under one of the many beach umbrellas, as everyone strips down, I just want to dive into the water and have a swim but obviously, it’s not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings on at the beach and the local gossip.
Not having any desire to participate I soak up the sun until a collective decision is made to play volleyball in the water to gradually dip ourselves into the sea. It becomes obvious no one is taking the game seriously, either that or I am the only one with any handball and swimming skills.
The gossip continues, the ball is bowled back up onto the beach as everyone sits in the shallow waves and continues to talk. I really don’t know about any of the people featured in the current conversation. I am excluded from the intricate web of social connections and nicknames so I cannot contribute anything to the gossip session and struggle to understand the shorthand speak being exchanged.
After a bit, I decide I’ve had enough and dive under the water swimming a few meters further out from the group. As I pull my head up they wave and whistle out to me, I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way back with a leisurely breaststroke to reassure everyone I’m fine and I just wanted to swim.
The others are surprised at how well I move in the water and everyone said they thought I’d drowned. A collective sigh of relief is made as I promise not to duck dive under the water or to swim out too far out into the calmest sea I have ever seen.
I smile to myself as I remember my childhood in Australia, every summer at the local pool had made me a good swimmer by Sicilian standards, yet in Australia, I always came dead last in any school swimming race.
Italians at the beach are dispersed in small chatty posed groups, roasting and gossiping in the sun, only the children are playing or swimming. Why would someone go to the beach and not swim?
Last year I was back home in Perth, Western Australia for a visit when I suddenly became a victim to reverse culture shock. It’s a bizarre affliction for an expat living in Italy as every day you are battling tiny little moments of friction between yourself and your new home, but slowly you begin to adjust and don’t think about the smaller things.
And apparently, you begin to assimilate the new behaviour into your personality.
Then when you go back to your hometown thinking, you will be able to settle in comfortably without thinking, when you realise how much you’ve forgotten.
Speaking mostly Italian, I find myself losing words and helpful phrases, sometimes my accent becomes a little Italianized without me realising.
I begin to miss the spontaneity of Italians, for organising things at the moment, I find it strange not just to turn up at friends homes only with a bottle of wine and whip up a bowl of pasta with a few simple ingredients; instead I have to make appointments to go out to eat with them in advanced.
I never order pasta at a restaurant in Australia as I’ve gradually become a pasta snob (yes there is such a thing). I will not eat over cooked pasta, it must be al dente.
And of my last visit home, I feel awkward at Australian coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong I still love, all-day breakfast and brunch is a dirty little pleasure I always indulge in whenever I’m in Australia, but it’s just I have a problem with the coffee.
I’ve become an avid espresso drinker in Italy. Every morning I have at least two cups of the thick black delicious liquid, I can’t get enough of it, I even will drink it without sugar to get the most of the bitter, full flavour.
I don’t crave thick creamy milk lattes, I can no longer stomach full cream milk cappuccinos or frappuccinos. Out with a friend for coffee, I accidentally ordered a latte instead of a flat white as I didn’t remember the difference and then felt terribly sick afterwards.
There are a lot of little Italian peccadillos, which I seem to have picked up without realising. I want my coffee in a cup, not a glass (it gets cold too quickly in a glass, and it tastes better in a cup), I want my cappuccino warm not boiling hot and I think people are strange to order a cappuccino in the afternoon (as it usually is a breakfast drink). I am yet to find a good espresso in Australia that does not taste bitter or burnt.
I like going to an Italian Caffe’, known as a Bar and having a quick, strong espresso while standing up, or grab a quick grappa if I’m feeling cold in the winter, or the ultimate ice coffee granita with whipped cream and brioche sweet bread in the summer.
I often wonder where on earth I will eventually feel more at home, in Australia or Italy. I’m currently debating whether I might need to create my own nation apart to accommodate my strange culture shock affliction.
For the record in Italy the coffee selection is usually as follows:
Cappuccino [cap-puc-cì-no] : equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk
Caffè latte [caf-fè] [làt-te]: espresso with more steamed milk and less foam
Latte macchiato [làt-te] [mac-chià-to]: steamed milk “marked” with a splash of espresso
(These milky coffees are only consumed until about 11am)
Caffè macchiato [caf-fè] [mac-chià-to]: For the softer side of coffee, enjoy this espresso “marked” with a splash of frothy milk. Unlike the breakfast drinks, this lightly milky caffè can be enjoyed as frequently as normal caffè.
Caffè corretto [caf-fè] [cor-rèt-to]: Literally translated as corrected coffee, this drink features espresso with a splash of alcohol, such as grappa or sambuca.
Caffè americano [caf-fè] [a-me-ri-cà-no]: After trying drip coffee in the United States, Italians decided to offer tourists a taste of home. Their interpretation: espresso diluted with plenty of hot water.
Caffè lungo [caf-fè] [lùn-go]: This “long coffee” comprises espresso with a splash of hot water but is stronger than the americano.
Marocchino [ma-roc-chì-no]: A marriage of cocoa and espresso. A shot of espresso, a layer of foam, and a sprinkle of cacao powder in a glass mug that has been dusted with cocoa powder.
Shakerato: The shakerato is Italy’s answer to an iced coffee. A chilled espresso poured over ice and shaken to a froth.
Caffè freddo [caf-fè] [fréd-do]: Literally cold coffee, an espresso which has been cooled down in the fridge or freezer.
Crema di Caffè [crè-ma] di [caf-fè]: A mixture of whipped cream and espresso coffee, a light coffee flavoured dessert.
Caffè affogato [caf-fè] [af-fo-gà-to]: Another variation of dessert, have your coffee literally drowned in a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream.
Granita di Caffè [gra-nì-ta] di [caf-fè]: Shaved iced coffee usually topped with whipped cream and consumed with sweet bread for breakfast in Sicily.
Bicerin [bitʃeˈriŋ]: A Piedmontese drink similar to a hot chocolate. Served in a big glass mixing coffee, chocolate and whipped cream.
Caffè al Ginseng [caf-fè] [gin-sèng] : An espresso prepared with ginseng extract and needs no other sweetener.
Caffè d’Orzo [caf-fè] [òr-zo]: A 100% naturally caffeine-free coffee made with barley.
It’s been a while since my last rant about the irksome parts of culture shock in Italy. To be honest, I’ve simply learned to adapt to most of the stuff I used to find bothersome, after all, you cannot pretend that an entire culture will change to fit your own convenience.
I take culture shock with a smile and try to put a comic slant on it. Most of the time I feel like David Attenborough in a BBC documentary, interacting with the natives while being fascinated, perplexed and amused at the same time.
To be honest, after 16 years of living in Italy, I often go through a strange kind of ‘reverse’ culture shock every time I’m back home in Australia (but that’s another story).
So here are ten points of culture shock which I still need to navigate and which sometimes bother me, make me laugh and others which aren’t too bad. The hilarious consequences of living in Italy instead of merely visiting.
1. A lack of personal space
In Australia like in America, we have way too much space compared to the population. Here in Italy, there are a lot of people with respect to the physical space. The result is tiny apartments and houses, not enough parking and a population which has no problem invading other people’s personal space.
You will be spoken to way too close to your face, people do stare, your new in-laws will be commenting on your appearance and interfering simply because we have to live our lives ‘vicini, vicini’, up close and personal, it’s just the way it is. Yes, it’s suffocating, oppressing and soul destroying but you’ll get used to it.
The in-laws will be doing it out of love, the community wants you to be a part of it, and strangers simply have always done this. Don’t feel like a victim no one is out to get you, it’s the reality.
2. An insane formality
Italians can be terrible intellectual snobs, they are very proud of their language, hard-earned titled, jobs, and education. So be prepared to be extremely formal when first meeting people, be sure to use the special ‘lei’ ultra formal grammatical way of addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers and people who are older or more experienced than you.
I was surprised to discover Italian society has an intellectual class system. There is a distinction between those who can speak Italian well, with a particular level of education or accent and those who can’t.
As a foreigner, you will always be corrected when you make grammatical errors or reminded of your quaint accent. Over the past few years, I’ve been working in the local schools in Sicily, and I’ve transformed from a foreigner to a formal colleague of other teachers, who happily address me with the title of ‘maestra’ or ‘collega’ and using ‘lei’ instead of the informal ‘tu’.
I think it’s hilarious the silly game many Italians are forced to play. We are all the same people, get over your airs and graces.
3. Male and Female dynamics
I’ve always been perplexed by the relationship between the sexes in Italy. I think women have a terrible struggle with sexism and bullying in Italy something which has never been acknowledged, for goodness sake, there isn’t even a word for sexism and harassment in Italian (eventhough the English terms are slowly being adopted.)
It has always bothered me how men and women in Italy cannot be considered merely friends, Italian’s have terms like fidanzato/a, amico/a which refer to boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancé, there is no term to express a platonic friendship, it’s sad, why can’t you just be friends without any sexual connotations or expectations?
While Italian men who are friends with other men seem to be a lot more intense, you will often see perfectly heterosexual men kissing one another on the cheeks, walking arm in arm, standing close to one another and embracing. If you saw this kind of male behaviour in any anglo saxon country, you would assume it was a gay couple. Not so in Italy.
Female friends are not so amicable, women are competing with other women, instead of lifting up one another, they are judging one another physically and playing the sexism game amongst themselves.
Even on a grammatical level, the Italian language drives me crazy as all objects are either male or female, it’s an epic task to recall which are which and how to make the definite and indefinite articles match up with the nouns. First, you need to identify the gender (masculine/feminine) then pay attention to the number (singular/plural) of the terms they refer to. It’s a daily struggle for me.
One of the things I noticed even on my very first visit to Italy is how dirty the place is, in the big cities it is dusty, people sweep their balconies out onto the street, laundry hung out to dry from balconies will drip on you as you walk by, you will accidentally step on abandoned dog poop and stumble upon dumped trash along the side of the road and under bridges (especially if there is some kind of labor strike occurring).
This is a massive social and environmental problem in Italy, which I hope Italians address soon. The concept of recycling is slowly being taught, and the use of plastic bags is banned by law. But there are large parts of Italy which have been permanently damaged by illegal dumping of toxic waste including areas outside of Naples, the sea floor near the island of Capri is in the middle of a major clean up and parts of Sicily’s interior near Gela and Caltanissetta have become terra bruciata– burnt out wasteland thanks to decades of a poorly managed petrochemical industry. All terribly heartbreaking.
5. Dolce Vita
Despite the negative aspects of culture shock, I love the pigheaded Italian approach to life. Their dedication to the Dolce Vita is what allows them to savour life to the full. Italy is all about slow living, taking the time to talk, socialise, taking care of themselves, enjoying a drink, a quick coffee, preparing good food, then taking the correct amount of time to taste and digest it all.
There is always plenty of holidays during the year to spend time with friends and family, as work is seen as a necessary evil and should not get in the way of living in the moment. Amen to making more memories and not more money.
6. Gossip mill 100%
When you come to Italy, you can be assured that someone will be talking about you. The Italian gossip mill is an outstanding machine, it connects everyone to everyone else professionally and personally. So why not use it to your advantage!
Let people know you can teach English, take good photos for a reasonable price, make birthday cakes, babysit. It’s the best way to get a job, honestly! And also how to find a good plumber, electrician, accountant or lawyer.
Make friends with the local gossip, just be careful not to make too many waves, just blend in. Complain about the same things as they do, agree with them but don’t add to the venom.
7. Coffee culture
Italy has the best coffee in the world, yet having coffee here is quite a rigid traditional ritual. In Italy coffee is exclusively a short black (espresso), cappuccino is strictly a morning drink served with full cream milk and not piping hot.
A latte will give you some milk with a dash of espresso, a macchiato will provide you with a short black with a splash of milk. Coffee is served quickly standing up at a ‘bar’ or cafe together with other drinks like juices, wine, spritz and bitter aperitifs.
If you are after something more substantial, you could sit down at a wonky table and grab a cornetto (croissant), pastries or a quick panino but don’t expect much else.
An Italian bar is a spot you nip off to for ten minutes at a time when you are at work or if you have nothing to do during the day.
Starbucks has only just opened its doors in Milan this year (2018), so there is no takeaway coffee, no small, medium or large frappe, no free wifi or working on a computer at the cafe’. Sniff!
8. Arrogant Doctors
Medical practitioners in Italy rarely have an excellent bedside manner, it seems that’s been left out of the pre-requisites. So be sure to revise how to use the formal ‘lei’ form while addressing them and write a list of questions to ask and insist on them being clear because they ain’t wasting time on explanations, unfortunately.
The poor public hospitals are the victims of terrible cutbacks and lousy management, so be kind to the doctors and nurses as they are very stressed, they are doing their best despite any rough edges.
9. The danger of ice
Since we are at the beginning of a long hot tourist inducing Italian summer I thought I’d mention the fear Italians have of consuming cold drinks with ice and avoiding air conditioning. Many visitors are always complaining of the lack of icy cold beverages and arctic blast air con. I totally understand this insanity as I grew up in Australia where people used to put their glasses in the freezer to get their beer extra chilled.
I feel a little embarrassed for my Italian friends and family when I explain their avoidance of cold things in summer to others, as they believe it is bad for your health. It seems Italians are slight hypochondriacs and avoid icy drinks (except for granita) and air conditioning as they fear it could make them sick or in some extreme cases kill.
My husband is always telling me the same story about a school friend of his who drank an icy cold drink one summer and consequently dropped dead as the difference in temperature sent his body into shock. If this story were true, then I surely would have died of brain freeze many years ago.
Now this may come as a surprise, but Italian bureaucracy has a gigantic problem with middle names. It is critical to consistently use all of your names on every possible documentation from bank accounts, I.D cards, passports, to bills, signatures and tax file numbers. You will be denied payments, get other people’s bills to pay and get perplexed looks from confused postal workers.
A signature is always written surname first then the first name followed by all middle names.
If you decide to abandon your middle names at the border as they are too confusing for Italians, then good for you as long as any other documents you use do not contain them as you will be forced to update everything if a middle name is discovered.
If you don’t have any middle names, lucky you!!
I’ve always had problems as my mother named me like a member of the British royal family with two middle names. In Australia, I always have to spell out my complex Italian surname as no one understood it or can pronounce it. So when I moved to Italy, I thought that’d be the end of that. But it turns out my pronunciation of Del Borrello to a Messinese sounds like I am saying Gian Borello, numerous times my name has been transformed and one of my consonants robbed.
It seems Sicilians only like local surnames and not ones from other Italian regions. Santa pazienza! So it looks like I will always have a struggle with my name.
If you want to read some more about my experience with culture shock take a look at:
I recently saw this image on Facebook from a supposedly Italian restaurant in Australia and was reminded of how different food consumption is in Italy.
Yes, the photo does look delicious, but this is in no way an authentic way of serving Italian food. Italians would never put pasta together with meat on the same plate. This is never done as food preparation has determined rules and procedures which are never broken because each food’s taste must be savoured to the full.
An Italian would be shocked to see two distinct dishes haphazardly heaped together on a plate like this. The standards for food preparations in Italy are very high and demand food to be served in specific ways to respect each unique dishes flavours.
The structure of a meal follows very well-defined stages, which can quickly be picked and chosen from yet each course has its own way of being served.
Aperitivo [a-pe-ri-tì-vo]: the apéritif usually happens before a meal, where you sip Aperol spritz, non-alcoholic bitters like Crodino or other cocktails and drinks that help stimulate the appetite for a big dinner.
Antipasto [an-ti-pà-sto]: an antipasto is made up of many small samples of food which are meant to show the ingredients and flavours featured in the main meal. If you have seafood, everything will feature the elements in the main seafood menu, while at a Trattoria it can highlight the best ingredients of local cuisine in small dishes of everything from cheese samples, mushrooms, salami’s, bread, fried batters, pickled vegetables and many more.
Primo [prì-mo]: this is strictly a pasta, rice or minestra [mi-nè-stra] pasta based vegetable soup dish.
Secondo [se-cón-do]: the main course which can be meat, fish or chicken.
Contorno [con-tór-no]: these are your side dishes which are served on separate plates and include any salads or vegetarian options, everything from fries to lettuce or roasted vegetables.
Bis [bìs]: if you love a particular dish or antipasto you can ask for second helping or ‘fare il Bis’ (BIZ). If you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding or another major party event those waiting on you will automatically ask if you want a second helping of the pasta or main courses.
Dolce [dól-ce]: dessert in Italy is usually dictated by the seasons, if it’s summer there are selections of gelato or fruits, in winter usually pastries.
Digestivo [di-ge-stì-vo] / Caffè [caf-fè]: to help the meal go down well there comes the digestivo which is either a sip of liquor (from grappa, to limoncello or Amaro) or coffee anything that helps with digestion.
By no means are you expected to consume a huge meal like this each day.
You may go out and have an apéritif with friends after work which is usually accompanied by small snacks like potato chips, pretzels, crackers, olives, peanuts or small canapès.
You can decide on getting an antipasto with only a primo or skip the antipasto and choose a secondo with a contorno.
A Bis is not obligatory, neither is dessert or coffee. An Italian will rarely eat these courses unless it’s for a significant occasion like a wedding when the eating is spread out over a full evening.
If you are going out for a casual pizza at a pizzeria, you can usually get an antipasto, then pizza and if you have room a dolce or digestivo.
There are also many dishes, particularly in the United States, which are marketed as Italian but in reality aren’t at all. Many foods have been created by Italo Americans which have taken their Italian traditions and adapted them into the culture of their new homes, in a unique crossover cuisine which actually does not exist in Italy.
Distinctly Italo American inventions which would surprise and perhaps even be shocking to Italians include:
Lobster Fra Diavolo
Chicken and Veal Parmigiana
Cioppino (fish stew)
Muffuletta (a bread roll with the lot)
Spaghetti and meatballs
August is a month filled with endless food and religious celebrations which fill the table with local fare and many opportunities to witness ancient patron saint festivals. Most Italians have their annual summer vacation this month, so there is a particularly hectic series of outdoor events paired with epic traffic jams to match!
Italy in August means the thermometer hits its peak and the humid Italo summer closes down the entire peninsula as all Italians go to the beach, up to the mountains or overseas.
Ferragosto is the mid-August holiday, the Latin term Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), was celebration first introduced by Emperor Augustus in 18 BC. In addition to the existing Roman festivals which celebrated harvest times, the Roman Empire chose to revel in the heat and basically take the month to rest.
During the ancient celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. The many Palio horse races all around Italy still reflect these ancient Roman celebrations. The name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the prize given to winners of these horse races.
The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular tours. People’s Trains for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.
Today the 15th of August is a national holiday and a religious feast day which celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic church believes it was the day when the Madonna’s sinless soul and the incorruptible body was taken up to heaven.
In Sicily and Italy, there are many ancient festivities in cities where the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ is the patron or protector. Ferragosto in Sicily offers elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo (Catania) to Messina, Capo d’Orlando (Messina), Motta d’Affermo (Catania), Novara di Sicilia (Messina), Montagnareale (Messina), Piazza Armerina (Enna), Aci Catena (Catania) and many more.
Here are some annual events to pin for later and check out in August.
For an impressive complete list see Sicilia in Festa which provides the most up to date information about festivities province by province during the year for all visitors to Sicily.
Be sure to check out official event links and web pages as event dates may be changed.
I am probably the worst gardener in the world, name a plant, and I’ve probably killed it usually by forgetting to water it.
Strangely enough, both my parents and grandparents were (and still are) fantastic green thumbs. Our family always had terrific vegetable gardens. In the summer we never needed to buy tomatoes, basil, eggplants (aubergine), zucchini, capsicums, chilli peppers or any other variety of Mediterranean vegetables. We always had figs and grapes in the summer and fennel or broccoli in the winter. My mother still has endless flowering plants decorating the outside of her house everything from roses to succulents and anything in between. My dearly departed Nonna Carmela grew flowers in her front yard. I still remember going out to check the mail, the perfume of her violets and the stunning antique white roses which lined the pathway.
My first steps were on a farm in Serpentine Jarrahdale a few hours south-east of the capital of Perth WA, filled with animals and plants. Then when it was time to start school I moved to five minutes from the CBD in Victoria Park. Luckily with the luxury of large quarter acre blocks of land in the Australia of the 1980’s, there was always space for an abundant vegetable patch behind the house. Then moving to the semi-rural Swan Valley in Western Australia I grew up with the habit of eating fresh farm vegetables together with local table grapes, rockmelons and watermelons.
The Italian community always had the habit of planting their own fruit and vegetables a tradition which persisted and was shared with extended family and friends. There were bags filled with the first tomatoes from whoever was able to harvest first. Or bunches of platted garlic or onions from an overabundant crop. Kilos of broad beans or peas waiting to be shelled and frozen after a bumper year. And if someone knew your lettuce had been decimated by snails or rotted by fungus they’d likely give you some of theirs.
Since moving to Sicily, I can’t say I’ve suddenly inherited the gardening gene, but I have become more passionate about the art of gardening. A garden is a place of reflection, there is a sense of peace which connects you to the rhythms of the natural world. I love planting things and watching them grow. Growing things is like planting the seed of an idea in your mind and seeing it develop into its ultimate form. As a mother, a writer and creative I can see the obvious connections between the fertility of the natural world and that of the mind.
I love to spend my summers in the vegetable garden, planting, nurturing and watching everything grow. Every year I happily take my son into the garden and teach him about the different plants, herbs and vegetables and show him how to prepare them and enjoy them in his food.
There is a deep connection between my memories and the garden, every time I am there I feel connected to my ancestors who went through these same rituals.
In the summer Sicilian’s become like frugivorous animals living off the fruits produced by their gardens. So my husband, son and I are obliged to take a walk to the fig tree to gather up its bounty.
The only problem is the tree is hidden deep below a steep precipice behind overgrown bushes and prickly vines. So a simple walk to a fig tree becomes a trek through the Sicilian undergrowth.
According to my son’s fertile imagination, we were buried in the jungle. In reality, we were making a path through the rugged and abandoned countryside. I was imagining twisted ankles, ripped clothes and thorns.
After literally cutting a path through the bushes we were rewarded by a pleasant walk under the shade of overgrown hazelnut trees in a pathway well hidden from the still burning afternoon sun littered with small mulberries we all love to eat.
When we finally reached the tree, we receive the most indulgent reward, an elaborate tree filled with lush mature fruit. Something is satisfying about eating fresh fruit from under a tree. As I pick the most delicious figs, the white sap bleeds onto my hands, and the figs split open, I place them in my mouth.
While slurping up my first fig of the year, I recall how Italian Renaissance poets used the image of the fig as an erotic metaphor for female genitalia, who knew to eat a fig would be so provocative.
The fig has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to the region between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The tree repeatedly appears in the Bible, and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple.
We are forced to fight off the birds for the figs, as their growing season is so short and intense, we have to be quick, or we’ll miss out. If there is an abundant crop, I might get the chance to make fig jam, or we can choose to dry them in the sun so we can eat them later with roasted hazelnuts in the winter.
In estate i Siciliani diventano come degli animali erbivori, vivendo dei frutti prodotti dai loro giardini. Perchio mio marito, mio figlio e io sono obbligati a fare una passeggiata fino l’albero di fico per raccogliere i suoi frutti.
L’unico problema è che l’albero è nascosto sotto un ripido precipizio dietro coperto dalla vegetazione e piante spinose. Cosi una semplice passeggiata fino un albero di fico diventa un viaggio attraverso il sottobosco Siciliano.
Secondo la fertile immaginazione di mio figilio noi eravamo nelle giungle profonda. In realta noi stavamo facendo un percorso attraverso la rocciosa e abbandonata campagna. Io invece non posso smettere di pensare a caviglie slogate, vestite strappati dentro questi rovi.
Dopo aver letteralmente tagliato un percorso attraverso la vegetazione, eravamo ricompensati da una piacevole camminata sotto l’ombra degli alberi di nocciola. In un percorso ben nascosto dall’ancora caldo sole pomeridiano ricoperti da piccole more che tutti amano mangiare.
Quando finalmente raggiungiamo l’albero riceviamo la più indulgente ricompenso, un elaborato albero pieno di lussureggianti frutti maturi. C’ è qualcosa di soddisfacente nel mangiare il frutto fresco da sotto un albero. Raccogliere i fichi più succulenti, la linfa bianca nelle tue mani e i fichi aperti, mentre li metti nella tua bocca.
Mentre mangio il mio primo fico dell’anno, io mi riccordo come i poeti Italiani del Rinascemento usavano l’immagine del fico come una metafora erotica per i genitali femminili, che sapeva che mangiare un fico poteva essere cosi provocante.
Il fico è stato coltivato da più di 5,000 anni ed è nativo dell’regione fra il Mediterraneo e il Mar Nero. L’albero appare nella Bibbia e alcuni studiosi credano che il frutto proibito preso da Eva fosse un fico anzichè di una mela.
Siamo costretti a combattere gli uccelli per i fichi, visto che le loro stagione è così corta e intensa, dobbiamo essere veloci o li perderemo. Se c’è un abbondante raccolta, potrei avere l’occasione di fare un confettura di fichi o possiamo scegliere di assiggarli al sole così possiamo mangiarli più tardi con le nocciole tostate in inverno.
Food and religious festivals (sagre and feste) all over the peninsula are at the heart and soul of Italian traditions. The ones celebrated on the island of Sicily are particularly rich in history, colour and taste.
Sicilians are proud of their cuisine and dedicate a considerable amount of effort in preparing and sharing their typical plates. So a visit to a sagra is a celebration and invitation to taste the best of Sicily.
While patron Saint celebrations have a long history in Sicily and Italy linked to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. Sicilians have a sincere dedication to their hometown Saints and a visit to a big feast day will give a unique experience into the intriguing history of Sicily as each has been linked to a particular place for centuries.
The Saints statues are works of art unto themselves, their stories are miracles are amazing tales, and the churches they are housed in are filled with more colour and art still. The celebrations include elaborate pageants like processions, music, fireworks, food and costumes.
Sicily is dedicated to its Saints and cuisine, and these elaborate parties show the best side of the island for all to see.
Here are some events to pin for your next trip to Sicily.
Sicily is filled with many culinary delicacies throughout the year, but it seems to outdo itself for the summer holidays when everyone is out to have a good time and forget their diets. There are the usual pastries and the cliché gelati but two particular summer favourites which simply must not be missed by any visitor to the island.
The first is the simple granita, an iced drink offered in a variety of flavours including lemon, strawberry, coffee, chocolate, almond, berry, peach etc. (the choice is limitless, depending on the imagination of your local café bar owner.) To be clear this isn’t merely shaved ice flavoured with artificial syrups, they are made from fresh seasonal fruit and ingredients.
The most irresistible temptation for a summer breakfast is packed with tonnes of, ‘ruin your diet,’ calories but, ‘really who the hell cares about that’ taste. A coffee granita, for caffeine lovers, is the ultimate iced coffee. It must be consumed with a thick layer of fresh cream and a giant sweet bread briosche to dip into it as you mix the cream into this exquisite creation.
For those who aren’t a fan of coffee try strawberry with fresh cream, when you mix the two together, it is like eating strawberries and cream. Or if you have something against fresh cream and sweet bread try ordering lemon and strawberry swirled together for a refreshing summertime drink.
Secondly but by no means inferior to the granita is an ice cream filled sweet bread. Yes, my friends you heard it right, a mega serving of ice cream inside a bread roll for a hamburger with a difference.
Not for the faint-hearted, a brioche con gelato is a regular meal substitute. Don’t, for example, have it after a big continental breakfast or a typical several course Italian meal because you will end up feeling very ill.
It may seem like a strange thing to eat but believe me, you will be tempted by a filling of two or more of your favourite ice creams, which will be complemented by the texture of the extra soft pastry as you devour it.
Try it, and you’ll understand what I mean.
La Sicilia è piena di molte delizie culinare durante tutto l’anno, ma sembra che ancora di più vengano fuori per le vacanze estive, quando tutti sono pronti per divertirsi e dimenticono le loro diete. Ci sono i soliti dolci e i classici gelati, due particolari preferenze estive che semplicemente non devono essere dimenticate da ogni visitatore dell’isola.
La prima è l’umile granita, una bevanda ghiacciata offerte in una varietà di gusti, quali: limone, fragola, caffè, cioccolato, mandorle, more, pesca ecc (le scelte è senza limiti, depende dall’immaginazione del propretario del bar. Per essere chiaro questo non è sempice ghiaccio tritato aromatizzato con sciroppi artificiali, sono fatti con frutta fresca stagionale e ingredienti veri.
La più irresistibile tentazione per una colazione estiva è un pacchetto ‘rovina dieta’, ma in verità per quel sapore, chi se ne frega. Una granita al caffè, per gli amanti della caffeina è il migliore caffè freddo della tua vita. Deve essere assolutamente consumato con uno spesso strato di panna montata e uno gigante e dolce brioche da inzuppare in modo da mischiare la panna in questa squisito creazione.
Per quelli che non sono fan del caffè provatelo panna e fragola, quando miscelate i due insieme è come mangiare fragole e panna. O se avete qualcosa contro la panna o la briosche provate a ordinare granita fragola e limone insieme per una rinfrescante bevanda. Alcuni Siciliani ordiano acqua minerale con un cucchiao di granita o te freddo e granita o la birra e granita le combinazioni sono infinite.
Poi c’è la briosche riempito con gelato, che non è inferiore alla granita per niente. Si amici miei avete letto bene, una porzione gigantesca di gelato dentro un panino per un hamburger con una differenza.
Non è per i deboli di cuore, una briosche con gelato è una sostituto di un pasto. Per esempio non mangiatelo dopo un abbondanti colazione o dopo aver mangiato un pranzo con tante portate perchè finireti per sentirvi molto male.
Potrebbe sembrare una strana cosa da mangiare, ma credetevi sareti tentati di sicuro da due o più gusti di gelato Siciliano, che si sposano perfattamente con la consistenza della sofficissima pasta quando la divorate.