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Sicilian cuisine on a budget - 10 ‘cucina povera’ dishes to try!

Cucina povera, which translates to "poor kitchen," is a traditional style of Italian cooking that originated from the resourcefulness of the peasant class. In Sicily, cucina povera developed as a result of centuries of economic hardship and limited access to expensive ingredients.

This culinary approach emphasizes simplicity, using what is locally available and often incorporating leftovers to create nourishing and flavorful dishes. The cuisine is characterized by its reliance on fresh, seasonal vegetables, legumes, bread, and olive oil, with meat and fish used sparingly. The ingenuity of Sicilian cooks turned these humble ingredients into a diverse array of dishes that are both satisfying and rich in flavor and now part of Sicilian cuisine in both homes and restaurants.

Sicily has a variety of cucina povera dishes and here are a few that are typical to my family and region we live in:

1. Pasta con le Sarde - Pasta with sardines, wild fennel, raisins, and pine nuts.  You have to try this pasta whilst in Sicily.  It is heavenly.  Sardines are regularly on the menu in restaurants in Sicily and you have never tasted sardines like these.  I love them marinated, crumbed, fried and of course in pasta….so good for you too.

2. Caponata - A sweet and sour eggplant stew with celery, capers, and olives.  The ingredients are slightly different in each area as it depends on what is grown locally.  Caponata is great as a dip with bread or as a side dish with your meat. 

3. Arancini - Deep-fried rice balls filled with meat sauce or cheese and peas.  Great to make a risotto first for the family and use up the leftovers to make arancini (plural).  Did you know there is an ongoing debate in Sicily whether it is called arancina or arancino (singular).   If you buy in Palermo it’s arancina.  If you buy around Taormina area, it’s arancino

4. Pasta e Fagioli - Pasta and bean soup  with carrots, brocolli, potatoe and a little meat if you have it.  My mother-in-law makes the best pasta e fagioli ever – it is my favourite comfort food.  No one ever makes it like she does.

5. Lenticchie – brown lentils cooked with potatoes, carrots, a few cherry tomatoes and onion.   You can add pieces of pork if you have any, but its just fine without it.  Then when its all cooked and smells amazing, you can add small pieces of pasta which makes it go even further and is enough to feed an army - so nutritious and delicious. 

6. Panelle – Little chickpea flour fritters and famous for being a local street food in Palermo.  I love these little tasty savoury morsels.

7. Polpette di Melanzane - Eggplant meatballs.  If you can’t afford meat for your meatballs, make them with eggplant instead and they are so nice!  My sister-in-law is the family specialist for these tasty morsels.

8. Pasta alla Norma - Pasta with tomato sauce, fried eggplant, and ricotta salata on top.  Again egglplant (melanzane) features in many of the dishes because it grows everywhere easily and is inexpensive.

9. Sfinci – a home made doughnut like ball dipped in sugar.  Nino’s favourite – he’d eat the whole batch if we didn’t make him share. 

10.  Pizette - this is a family dish and a made by my mother-in-law.  It’s a home made pizza dough, fried, topped with tomato salsa, basil, baked and dried ricotta cheese and anything else you want to add.  They are divine! 

If you are visiting Sicily, you will see many of these wonderful dishes on the menu in local restaurants, so make sure you try them!  Like many things in life, it is the simplest things that can give us the greatest pleasure.

Catherine x

PS.... coming to Sicily in July and August? We have space for a few bespoke day tours or big day out tours. Reach out if you want to know more!

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Our company is owner operated by Nino and Catherine Santoro who both have their own successful careers involving travel and people-centered work.  Nino and Catherine love to travel and love their countries of residence, Australia and Italy.  Their travel experience and adventures over the years led to many people saying ‘Take us with you next year please!’ they did! 


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