Viticulture has existed on Sicily since The Greeks first introduced Vitis Vinifera some three thousand years ago. Sicily was the granary for the Greek Empire supplying the archipelago with grain, olives, and of course grapes and wine. So important was the island that at one point Syracuse was considered the largest city in all of Greece.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. So large and varied is the geography that really it could be considered a mini continent. The southern parts are south of Tunisia and the highest peaks have snow and ice year round. Between the northern mountains and the southern coast lies a large vast fruitful plain that has been fought over and conquered by everyone from the Greeks, to the Phoenicians, the Goths, the Romans and the Moors.
Sicily is famous for grain, but also oranges, lemons, olives, almonds, artichokes and later tomatoes. And Grapes. Sicily is the third largest wine producing region in Italy. For years Sicily was famous for its fortified wine Marsala, created by an Englishman when England was having trouble getting wine from France. A long and complicated history has created one of the greatest cuisines on the planet, but alas that history has made it difficult the Sicilian wine industry to come into its own.
The 20th century was difficult for Italy and Sicily, a couple of world wars, a trouble government and hard economic times were only made worse by the influence of the mafia. When Italy entered into the European Union direct foreign investment elevated the economy. From the 1980’s to the early 2000’s unemployment went from over 25% to a low of 10%. During most of the 20th century the wine industry was controlled by large government owned Cooperatives. Bulk wine was the name of the game. Most of it sold up the peninsula and into France to strengthen weaker northern wines.
During the latter part of the 20th Century many grape growers stopped selling to the Co-ops and started making their own wines. One of the first was Tasca d’Alerita estate in Valleunga. Regaleali was one of the first premium wines from Sicily, starting small back in the 50’s selling to local restaurants and neighbors. Lead by the count Guiseppe Tasca d’Almerita over the last 50 years the wines of Tasca d’Almerita have come to be celebrated worldwide. Count Giuseppe’s son, Count Lucio, is president of the family-run winery, and his two sons, Giuseppe and Alberto, serve as vice president and managing director, respectively.
In addition to the wines, the estate is virtually self-contained, producing most of the vegetables, fruits, wheat, olives, cheeses and meats they need. This inspired Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza, Count Lucio’s sister, to establish a culinary school, considered one of the best in Italy today. The school has inspired culinary professionals from around the world, including Julia Child and Alice Waters.
Food and wine have always been central to Sicilian culture. Italian food, in general, is always about simplicity. In Sicily this is almost more religion than principle. “Giusto”, just right in Italian, or better said, just enough. The Occam’s Razor of cooking, the simplest preparation is often the best preparation.
With that in mind, I would like to present my take on a classic Sicilian pasta dish – Pasta alla Norma. A tasty and colorful recipe from the Sicilian gastronomic tradition, the Pasta alla Norma is a triumph of Mediterranean flavors and was so called in honor of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma”. The story says that in 19th century, Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian writer, poet and theater director, was so impressed when he first tasted this dish that he compared it to “Norma”, Bellini’s masterpiece.
And the name lasted ever since.
To pair with this light yet robust dish a Nero D’Avola is perfect.
Tasca D’almerita Lamuri Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC 2014 $14.99
“The Tasca family hits a home run with this fabulous value wine. The 2014 Sicilia Nero d’Avola Lamùri Tenuta Regaleali is a terrific rendition of this important Sicilian grape. It opens to dark, spicy and savory notes that contrast the wine’s fruity core. This was a very successful vintage for island winemakers and the ripeness of the fruit is spot-on. The mouthfeel offers elegant fruit flavors and a velvety texture.” 92 pts Wine Advocate – Monica Larner
Pasta alla Norma
1 ½ pounds eggplant, cut into thick sticks
Olive oil as needed (at least 1/2 cup)
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 to 2 teaspoons dried chili flakes
1 ½ pounds tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon good dried oregano, or 1 tablespoon fresh
1 pound Rigatoni
½ cup chopped basil
½ cup grated ricotta salata (or in a pinch, pecorino Romano)
1. Cut eggplant into large dice and toss with salt to purge.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil
3. Rinse eggplant to remove salt and let dry
4. Heat a large cast iron pan and add olive oil
5. Add eggplant and brown, turning occasionally
6. Add garlic, chili flakes, tomatoes, and oregano bring to simmer
7. Add rigatoni and cook for 8 minutes. Drain.
8. Toss rigatoni with eggplant and fresh basil
9. Top with shaved cheese and serve