Book Review: Eat Smart Sicily

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I've got the BEST book to share! It is called Eat Smart in Sicily, and this is the kind of travel guide that people who love to learn will adore. It is filled with history, culture, language, food, markets, recipes (!), photos and more. THIS is one of those books that make you instantly want to delve into more like it - fascinating, and eminently readable. I've learned so much about Sicily - and its history and various cultural influences, and how they've mixed throughout history and can now be seen in the food in Sicily.  This book is written by Joan Peterson, PhD, and co-authored by Marcella Croce, who lives in Palermo. The book chapters include the Cuisine of Sicily, Local Sicilian Food, Tastes of Sicily (recipes), Shopping in Sicily's Food Markets, Resources, Helpful Phrases, Menu Guide, Foods and Flavors Guide, and Restaurant Recommendations. WOW!

Eat Smart in Sicily

I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with Joan about her book, her travel history, and all about food. Yes, I am now seriously planning a trip to Sicily, just because of this book! Here's what Joan had to say...

WE:  Please tell us about your book, Eat Smart in Sicily: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods, & Embark on a Tasting Adventure...

JP: I have answered this in the plural, i.e. about all our guides:
The multi-chaptered EAT SMART guides focus on WHAT there is to eat at a foreign destination. They cover all aspects of a nation's food: the history of its cuisine; the types of regional foods and dishes; traditional recipes, which are contributed by chefs and are included so readers can preview the tastes of the country before departure or enjoy the flavors again upon their return; phrases to use in the market and restaurant; resources to help locate hard-to-find ingredients for the recipes; shopping tips; a market glossary (Foods & Flavors Guide) AND a menu glossary (Menu Guide); as well as a cross-referenced index so searching for terms can be made in English as well.

Note that general guidebooks do provide information on WHERE to eat. offering a handful of restaurant suggestions in each location. I preferred to exclude this content since it was available, but more importantly, I omitted it because the information becomes dated rather quickly: restaurants come and go, and management and chefs undergo turnover. The fare at a once highly recommended restaurant can go downhill and without up-to-date information a traveler can be in for a surprise. And there’s always the consideration that recommendations can be rather subjective. What one reviewer thinks is top notch may be a dismal choice for another diner.

WE: What is your background/interest in Sicily?

JP: I am not Sicilian/Italian. I was intrigued about Sicily because most people who visit mainland Italy don't visit the delightful island of Sicily, and there isn't as much written about the food of this region of Italy. So I decided I'd feature Sicily's delicious cuisine in my next guidebook and hope to lure more travelers to the island. I’ll be covering the cuisine of Norway next.

WE: The recipes in your book sound exquisite. What are your favorite Sicilian recipes?

JP: It's hard to choose, but I'll mention a few from the book: Pennette con pesto di pistacchio e mandorle, small penne with a pesto of pistachios, almonds and basil. Sicily provides about 90% of the pistachios used in Italy and this delicious recipe was provided from a chef at the Ristorante La Pigna in the province of Catania where the pistachios are grown.

Another yummy recipe from the book is Involtini alla Siciliana, meat rolls grilled on skewers. The recipe was provided by a chef from Palermo. Arabs, who historically provided the largest influence to Sicilian cuisine, typically use grape leaves to wrap around a filling but the Sicilians use slices of meat, fish fillets or even eggplant as wrappers.

WE: Sicily has a rich and varied global culture. How has that influenced its foods?

JP: Rich with seafood, citrus, olives, and almond sweets, the cuisine of the sun-drenched island of Sicily reflects the influence of Greeks, Norman French, Arabs, and Italians, among others. Unlike guidebooks that sweep Sicily into an overview of Italy, this latest addition to the award-winning Eat Smart series focuses solely on the cuisine of Sicily. Eat Smart in Sicily provides an historical overview of the peoples who have lived there and their contributions to Sicilian cuisine, with attention given to the fare distinct to the villages and urban centers of Sicily’s four regions.

WE:  What other books are in your Eat Smart series?

JP: Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, Morocco, India and Peru. Norway is next.

WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

JP: I have always loved food and travel. These topics are pretty much intertwined for me.

Perhaps the most intensive and extensive travel/food experience I had before I began writing culinary travel guides was a 4-month trip with the USO to the countries of the Pacific Rim for the purpose of entertaining the military personnel during the Vietnam war. When not doing the show, we* had lots of time on our hands to immerse ourselves in the culture. For us*, this meant an in-depth exploration of the local open-air markets, first thing. They typically were sprawling and noisy, packed with vendors selling a staggering area of foodstuffs--plus many that were new and exotic to us--and throngs of people making purchases for their next meal. Not surprisingly, some parts of the market were on the smelly side. For example, you could detect the fish displays long before you'd reach them, yet we lingered in these parts of the market, too. There were some pretty extraordinary fish that we hadn't seen before. Whenever I think about the unusual fish I've seen over the years, I most often think first of a large and spectacular fish sold in the outdoor market of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, one whose teeth were like the molars of a horse. The powerful teeth of this fish--known as tambaqui--make short work of the big, hard seeds that rain down from the rubber trees that line the banks of the Amazon river. Incidentally, tambaqui is quite tasty and we enjoyed it often when in the Amazon.

Our children were little (and taken care of by my parents) when we took this trip, so we had to wait many years before we could do any significant foreign traveling again. When the time came, however, I always made a list of what we could expect to find in restaurants and a list of foods I'd probably encounter in the markets (lists in the language of the country we'd visit) because there was so little information about food in guidebooks. My lists were never sufficient, however, so I finally decided to do in-depth research about the food myself and thus began the EAT SMART series of culinary travel guides for food lovers.

*We =My husband David and I. He is a retired professor of theatre and music (Univ of WI-Madison). Some of the plays he wrote were selected to entertain the military through the USO during peace time (60s) and war (70s). I ran the lighting.

My joy in researching and writing these guides finally overtook another life's passion. I was a biochemist at the university of Wisconsin in Madison for many years. (PhD in Cytology, UW-Madison). Moonlighting as an author initially, I then moved to part-time and quickly realized I couldn't do both, so gave up my first career.

WE: Thanks so much, Joan! Your experience is fascinating, and your guidebooks, even MORE SO. I love this Sicily Guidebook - it is a window into another culture.  


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