The he turned to me and said, “They eat nothing but olive oil, swordfish, and almond granita.”
I booked the tickets myself.
We started in Palermo and took a two-week road trip, driving around the island and up into the little volcanic specks that are Salina and Panarea. In that time, I drank olive oil fresh from the grove and hot off the press. I toasted our marriage with glasses of deep red and truest purple volcanic orange and grape juices. I stopped into Granite da Alfredo by boat, where the world’s best granitas are made by a kindly man in a tiny town on a tiny island, and spooned my way through not only the almond, but the lemon granita too. The honeymoon was simply a movable feast.
After it all, my favorite dish was a pasta primi that I ate one night in Taormina at L’Arco Dei Cappuccini, outside under a canopy, nestled around a table, drinking in the night and the hum of laughter and conversation wafting over from around the terrace. It was a pasta with swordfish and wild fennel—a perennial special that is apparently always announced but is never on the menu. The pasta looked like elbow macaroni after a growth spurt: long, ridged, curling tubes. The cherry tomatoes were fresh, as they always seemed to be on that island. The wild fennel and its fronds were chopped into tiny slivers. And the swordfish was crumbled, firm and white. Altogether, it was like a maritime bolognese.
It’s a popular dish, swordfish pasta. I had it with eggplant. With zucchini. With chilies. And in all the iterations, the swordfish was crumbled in that ingenious way that I had never considered before, and was so perfectly suited to the fish. As someone who prefers fish to meat, I felt like I had come into my perfectly suited spaghetti with meat sauce. And after tasting all the varieties available from Erice to Siracusa, my favorite was the one with wild fennel I had that night in Taormina.
In my version, I start with casarecce pasta, but you could use shells, corkscrews, fusilli, or even elbows. Sear the swordfish until it’s just cooked through, then dice it as finely as you can. Blitz the fennel with mint, fennel fronds, and garlic to make a rubble, and then sweat it with olive oil. Follow them into the pot with cherry tomatoes, and let the tomatoes burst over the heat. Add the swordfish, tear in more fresh mint, add a pinch of chili if you want it, and toss it with the pasta. Leave it there, or crown it with a crunchy mess of toasted breadcrumbs, almonds, and fennel seed.
Dig into a giant bowl, or do what I did in Sicily: have it to start, and follow with a simply grilled giant swordfish steak, tasting only of olive oil, lemon, and the sea.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (optional)
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
- Salt and pepper
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 small fennel bulb, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup, packed, mint
- 1/4 cup, chopped fennel fronds
- 1/2 pound swordfish steak
- 2 pounds cherry tomatoes
- 1 pound any shape of macaroni pasta
Begin by making the topping, if using. In a wide, nonstick sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs, almonds, and fennel seed, and season with salt and pepper. Toast, stirring often, until golden and crisp. Remove to a bowl and set aside, and wipe out the pan. There’s no need to wash it.
Prep the vegetables for the pasta sauce by pulsing together the garlic, fennel, mint, and fennel fronds in the food processor until finely chopped. Set aside.
In a wide sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper, and cook, turning once, until just cooked through and opaque in the middle. The time will depend on the thickness of your fish. Remove the fish to a plate and set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the same pan, and lower the heat to medium. Add the chopped garlic, fennel, and herbs to the pan, and season. Sauté the fennel just until soft and fragrant, and add the tomatoes. Use a potato masher to burst the tomatoes. Cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low for 12-15 minutes, until you have a fresh sauce that’s still chunky.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain.
Remove the skin from the swordfish and chop into a fine dice. Add to the tomato and fennel sauce, along with the drained pasta. Keep on the heat for about another 30 to 60 seconds, while the pasta drinks in tomato juice, and toss. Drizzle with fresh olive oil, and serve with the almond-crumb topping alongside.print this recipe