Italy in Books June Review – Searching for Sicilian Food in “The Wings of the Sphinx”

The Wings of the Sphinx by Andrea Camilleri
While most readers pick up a whodunit intending to find a killer within the pages, I, instead, was on the search for Sicilian food. I had heard that Inspector Montalbano, Andrea Camilleri’s character, loves Sicilian food. My main reason for reading The Wings of the Sphinx for this month’s Italy in Books Challenge was to search out Sicilian food within the pages of this murder mystery. Kooky, maybe. In my defense, Mr. Camilleri’s website has an entire page dedicated to recipes from the Inspector Montalbano series, so I may not be the only one looking for delicacies while reading. Now, let’s get to the review. Oh, and I’ve added a few “food notes” below, after the review.
The story starts with Montalbano being called to investigate the murder of a dead young lady. Well that is after his maid walks in to find him nude, and he finds out that a police car can’t pick him up because all the cars are out of gas. The police department is waiting for money to be able to fill the tanks.
When we get to the scene, the dead young lady’s face has been almost completely shot off. The only clue to who she may have been is her distinctive tatoo of a butterfly, or more specifically a moth known as a sphinx. It seems that the girl was Russian and tied to an illegal sex trade, but she had been rescued from a Catholic organization. Montalbano finds a trail of three more women who have the same distinctive tatoo. They, too, were rescued from the Catholic organization, but they are missing. Along with the murder mystery, there is another case Montalbano is working on. A local business man was kidnapped, as witnessed by his wife, and neither a ransom demand nor a body has shown up.
 In the same quirky, disjointed and bumbling way that the story started, Montalbano solves both cases. Instead of a confession, the murderer proves his guilt by fainting after Montalbano interrogates him. The two cases are never tied together, as I had expected them to be. Before the book can end, though, there is one more murder – solved in a few short pages – and a botched rendezvous with his long-distance girlfriend Livia.
It is a quick read, and although it isn’t an edge of your seat page-turner, it is enjoyable. There are several funny moments. Catarella, the incompetent front desk/operator/receptionist guy plays Costello to Montalbano’s Abbott in a never-ending series of name mispronunciations, mistakes and vocabulary misunderstandings. Through Montalbano, Camilleri takes shots at Italian bureaucracy, Berlusconi, Ferrari and, even worse, SUV owners, to name only a few of his targets.
Much of the time, though, I felt like I was on the outside of an inside joke. It seemed to me that much of the dialogue and Montalbano’s thoughts had a double meaning or some political statement/stab, none of which I got. In the back of the book, there are explanations that helped to explain a few of the lost-in-translation moments, i.e. Montalbano refers to “smelling something burning,” which in Sicilian is a double entendre for “I smell a rat.” Without those notes, many times, I felt as clueless as Catarella. Is it only that something is lost in the translation? I also wonder if you need to be Sicilian to truly understand the humor. Or, did I need to start reading from the first book in the series to completely understand Montalbano’s humor and quirks?
The food has a very small part in the book. I counted ten references to specific dishes in the 226 pages. When compared to books like The Food of Love or The Wedding Officer, both very food-centric, that is tiny. Not disappointed though, I appreciated the references to the Sicilian dishes, several I had never heard of before. Again with the food, it seemed directed solely at Sicilians. For the most part, with only one exception, Montalbano named the dish and ate it without any further explanations. Now, I’m sure that even the rest of Italy isn’t familiar with the dish piscistoccu alla ghiotta.
Although the book may not be in my top 20 Italy-based reads, it was an enjoyable trip to Sicily.
This review is part of the Italy in Books June Reading Challenge. To see reviews of other books based in Italy, head on over there. Many reviews have been helpful, and I’ve found books based in Italy I hadn’t known of before. Below are a few of my food notes about the Sicilian dishes Montalbano ate.
Food Notes:
Of the many Sicilian dishes in the book, these were most interesting, and also, not as well known as cannoli, cassata and caponata. I’m looking forward to trying these out:
Pasta with Pesto alla Trapanese – From Trapani, this pesto is red. Tomatoes are added to ingredients that make the more popular Pesto alla Genovese.
Pasta ‘Ncasciata – This is a dish I had not heard of before. After doing a little investigating myself, I found that the dish comes from Messina and am very eager to make it. The ‘ncasciata is dialect for “in cassata,” meaning in a mold/form/dish. Basically, it’s a baked pasta dish that is surrouned by slices of fried eggplants and turned out of its baking dish. I’ve found a few variations on the dish, but in Montalbano’s case, the sauced pasta is layered among other layers of eggplant, salami & cheese, sliced and boiled eggs, and a meat ragu. Sounds delicious, right? (I’m thinking of leaving out the boiled eggs.)
Piscistoccu alla Ghiotta – A stockfish made in the Messinese way: Stockfish first seared then slowly cooked in tomato sauce, with potatoes, celery, onions, capers, olives, pinenuts and raisins.
‘Mpanata di Maiali – Finally we see at least part of the recipe in the book: Blanched cauliflower is sauteed with a thinly sliced onion. That is mixed with cooked and sliced sausage, thinly-sliced raw potatoes and black olives. Bread dough is rolled and placed in a cake tin. The mixture is added and another sheet of dough covers it. A nice layer of lard is spread over the top and it is baked.
Risu alla Siciliana – From the book the dish “is rice seasoned with the flavors of wine, vinegar, salted anchovies, olive oil, tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, hot peppers, marjoram, basil, and dried black passuluna olives.”
Cassatelle alla Siciliana
The top photo is courtesy of the Amazon Associates program. All other photos are mine, All Rights Reserved.
Related Posts:
Italy in Books January Review: The Glass Blower of Murano
Italy in Books February Review: Sacred Hearts
Italy in Books: Favorite Books Based in Italy and a Reading Challenge for 2011
Foods Not to Miss in Sicily
Taste of the Sea in Ortigia and Spaghetti Siracusana
Torta Setteveli – Seven Veils Cake from Palermo
Cassatelle alla Siciliana
Eggplant Caponata and Sicilian Market Etiquette
Pasta con le Sarde and Cooking in Palermo
Tiramisu recipe and How to Get thrown out of a House in Palermo
Good Views and Good Eats in Taormina
A Weekend in the Aeolian Islands
The Dish from Sicily: Arancino
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemon Granita
Involtini di Melanzane (Eggplant Rolls) for a Sicilian-Inspired Holiday Dinner



  1. Moya Stone
    June 29th

    I love the cover of this book. Kathy, is it contemporary? I’m a mystery fan, but well-written ones are hard to find. Thanks for the review. Looking at your food pics, I’m hungry. Good thing I packed a tasty lunch! Focaccia w/tomato and mushrooms.

  2. Paula
    June 29th

    Moya – these are contemporary books but they’re not sophisticated literature. The stories are “cute” and the inspector is quirky, but these are no Agatha Christie books. I’ll lend you one for a quick read and then you can decide whether to read more.
    Kathy – I love that Camilleri is (1) always thinking of eating and (2) when he cooks for himself, he always makes some quick pasta dish … that is SO much like my experience in Italy. Heat the water, throw in the pasta just enough to moisten it, spirnkle a bit of this and that and some cheese and EAT WHILE HOT! :-)

  3. Paula
    June 29th

    oops – I meant to say MONTALBANO is always hungry!

  4. Kathy
    June 30th

    Moya – Oh, your lunch sounds perfect! Paula said it well, from my little experience with Montalbano, they are not Agatha Christie books. The plot is simple, except for the mishaps, with little surprises. Montalbano fits his setting much better than a character like H. Poirot would, who might go crazy trying to meticulously solve a crime in Sicily! Let me know what you think after you’ve read one.
    Paula – You probably got it right the first time, Camilleri is always thinking of eating. I just picked up “The Snack Thief” and we’ll see if I still feel left out of the joke. Which Camilleri book did you like best?

  5. Nicole
    June 30th

    I often choose books for food or geography reasons too! And the ‘Mpanata di Miali sounds yummy. :) Looks like a fun read.

  6. Jozee
    July 5th

    This would be my kind of book. Mystery books are what I usually read. This would be most interesting because it ties in with Sicilian food.

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