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January 3, 2014

Go For the Food: In Sicily, sublime ice cream

Sicilians pride themselves on their contribution to the world of ice cream. History may not credit them definitively with the invention of the frozen treat, but it turns out that nature allowed them to have ice long before electricity made its way to the Mediterranean island.

If you visit Mount Etna, the region’s famous volcano, you can find ice trapped below layers of volcanic ash, insulating it from warm weather. In a region known for its cuisine, the ice provided an option for chilling and preserving food long before modern refrigeration.

And within Italy, which already takes credit for making “gelato” a world favorite, Sicilians deservedly top the list of the best ice-cream makers. Their “brioscia,” a warm sweet bun loaded with ice cream, is one of the region’s top confections. The sheer number of calories in it — around 1,800 per serving — make it somewhat daunting, but it certainly should be tried at least once. I asked a Sicilian friend how people could eat it day after day, and he said, “We don’t eat it after the meal. It’s the meal itself. We just have that for lunch in the summer.” What a treat!

On a recent trip here, I found the sights, stunning as they are, took a backseat to the food, and I spent seven days on a quest for Sicily’s best ice cream. I tried ice cream parlors in most of the island’s big cities, and many of its small ones. And while what makes great ice cream is certainly subjective, the main criteria for me were texture and taste. You don’t want the sugar to overpower everything else in the ice cream. And you don’t want it to be too soft. It should in fact feel like you are biting into it — at least that’s what I like.

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