A. few years ago, on a visit to Sicily, I was invited for dinner at the home of Giuseppe and Julia di’Martino, who moved to the island forty years ago. After we finished a series of pastas, platters of local dishes were brought out, among them the Siracusan specialty, stimperata, a beautifully cooked slab of tuna smothered in a sweet-and-sour blend of capers, olives, mint, celery, sugar, and vinegar.
The word stimperata derives from the Latin temperare, meaning “to mix properly or regulate.” It thus reflects that “Greek spirit of temperance” that had originally drawn the di’Martino family to southeastern Sicily.
Their son, Adolfo, now the owner-chef of the Green Gables Inn on the New Jersey shore, told me that all recipes for stimperata are the same “because once a perfect balance is achieved, there’s no point in changing it. You must be very accurate about ingredient amounts and sizes so that everything will come out evenly, fully cooked at the same time. Also important is a long mellowing of the ingredients.”
Adolfo paused, then he smiled. “But actually there’s more to it. There’s the tempering.” He was referring to the addition of just the right amount of water to dilute the dish judiciously . . . but not too much. “God save us from a too watery stimperata!” he added.
Listening to him, I was reminded of the “Temperance” card in the tarot pack. The traditional image of Temperance is a woman pouring water from one vessel to dilute wine in another.
“Yes, that’s it!” Adolfo said. “Add just enough water to temper the dish. Temperance— that’s the key to stimperata—and to the Sicilian way of life.”
This succulent dish actually cooks fairly quickly, but the secret to its depth of flavor is in letting it stand for several hours, or preferably overnight.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert. Copyright © 2003 by Paula Wolfert. Photographs copyright © by Christopher Hirsheimer. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.