Travel Notes blog
Pasta traditions in Sicily and Puglia
by Max Lane
6 min read

Pasta traditions in Sicily and Puglia

Pasta traditions in Sicily and Puglia
From orecchiette to busiate, we explore the speciality pastas of Sicily and Puglia, and 7 pasta traditions to know before your next visit to Italy.
Table of contents

Pasta may be one of the world’s best-loved and most ubiquitous foods, but how much do you know about pasta in Sicily and Puglia? Why is the pasta there so different to that found in the north of Italy? And what are some of the two regions’ speciality pastas? Head below and become a pasta master!


1. Flour power

Classic northern Italian pasta forms, such as Emilia Romagna's famous tagliatelle and tortellini, are made using flour and eggs. In Sicily, Puglia and many other parts of the south, pasta is made with just flour and water. History, agriculture, chemistry and tradition are all part of the reason for this difference.

Puglia and Sicily have always been the main producers (and consumers) of durum wheat in Italy. The "hard" flour produced from durum wheat contains more protein than "soft" flour, and is consequently more extensible - it will stretch more without breaking and only a little water is required to make the dough. Historically, the north of Italy did not cultivate or have such easy access to durum wheat and so used the more available soft flour, adding eggs to provide the necessary protein and "extensibility".

It should also be added here that until the middle of the 20th century, pasta was not the main staple for most northern Italians, who were brought up on rice and polenta dishes.


2. Mass-produced dried pasta - a Sicilian invention?

"West of Termini there is a delightful settlement called Trabia. Its ever-flowing streams propel a number of mills. and there are huge buildings in the countryside where they make vast quantities of itriyya, which is exported everywhere: to Calabria, to Muslim and Christian countries. Very many shiploads are sent."

So wrote Muhammad al-Idrisi, the great 12th-century cartographer and explorer who had created the Tabula Rogeriana - one of the finest mediaeval maps of the world - for the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II. Itriyya were long strands of pasta, not dissimilar to tagliatelle, that the Arabs had brought to Sicily. Trabia, just 30km southeast along the coast from Palermo, was evidently an important - and perhaps the first - centre for the mass production of dried pasta.

Browse Sicilian recipes


3. Little ears - Puglia's great gift to the gastronomic world

If we were asked to name three things that are most representative of Puglia, we'd probably go for trulli, olive trees and orecchiette. If you've been to Puglia, you'll almost certainly have tried the last item in this list, as it's probably fair to say that there isn't a restaurant in Puglia that doesn't have orecchiette on the menu.

Made of a simple mix of durum wheat flour, water and salt, "little ears" are quick to make (once you've mastered the technique - which can take months or years to perfect!), and are the perfect vehicle for numerous sauces, from the classic cime di rapa(turnip tops, anchovies and chili), to sugo alla ricotta forte (tomato sauce and a strong-flavoured ricotta cheese) and broccoli e salsiccia (broccoli and sausage).


4. But there's more than orecchiette in Puglia's pasta pantry

Orecchiette may be Puglia's most famous pasta shape, but there are plenty of other specialities. Here are three:

  • Cajubi 

    - very short strips of pasta that have been wrapped around a metal rod to create little tubes. They are frequently found in warming soups;

  • Cavatelli 

    - purists will tell you that they originate in Molise, but they've been part of Puglia's culinary black book for centuries. Indeed, Gambero Rosso, Italy's gastronomic bible, quotes a theory that they were invented during the time of Emperor Frederick II, Stupor Mundi, ruler of both Puglia and Sicily in the first half of the 13th century. Small, ribbed on one side and with a cavity on the other,


    in Puglia are often served with vegetables (tender stem broccoli and mushrooms in particular) and tomato sauce;

  • Tria

    - possibly deriving from al-Idrisi's itriyya mentioned in part 2, tria are slightly wider and thicker than tagliatelle. Traditionally, they are served on Saint Joseph's Day (19th March - also Father's Day in Italy) with chick peas (ciceri e tria). Some of the pasta is fried to add crunch.

Browse Puglian recipes


5. A pair of Sicilian speciality pastas

Sicily's vast recipe book bursts with speciality pasta shapes that you won't find anywhere else in Italy. Here are two absolute favourites:

Busiate - on the west coast of Sicily around Trapani, busiate pasta reigns supreme. Made fresh with durum wheat flour and water, they come in the form of deliciously chubby, elongated helixes. They're particularly good with pesto alla Trapanese, of which more below;

Anelletti - this dried pasta, in the form of little rings, is dear to every Sicilian's heart and, excruciatingly for many expats, extremely difficult to buy outside Sicily (even in the north of Italy you'd have to go to a speciality deli). Anelletti are only really used for one recipe: pasta al forno.


6. Inimitable Sicilian pasta sauces

If you go to your average local Sicilian restaurant, the chances are you'll find carbonara, amatriciana, arrabbiata, bolognese, pesto, vongole and lots of other classics on the menu, but probably none of Sicily's long list of signature pasta dishes, which include:

  • Pesto alla Trapanese

    - an uncooked mix of tomatoes, almonds, garlic, basil and pecorino cheese

  • Con le sarde

    - fresh sardines, raisins, pine kernels and wild fennel (Palermo)

  • Con le sarde a mare 

    - as above but without the sardines - the sardines are still at sea (classic

    cucina povera


  • Alla Norma

    - tomato sauce, fried aubergine, basil and salted ricotta cheese (Catania - find out more below)

  • C'anciova 

    - thick tomato sauce, raisins, pine kernels, anchovies, toasted breadcrumbs (Palermo)

  • Al lido 

    - chunks of swordfish, aubergine, cherry tomatoes and mint

  • Al pesto Pantesco

    - capers, green olives, tuna fish (Pantelleria)

  • Con i tenerumi

    - tomatoes, long courgettes (including their leaves), basil, vegetable broth

  • Broccoli arriminati in tegame 

    - green cauliflower, saffron, raisins, pine kernels, toasted breadcrumbs

  • Ai ricci di mare

    - sea urchins

  • Alla bottarga

    - dried tuna roe


7. Very Norma people, those Catanesi

“E’ una Norma!” (It’s a Norma!) exclaimed Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian theatre director, writer and poet. His reference to the operatic masterpiece of his fellow Catanian, Vincenzo Bellini, was high praise indeed, and the object of his enthusiasm was a plate of pasta. Not just any pasta, but a host of golden maccheroni exalted by a blushing-red, basil-infused salsa of sun-sweet tomatoes, silky, bronze-fleshed slices of aubergine, and a snow-white flurry of salted ricotta cheese. The name stuck and today, pasta câ Norma (as the locals call it) is the symbol of Catania’s proud culinary traditions. It is a dish that encapsulates both the simplicity of Sicilian cooking and the vibrant flavours that so characterise the island’s ingredients.

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