A Week-Night Dinner in Sicily (#ItalianFWT)

Raw Swordfish at Fish Market (Close-Up)
Sicilian Swordfish Fresh Off the Boat (photo by BingoKid)

This Saturday the Italian Food Wine Travel group is off to Sicily for an exploration of the island’s food, wine, history, and culture.  Why don’t you join us?  We gather (virtually) at 11 am eastern time, following the #ItalianFWT on Twitter.  On the first Saturday of each month the group focuses on a particular region of Italy, sharing travel tips as well as food and wine discoveries.  It’s always a lively discussion, and I come away inspired to track down a new wine or test a new recipe.  Our guide to Sicily will be Martin Redmond, of Enofylz Wine Blog fame, and it’s sure to be a good time!  Here’s what’s on tap for the chat:


Trinacria Sicily symbol
The Trinacria, Symbol of Sicily: Medusa, Wheat, Grapes, and Oranges – and three legs representing the three points of the island. (Photo by Sedicesimopiano)

A Week-Night Dinner in Sicily

Perched in the Mediterranean, at the tip of Italy’s boot, the island of Sicily boasts a colorful culture that is more mosaic than monolith.  Over the centuries, it has been ruled at times by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, and Normans, all of whom left their mark on this mountainous chunk of land.  Vestiges of their influence persist in the local dialect, architecture, and cuisine, reminding visitors that, if you want to understand Sicily, you’re going to have to dig beneath the surface.  For this gem of an island is more than just sea and sunshine:  she’s got range!

While Sicily has no shortage of stunning coastline or enviable weather, she brings more to the table than that.  The volcanic soils blanketing the island bode well for those who would grow grapes here, as is the case in other places like Alsace, Soave, Santorini, and Campania.  But Sicily goes one better, upping the ante ten-fold because she has a volcano:  an active one that dominates the horizon from just about anywhere on the island.  The sight of 11,000-foot Mount Etna looming over the countryside (spewing smoke and lava some days) reminds one that Sicily ain’t just a day at the beach.  She likes her drama.

In researching this post, I was overwhelmed by all the possible angles I could take in talking about Sicily and her winemaking traditions.  Autochthonous grapes?  Why not; there are so many here that grow practically nowhere else in the world.  If I wrote extensively about each of them, I’d end up with a 50,000-word post.  The incursions made by international varieties into Sicilian vineyards brings another potential story.  There is more Chardonnay planted here than in any other Italian region, and red varieties like Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon play a huge part of the blends bottled under the IGP Terre Siciliane classification.  Every time I thought I had narrowed my subject to one of manageable scope, I was mistaken.  So, what to do?

I’m far from an expert on Sicilian wine, but the reds from the Etna DOC have knocked me for a loop.  That’s no doubt the work of Nerello Mascalese, the beguiling star of Etna red blends.  In accordance with DOC regulations, these wines must be at least 80% Nerello Mascalese, with the balance usually contributed by Nerello Cappuccio (< 20%) and other authorized non-aromatic white grapes (< 10%.)  Let’s take a closer look at the two main characters in the drama that is Etna DOC red wine.

Eruption Etna
Mount Etna Eruption (photo by Marco Restivo)

Nerello Mascalese

Vines grow along Mount Etna’s slopes, at elevations reaching 1,000 feet, where it’s considerably cooler than at sea level. Good thing that Nerello Mascalese ripens late, often taking until early November to reach full phenolic ripeness.  This matters because the grape is known for its astringent tannin profile, even when fully ripe; picking before that point results in a harsh wine, with unpleasantly sharp, green tannins.  Soils, obviously, are volcanic, and many of the old Nerello Mascalese vines (some 100+ years old) survive on original root stock, having escaped phylloxera’s grasp.

A crossing between Sangiovese and Mantonico Bianco, Nerello Mascalese is therefore also related to Gaglioppo, best known for its role in making red wines from the Cirò DOC in Calabria.  It makes comparatively light-colored red wines that taste of sour cherry, tobacco, herbs, and minerals (I say ash!)  Some compare Nerello Mascalese to Pinot Noir, especially with respect to its ability to manifest differences in terroir.  In fact, the Etna DOC is subdivided into smaller sections called contrade each of which purportedly contributes distinct aroma and flavor profiles to the wines.  The borders of the contrade reflect old feudal property lines, which are still mapped out on the local land registry.  Soil distinctions can be dramatic from one contrada to the next, testament to the various eruptions, spills and flows from Mount Etna that result in five variables: soil minerals, grain size (sand, gravel, powder, and rock), altitude, individual lava flows, and irregular aspects.  When you think about it, it’s not unlike the patchwork of plots from another place we know:  Burgundy (minus the volcano, of course.)  I’d love the chance to taste some of these Nerellos side by side, allowing the subtle differences among them to shine.  Tough task: it’s not easy to find one bottle of Nerello Mascalese, let alone several representing an array of contrade.

Nerello Cappuccio

The favored blending partner of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio has a complicated history.  Over the years its vines have been confused with Sangiovese and, more often, Carignano, leaving its true nature and identity clouded in mystery.  Until recently, precious few varietal wines were crafted from this grape, most of which remained in local villages.  As a result, there isn’t a lot of clamor for Nerello Cappuccio and it’s usually relegated to second-class status when compared with its more famous counterpart.

The reason the two Nerellos work so well together is that their flavor profiles complement each other nicely.  Nerello Cappuccio makes a dark red wine, one that helps boost the pale color profile of Mascalese.  Its aromas tend to be softer and more floral, and it brings substantial tannins, some might even call it coarseness, to the blend.

What I Tasted

2012 Passopisciaro Nerello Mascalese  (SRP about $35; 15.5% abv)


Labeled as IGP Terre Siciliane, this wine is 100% Nerello Mascalese, and shows medium-ruby in color.  It’s not pale, but it doesn’t look like most Italian red wines I’ve seen.  The aromas, however, are anything but shy:  before I can swirl the glass there are beautiful notes of cherry, strawberry, and thyme, chased away by a slightly smoky (dare I say “ashy”) quality.  After taking a sip, all I can say is, “Pow!  Right in the kisser!”  (Thanks to Ralph Kramden and Family Guy for the description.)  Cherries, berries, leather, herbs – there are so many fruit and savory flavors.  Despite having spent 18 months in large wooden botte, there is no overt oak influence that I can detect.  So much the better.  But what I love the most about this wine is its acidity:  it’s bracing but not searing, doing a Texas Two-Step with the tannins across my tongue.  How else could a wine clocking in at 15.5% abv be this light and refreshing?  The sensation is unique – as if delicious, wine-flavored Pop-Rocks were exploding in your mouth.  I love, love, love this wine!

Here is a brief history of Passopisciaro, as described on their website:

In 2000 Andrea Franchetti decided to restore an old farm and cellars on the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano in northeastern Sicily. The winery sits at about a thousand meters of altitude above the small wine town of Passopisciaro in the district of Castiglione di Sicilia, on the northern slope of the volcano. His first task was to clear and restore long-abandoned terraces of ancient vines on the northern slopes of the mountain, replanting at a density of 12,000 vines per hectare on thin lavic soil. His arrival on Etna helped to initiate the renaissance of viticulture on the mountain and an international discovery of the wines of Etna.


How I Paired It


Although I’d usually think carefully before pairing a fish dish with a red wine (it can definitely be a success) this wine gave me no pause.  With all those bright fruit flavors and zippy acidity, I thought it would be brilliant with a simple swordfish preparation.  Swordfish, called pesce spada in Italy, is a staple of Sicilian cuisine; lucky for me it is also caught right off the coast of Pompano Beach, where I live.

The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cuisine, who did an interview with the Washington Post back in 1997.  She shared this swordfish dish with the paper, telling the story about how she and her husband Victor had adapted it from a meal they’d enjoyed at a restaurant.  It seemed like a natural idea for this month’s post.


Did the pairing work?  Absolutely!  The combination of flavors – tomatoes, mint, garlic, and saffron – were a lovely match for the wine, with the mint accentuating the herbal aromas and the saffron highlighting some of the earthier components.  And swordfish is meaty, able to stand up to a bigger wine with structure and complexity.  I look forward to the next time I can serve these two together.

Pesce Spada Come Lo Fa La Rita (from “Marcella Cucina”)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
About 35 small fresh mint leaves, torn into bits (I use more)
1 cup dry white wine
A large pinch of saffron
1 cup canned chopped Italian plum tomatoes
Salt to taste
Chopped fresh or dried red chili pepper, to taste
2 1/2 pounds fresh swordfish steaks, about 1 inch thick

Choose a skillet that can later contain all the fish without overlapping, put in the olive oil and garlic and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the garlic, stirring once or twice, until it turns a very pale gold color.

Add the mint, stir quickly three or four times, then add the white wine and the saffron. When the wine has simmered a minute or so and the scent of alcohol has subsided, add the chopped tomato and salt and chili pepper to taste. Cook at a lively simmer, stirring occasionally, until the oil begins to separate from the sauce, about 15 or 20 minutes.

Strip away the skin that circles the fish steaks, and if the steaks are very large cut them into pieces no longer than 4 inches. Sprinkle with salt. Add the fish to the pan, turning the pieces over a couple of times to coat with the sauce. Cook, over high heat, for 3 minutes on one side and 2 to 3 minutes on the other. Transfer the entire contents of the pan to a warm serving platter and bring to the table at once.

As an accompaniment to the swordfish, I made a traditional Sicilian salad of blood oranges, red onion marinated in pomegranate vinegar, and arugula.  I dressed the salad with a light vinaigrette of pomegranate vinegar whisked with blood orange olive oil, salt, and pepper.



In researching this post I consulted the following references:

Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata; University of California Press, 2014.

Into Italian Wine: The Italian Wine Professional Certification Course, Second Edition by Jack Brostrom and Geralyn Brostrom; Italian Wine Central, 2016.





  1. Wow! I’m definitely going to have to try that Swordfish recipe it looks great. Loved reading your post…especially the part about the contrade. It reminded me of my visit to Siena last fall, and the contrade there (though that’s more about people that grapes). Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Martin. Writing this post had me itching to go to Sicily; after today’s chat, I’m even more excited to go. The whole idea of a live volcano hosting 100-year-old grape vines is thrilling! The recipe is easy and could be made with other meaty fish – grouper or halibut come to mind. Let me know how you end up doing it.


  2. Hi Lauren,
    There is so much to experience in Sicily, but like you, I’m smitten with Mt. Etna. I simply must go! Your swordfish looks great, but the blood orange salad is breathtaking! Amazing that all those foods are available in and around Sicily.

    Liked by 1 person

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