Sicily: Home of Caponata
Sicilian cooking, like Sicily itself, has been influenced over the centuries by so many different cultures that this island probably has as much claim to the title of “melting pot” as does the United States. One of the signatures of Sicilian cuisine is the marriage of sweet and sour flavors in one dish – a signature that is, perhaps, best captured in the island’s most famous dish: caponata.
Traditional Sicilian caponata (or capunata in the Sicilian dialect) is a mixture of several different cooked vegetables with sweetened vinegar and capers. The vegetables used in the dish vary depending on who’s making it and what’s on hand, but most wouldn’t consider it a traditional caponata if it didn’t have eggplants. Other vegetables that may be in caponata include celery, bell peppers, onions, and carrots, and many recipes call for olives. Some call for raisins to heighten the sweetness, and I’ve even had it with apples thrown in.
As mentioned, caponata is a reflection of the foreign influence over Sicily’s history. The eggplant itself comes from India, but it was introduced to Sicily and the rest of the Mediterranean by the Arabs who ruled the area during the 10th and 11th centuries.
Because eggplants are essentially required for caponata, it is primarily a summer dish made when the eggplants are in season. You’ll find it in Sicily year-round, however, as people adapt the recipe to showcase seasonal ingredients – and you’ll also find it throughout Italy, made what the vegetables that are grown in each region.
Caponata can serve many purposes in a meal (another example of the dish’s adaptability), from a hearty topping for toasted bread as an appetizer to a vegetable side dish next to an entree to the entree itself. Some of the variations on caponata even include seafood, making an even better case for it to be the main course. Also note that while the vegetables are cooked, caponata is most often served cold or at room temperature.
>> Check out Gabriele’s aunt’s Tuscan version of caponata!
Visitor’s Information: What to Know if You Want to Go
While you can certainly go just about anywhere in Italy these days and find a restaurant (or many) with caponata on the menu, there’s nothing quite like going to the source to get the real thing. In this case, that means heading to the island of Sicily.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and it’s easy to spend an entire 2-week vacation on Sicily alone. There are a few international airports on the island, the largest of which is in Catania. Palermo also has its own airport as well, if you don’t plan to visit the Eastern side of the island at all. There’s no bridge crossing the Straits of Messina, although you can see Sicily from the mainland, but you can take a train across – trains roll right onto ferries for the short trip. Ferries also take cars, buses, and walk-on passengers.
Once on the island, you’re likely to need a rental car, unless you’re spending all your time in the cities served by rail. Sicily’s rugged landscape means that many places are only accessible by road – including some of the incredible Greek ruins in the south – so it’s worth looking into renting a car for your stay.
Note that while cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice may get all the press in the Western media when it comes to tourism, the island of Sicily is a major tourist destination in the summer months. The beach resorts are absolutely packed with visitors (mostly Italians and other Europeans, especially in August), and prices on accommodation skyrocket. To avoid paying a fortune for your trip, consider a shoulder season visit – the weather will still be pretty nice, the crowds won’t be as thick, and prices will be much more reasonable.