Sicilian Food – Best tastes in Europe
Sicilian food is part of the ever-popular Italian cuisine, but it has its critical differences against Italy’s mainland flavors. Sicily is a world on its own; they’re produce is of the highest quality, and the passion of Sicilian cooks is beyond compare.
Sicily developed its unique personality through centuries of cultural exchange; external influences became local customs, and soon the biggest island in the Mediterranean became greater the sum of its parts. Sicily, from the far western Marsala to the south-eastern Syracuse, from the northern Palermo to the distant eastern city of Messina, has a profoundly rooted lifestyle; there’s no place alike on earth.
With excellent seafood, incredible agricultural products, astounding wine and the most enticing sweets and pastries, Sicilian cuisine is the centre of the islander’s lives. Visit during carnival season and see for yourself; Sicilians know how to put on a good party, and there’s always something delicious to eat and drink everywhere, from high-end restaurants to street food stands and markets.
This is an attempt to portray the beauties that come out of Sicilian’s kitchens around the island; to pay homage to the hardworking cooks and family women that bring to life ancestral recipes, passed on from generation to generation, like it has been done for centuries. This is the tale of people that eat, not only to nourish their bodies but also to feed their souls.
Sicilian food is not only a regional cuisine, but it’s also the reflection of the land, the climate and the people. Because eating Sicilian food, whether it’s in other Italian regions or any other corner of the planet, is like being there, in Sicily, where food is more than food.
Before praising the varied and complex Sicilian cuisine, we must first understand its history.
The History Behind Sicilian Food
People have called Sicily home long before any foreign traveler reached the 25,711 km² island; the ancient Greeks called them the Sicels, from where the current name for the island was coined. People from other lands soon found on the island, where the weather is warm and the seas bountiful, a perfect place to settle.
One thousand years before the current era marked the beginning of one wave of immigrants after another. The Phoenicians settled on the island and brought with them their skill for commerce and navigation. The Greeks and their democracy followed, and the Carthaginians took the western side of Sicily for themselves, not without dispute.
Things settled as the mighty power of the Roman Empire was felt on the island, and the vast, fertile Sicilian fields became a valuable source of grains for the growing empire. However, Sicily was still to be stirred into a cultural hot pot in years to come.
As Rome weakened, nomads of Germanic ascent grabbed hold of the island and fought for it against the newly established Byzantine Empire. Between all the turmoil, it was Muslims of Islamic belief who ended with the highest card, and Sicily prospered. There’s still Arab influence in the Sicilian table.
The Spanish repelled the Muslims, not only from their home country but from the Sicilian emirate, bringing with them new and varied cooking techniques and ingredients.
It was not until 1861 that Sicily officially became part of Italy, but Sicily was never the same; few other places on earth have had such a diverse influence, precisely what makes its food one of extraordinary value.
Great food can only be made with equally good ingredients; in Sicily, that’s a given.
Every culture that has set foot in Sicily has left a mark, easily distinguishable in today’s gastronomy.
The Greeks carried with them their olives, olive oil, fish, pistachios, broad beans and fresh ingredients all mirroring the continental Mediterranean diet: eggplants, tuna, swordfish and sea bass are prominent across the Mediterranean Basin.
The Arabs contributed with sugar, citrus, melons, saffron raisins and rice, and aromatics like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and black pepper are widely used in Sicilian kitchens.
The Spanish, that had adopted American ingredients, were keen to propagating them in Sicily. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, cocoa and turkeys are a few of them.
Wheat has been around in Sicily for ages, and its derivatives, like flour and pasta, are essential. Even couscous, a gritty form of whole wheat, characteristic of neighbouring North African countries, has found a place in the Sicilian pantry.
Grapes from different parts of Europe were also propagated and are the ancestors of the complex array of wine grapes that become white, red, and fortified wines of all quality levels.
Being surrounded by the generous Mediterranean Sea cannot be underestimated since every port city in Sicily uses the sea treasures well.
It’s the combination of fertile flatlands, steep mountains and endless shorelines, all below a warm, intense sun, what has made Sicilian food one of the shiniest jewels in Italian gastronomy.
In the same way as every civilisation, at some point, touched the island, Sicilian dishes can now be found in major cities around the globe.
Sicilian Antipasti, The Starters
Eating is never just eating in Sicily, people spend lots of time in harmony around the table, and it all starts with antipasti.
This hearty and satisfying vegetable stew is built around a key Sicilian ingredient: eggplant.
Olives, capers, celery, carrots, bell peppers, and even pine nuts find their way into caponata. There are countless variations, but its presence is ubiquitous in a classic Sicilian table.
Caponata is both an appetiser and a colourful side dish served with the main course.
Think about golden coloured, fried rice balls, or croquettes. They gain their bright hue from the use of saffron and might be filled with meat ragú, tomato sauce, mozzarella, peas, or cured ham.
Arancini can vary in size, and there are oven-baked versions too. A handy street snack and appetizer that’s a great ambassador for what Sicilian food is all about.
Mainly found in an around the city of Palermo, panelle, crunchy chickpea flour fritters are part of the Arab legacy on the island. Rich in nutrients and proteins, they can be enjoyed on their own, dotted with parsley or a filling inside an artisan bun.
Panelle can come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re always a treat to find.
As in the rest of Italy, bread is as important as any other dish. Found in endless shapes, from braids to horseshoe-shaped buns, bread is always fresh and often dusted with sesame seeds.
Flatbread is typical too, and sweet pastries are some of the finest in Europe.
There are too many types of cheese in Sicily to cover in this guide, but we must mention a few. The most prominent is the salty pecorino. Made with sheep’s milk, it’s used to flavor pasta dishes, and it’s commonly enjoyed on its own too.
The Caciocavallo, made with cow’s milk, is common. Aged for months, or even years, it can be grated over pasta, and it’s a great companion for Sicily’s robust red wines.
Main Courses, Hearty and Flavorful Works of Art
Eating in Sicily is a serious business, and some of their most famous dishes are revered throughout the country. These are the most representative.
Couscous alla Trapanese
Trapani, a coastal city in the eastern shores, has always depended on trade and the bounties of the sea. Couscous, an African import is mixed Trapanese-style with fresh fish and seafood. It’s flavoured with saffron and has a pleasing gritty texture only surpassed by its enticing smell of the sea.
Pasta con le Sarde
Another Palermo speciality, pasta con le sarde, is self-explanatory. A hearty pasta dish with local sardines. Olive oil, onions raisins and pine nuts give new layers of flavor to the festive meal. Bucatini, the long hollow pasta is often preferred, although regional variations exist.
Pasta alla Norma
You can’t talk about Sicilian food without mentioning the flavorful and rainbow-like pasta alla norma. Especially beloved around the city of Catania, the dish is based on hollow macaroni, with a tomato and eggplant sauce, where eggplant is the star of the show. Grated ricotta and aromatic herbs round up the dish.
Busiate al Pesto Trapanese
Pesto, the most iconic sauce of Liguria, in northern Italy, made its way to the island and arrived at the ports of Trapani. There, cooks reinterpreted it and made it a local speciality. Almonds substitute the original pine nuts, and tomatoes are thrown in too.
Busiate, a hand-rolled pasta is a joy to encounter, and it’s the perfect shape to hold the rich sauce.
Another Palermo street food, strigghiola are juicy and tender meat skewers cooked over the open fire, but they’re not regular skewers, they’re made of lamb guts wrapped around a green leek.
Seasoned and flavoured with fresh chopped parsley, they’re tastier than you might think, so try them, and you’ll never want to try anything else.
Desserts and Pastries
If something distinguishes Sicilian cooking amongst other regional Italian cuisines is their love for sweets. These are their most important.
The most famous Sicilian dessert is, without a doubt, the cannoli — tube-shaped puff pastry crunchy treats filled with sweetened ricotta cheese. Sprinkled with cocoa or bathed in berry sauce, they’re not only famous in Sicily but worldwide.
Fist-sized cannoli and thin, smaller redemptions of the creamy dish exist, and they’re all superb.
A custard dessert served in a glass, made with egg yolks, and sweetened to silky perfection. Famous in other Italian regions, it gains its sweet, nutty taste from Marsala, Sicily’s quintessential fortified wine.
Local nutmeg is the most popular garnish, and it adds lovely aromatics to an already enticing dish.
Like many other dishes on the island, torrone is found around a specific date, around religious holidays. For torrone, it’s Christmas.
Almonds glued together in hardened sugar is the simplest, most straightforward recipe in Sicilian cookbooks, but with almonds as good as these, you need nothing more.
The cassata siciliana is the most beautiful dessert in the Sicilian repertoire. It’s a sponge cake soaked in liqueur, covered in sweet ricotta cheese, and a layer of firm marzipan. Garnished with candied fruit, it is often green for the pistachios used for flavor and colour.
Because the weather in Sicily can be quite overwhelming, it’s natural that a sweet serving of flavoured shaved ice is everyone’s favourite summer treat. Chunky with medium-sized ice crystals, or thin as a sorbet, there are many forms of Granita.
Citrus, almonds and mint are common flavourings, but there’s one option to try for every day of the year.
Wine, One of the Best in Europe
Sicily produces almost 18% of all Italian wines; their warm climate has proven to be one of the most exceptional territories in the Mediterranean.
Dry Wines, For Everyday Enjoyment and Special Occasions
Wines made with the inky grape Nero d’Avola have won wine lovers’ hearts. The rustic, plummy wines are perfect for the hearty dishes made on the island. With an elegant structure and fresher acidity, reds made from Nerello grapes around Etna, an active volcano, are more subtle and versatile at the table.
White wines are popular too, especially the ones made with the local grapes Grillo and Catarrato. Although the island makes lots of bulk wine, their best examples are excellent value.
Marsala, The Legendary Fortified Wine
The fortified wines of Marsala vary in sweetness, from luscious dessert wines to relatively dry examples. Aging varies too, so it’s impossible to describe in one line the vast flavor spectrum available.
Although the cheapest examples are great for cooking, the best ones are contemplative wines suitable for the most memorable occasions.
If you really want to understand Sicilian food culture, you must pay a visit. Even if there are countless restaurants proudly serving Sicilian dishes, both original and reinterpreted, there’s something special about tasting the food at its origin.
There’s nothing like smelling the lovely scents coming out of the ovens, walking the markets and experiencing firsthand the extraordinary produce. There’s nothing like visiting the harbour and see the fishermen come back home with their nets full of incredible diversity or speaking with the people and sharing with them a table. There is better way to sample and enjoy Sicilian food with great company than to join a local food tour or even take cooking lessons. I have curated my recommended food tours and cocking lessons in Sicily below.
Recommended food tours and cooking lessons:
Catania Street Food Tour – Click here
Taormina Half-Day Sicilian Cooking Class & Market Tour – Click here
Sicily 7-Hour Cooking Class and Winery Tour (Palermo)- Click here
Palermo 3-Hour Street Food and History Walking Tour- Click here
Syracuse: Food & Wine Walking Tour – Click here
For flights – Click here
For food tours go to Viator.com
For bus and train tickets go to GoEuro.com
To hire a bike in Italy go to BikesBooking.com – online booking service for motorcycles, scooters, quads and bicycles all over the world