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A New Book Surveys the Eclectic Food Traditions of the Italian Islands

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As pretty much anyone who has visited can attest, you don’t forget your first time in Sicily. Perhaps you found yourself in the heart of Palermo, dodging the swinging arms of wildly gesticulating market stall holders, or weaving your way through crowds of puffer jacket-clad teenagers to find your hotel or Airbnb, suitcase rattling on the cobblestones. Or, you simply jumped in a hired car and began whizzing through the island’s lawless traffic, before the cities give way to the autostrade and you find yourself swooping down along the coastline or cruising through the tunnels bored through its towering mountains.

For Katie Parla, her first visit to the island at the tip of Italy’s toe 22 years ago was one she remembers not just for its sensory overload, but also for the strange connection she felt with both its landscapes and its people—even if it that connection wasn’t immediate. “I went by myself in August, and at that time it was the hottest August on record,” Parla remembers. “Back then, people really did leave the city in August, so it was like a weird ghost town, with only the sketchiest people left on the streets.” Parla also didn’t realize, at first, that another reason the streets were so quiet is that the city truly comes alive at night, after its residents have slept through the day’s baking heat. “They were partying at all hours!” she adds. “But I was so driven to connect with the city that I just kept going back—and once I had the courage to operate like a local, it was a game-changer.”

When it came to food, however—the sfincione, or breadcrumb-topped pizza slices; the ubiquitous aubergines, swollen with olive oil; the biscotti that “are so sweet the sugar can’t even fully dissolve in them, because there’s so much of it,” as Parla describes it—her attraction was almost instant. “Although, I didn’t realize until I went there how much people eat just standing up,” she says with a laugh. “I was used to eating a slice of pizza like that in Rome, but they’d be eating full-on meals just standing in the street.” Quickly, Parla found herself drawn into the homes and kitchens of those producing the island’s most prized foodstuffs—and discovering a whole new facet of Italian cuisine in the process. 

Cùscusu e fregula.Photo: Ed Anderson

Sicily is but one of the many overlooked corners of the country that Parla explores in her seventh cookbook, Food of the Italian Islands. Leafing through its pages, which are packed with enough gorgeous photos to have you googling flights before you’ve even made it halfway through, you’ll be transported variously to the volcanic outcrop of Pantelleria, with its dusty caper fields; immersed in the decorative, sculptural bread-baking traditions of Sardinia; or discovering the unique agricultural conditions of the Venetian island of Sant’Erasmo, whose unusually savory artichokes and chicory are carted over to Venice’s Rialto market daily to serve the kitchens and restaurants of the city. “I wanted to acknowledge the beautiful coastlines, and all of the delicious foods you want to be eating with the sea view—but also tie in the other elements of the islands, because a lot of their culture developed over millennia inland,” Parla explains.

She also deliberately sought out stories from culinary artisans of all stripes, whose more unconventional approaches you wouldn’t find in your typical tourist guide. “I’d visit the islands, but rather than walk along the beaches, I’d be searching for the best little farm, or who’s selling illegal ricotta out of their trunk,” she says. “I’m obsessed with shepherd culture, for example, so I dug deep into that for a few pages. It’s about sharing something you don’t necessarily get to experience if you’re just going for a beach holiday.” Indeed, readers will likely be surprised at how little seafood factors into many of these islands’ richest food traditions. “I’ve been getting a lot of emails and DMs from potential readers who are like, ‘I don’t really fuck with fish: Am I gonna like this book?’” Parla says. “I’m like, you’re good.”

Woven through the book’s 85 recipes and insights into some of the islands’ more offbeat cultural specificities are more sentimental moments, too, with Parla reflecting on her childhood growing up in Italy’s “21st region” (namely, New Jersey). Visiting the homes of older generations of her family every Sunday and often eating classic Sicilian dishes—even if she didn’t have the vocabulary then to identify them as such—she remembers that despite the fact her elders could trace their roots back to many of the islands she explores in the book, they were reluctant to go into detail about their time there. “I don’t think this is unique for Italian Americans of my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation, but after they left Italy, they really didn’t talk about it at all, as there was so much pressure on assimilation,” she says. “It’s unfortunate, but I think that’s a common immigration story.”

Equally common is the urge for the following generations to seek out these histories for themselves, as Parla has done. But where many would make a pilgrimage every few years to their ancestral homeland, Parla has gone a few steps further. Not only has she built a career out of her passion for poking around the nooks and crannies of Italian food culture—along with the countless books on the country’s cuisines, Parla has also made appearances on the likes of Chef’s Table and Stanley Tucci’s CNN series Searching for Italy—but she’s now celebrating her 20th anniversary of living in the country. From her current base of Rome, Parla offers a popular program of personalized food tours, and she holds Italian citizenship thanks to the country’s jure sanguinis—or “by right of blood”—policy, for which she can thank her Sicilian great-grandfather Niccolò.

Photo: Ed Anderson

Still, Parla is careful to avoid painting an exaggeratedly rosy picture of the challenges that face these islands. “In my past books, I’ve written a lot about modern-day slavery in Italy and how that informs agriculture, and on my podcast, I regularly dig a little deeper into labor issues,” she says. “People love Italy, but they often only love the beautiful parts, without understanding that you have to talk about these other, human elements too. Maybe then people will think a bit more about how they shop for their Airbnb, or they’ll understand better why oranges cost a euro a kilo. Or they’ll go out and find a shop that’s part of the Libera Terra movement that cultivates on land confiscated from the mafia and has proper labor practices—that kind of thing is very important to me.”

Labor issues aren’t the only challenges the Italian islands face. With their heavy reliance on tourism, many local economies were decimated by the pandemic, while another major source of income is the export of produce, which is being gradually threatened by climate change. So too have the islands become an important locus amid the European migrant crisis, with hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers passing through their shores over the past decade, often arriving in the direst conditions. (Parla is donating a portion of proceeds from Food of the Italian Islands to the International Rescue Committee and a handful of refugee centers, and encourages readers to do the same in the book’s postface.) “I think it’s so easy to write sanitized things about Italian culture, without acknowledging the emergencies that continue to exist there,” she says. 

One of the joys of reading Food of the Italian Islands, however, is the simple reminder that there are corners of the Italian peninsula—a place where some of the most popular hotspots can feel beyond oversaturated—that remain about as untouched as it is possible to be within the Mediterranean. On many of the islands, traditions specific to that place and that place only continue to thrive, and while Parla understands the risks of introducing these lesser-known destinations to the wider world, she argues for the benefits of recording and preserving these cultural nuances, too. “There are places like Marettimo that have something like 53 full-time residents, but it’s so fascinating to me that a place that’s so small can still have such a distinct identity,” she says. 

How does she feel about the possibility that those reading the book might be inspired to give up their Amalfi Coast go-to for the glittering waters of Ponza, or trade their Florentine vacation for a trip through the remotest Aeolian Islands? “I mean, obviously I like Rome—I live here!” Parla says. “But I feel like I’ve been yelling at people to stop going to the same places for two decades now, with limited success.” Parla intentionally included a handful of QR codes at the back of the book, not only providing video guidance for making those fiddlier pasta shapes, but also linking to regularly updated guides to some of the islands: providing everything from itineraries, to where you can hire a beaten-up Fiat Panda to navigate the narrow hairline bends of Pantelleria’s coastal roads. 

“I hope by giving people these resources, they’ll feel empowered to visit these places,” she says. “These are places where you can really have adventures still, and I think travelers are eager for that kind of unpredictability.” Yet whether it encourages people to actually travel to the islands, or simply to recreate some of its most treasured recipes in the comfort of their own homes, Parla’s primary objective for the book is simple: “Really, I just hope that it can surprise people.”

Food of the Italian Islands by Katie Parla

Read on for a recipe excerpted from Parla’s new book. 

Pasta alla Norma

Serves 4 – 6

Photo: Ed Anderson

Pasta alla Norma, one of Sicily’s most iconic recipes, features fried eggplant simmered in tomato sauce and served with pasta, all seasoned with a generous flurry of ricotta salata. My first experience with the dish was on an estate near Catania in northeastern Sicily, the birthplace of the dish, where my stepmom Shari trained horses in the 1980s. Twenty years after her tenure, we returned to visit her former boss Gaetano, a suave aristocrat with a sprawling property on the lower slopes of Mount Etna. It was the fanciest place I had ever been. The regal dining room was filled with beautifully painted ceramics from Caltagirone, a town in central Sicily famous for terra-cotta.  Outside, citrus trees packed with fruit obscured the silhouette of  the active volcano beyond. Horses neighed in the distance. The eggplant (from their garden) had been fried in olive oil (their own production) and simmered in tomato sauce (again, homemade). It was a dramatic backdrop for simple pasta alla Norma, and it comforted me to know that such a humble dish has a place in such a stately locale.


  • 2 pounds eggplant (about 2 medium globe), cut into ¾-inch cubes
  • ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
  • 6 fresh basil leaves, plus a few leaves per person for garnish
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • 1 pound dried paccheri or rigatoni
  • 3 ounces ricotta salata cheese, coarsely grated (about 3⁄4 cup) 


  1. Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle all over with abundant salt to draw out the water. Set aside to drain for 1 hour. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
  2. Fill a 10- to 12-inch frying pan or cast-iron skillet with ½ cup of the olive oil and heat the oil over medium-high heat to 375°F. The temperature of the oil will drop slightly when you add the eggplant. Regulate the heat to fry at 350°F. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, fry the eggplant, turning to ensure even browning, until deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add more oil as needed. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Discard any remaining oil and wipe the pan clean.
  3. Heat the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil in the same pan over medium-low heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic. Cook until it just starts to take color, 3 minutes. Add the basil, cooking until fragrant, 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes and season with salt. Cook until the tomatoes have lost their raw flavor, about 10 minutes. Stir in the eggplant and cook for 1 minute more.
  4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water until it tastes like a seasoned soup. Add the paccheri and cook until al dente (see page 28). Drain the pasta, reserving the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to coat. Add a bit more pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce as needed. 
  5. Plate and serve with the ricotta salata on top and a basil garnish. 

Republished from Food of the Italian Islands by Katie Parla, with permission from Parla Publishing.



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