Written and photographed by Olivia Kate Corrine
When both sets of my great-grandparents emigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s, their agenda was clear: to assimilate as Americans and forget all else. The struggles of famine and poverty they shared with countless others made it easy, perhaps even necessary, to sever ties with a land that no longer enabled a functioning life. While time and distance heals, traditions fade and family ties dilute. But what’s abandoned isn’t always lost.
More than a hundred years after my great-grandparents left Sicily, I went back to pursue an Italian citizenship and gather research for The Hunger Saint, a novel that involves the brutal mistreatment of underage sulphur mine workers near Agrigento. My travels brought me to Augusta, origin of the great-grandfather who would unknowingly help in my application for dual citizenship.
His relationship with the old country left much to wonder. For years during his life as a Boston fisherman, he made annual trips to Augusta for reasons that no one in the family was allowed to discuss. Were there Mafia ties? That much didn’t excite me. The prospect of a secret family did.
Unraveling the mystery is a slow education. Establishing a foundation of knowledge is the necessary first step. As a writer, I immediately turned to the familiar avenue of literature to gain a deeper understanding of the culture I was trying to re-enter, and devoured the work of writers like Virgilio Titone, Giovanni Verga, Maria Messina, and other literary realists who honor a kind of truth in the fiction they’ve crafted.
But through food, it’s possible to gain a very different, perhaps more intimate sense of the culture, even if just on a gastronomic level. While I never had a nonna to cook with in the kitchen, I’ve been blessed with amazing friends that let me prepare Sicilian dishes for them, and concocting a good sauce through research and practice came as a happy essential. That ingredients like capers, raisins, pine nuts, and anchovies should complement one another in a sweet and tangy delicious red sauce makes sense when you consider Sicily’s background.
The ways in which Sicilian cuisine differs from other Italian culinary traditions reflects the history of its people. Over the course of hundreds of years, the presence of Ancient Greeks, Jews, French Normans, Spaniards, and North Africans—not to mention the current wave of Bangladeshi and Chinese immigrants that call the bigger cities of Palermo and Catania home—have left a rich multicultural imprint on all facets of Sicilian culture, from its architecture to its local music and the complex diversity of its dishes. Sicilian comfort gravy offers a bolder, more Mediterranean taste than a typical Italian red sauce, once-forgotten flavors that have become a standard in my cooking life.
The secret to making this sauce extra rich lies in how long it’s allowed to sit together before consuming. It’s ideal to refrigerate the sauce overnight to allow all of the sweet and salty flavors to synch together, creating a warm, vibrant taste.
Traditional Sicilian Red Sauce
Prep time:10 minutes
Cook time:1 hour 15 minutes
Makes 8 servings
- A handful of raisins (the snack-sized Sun-Maid packets work best)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
- 1 6-oz. can tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts*
- 5-10 large black olives, drained and halved</li>
- 3 anchovy filets, chopped
- 1/4 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Soak raisins in lukewarm water for 20-30 minutes until plump and soft.
Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat and add onions, garlic and celery, cooking for 7-10 minutes or until they are tender and just starting to brown.
Once the onions are lightly browned, add the crushed tomatoes and can of paste. I like my sauce thick and hearty—food that feeds the marrow of your bones—which is why I add a can of tomato paste to ensure a richer consistency. Add capers, pine nuts, olives, anchovies, and raisins. Stirring slowly, sprinkle in basil for taste and sugar to cut down on the acidity of the tomatoes while articulating the sweetness of the raisins.
Let the sauce come to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for at least one hour, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reaches its desired thickness. Serve with penne or rigatoni and a full red wine like Nero D’Avola.
*Toast pine nuts on a baking sheet in a 350? oven for about 5 minutes, and watch carefully as pine nuts tend to burn quickly.