Sicilian food is some of the most beloved food in Italy, and it is also one of the most interesting regional cuisines in Europe owing to the many influences from the various people who ruled the island.
- The origins of Sicilian cuisine
- Traditional Sicilian breakfast
- Sicilian food
- Salami and other charcuterie items
- Pasta alla Norma, pasta with aubergine
- Pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines
- Busiate alla Trapanese
- Deep fried seafood
- Involtini, fish or meat rolls
- Polpo or octopus
- Grilled tuna
- Baked caciocavallo cheese
- Seafood style couscous
- Sicilian desserts and sweets
- Sicilian drinks
The origins of Sicilian cuisine
Like many other parts of the world like in Macau or Mexico where different civilizations have coexisted, cuisine in Sicily has been influenced by many traditions making it a very unique gastronomic voyage.
From the Carthaginians, the Greeks and the Romans to the Arabs that occupied the islands in Medieval times, the Spanish during the Renaissance or the Normans after that, each of these cultures brought with them new ingredients, new techniques and new traditions, making Sicilian food truly unique and one of the earliest types of authentic fusion food.
The food eaten in Sicily today has managed to maintain an identifiable personality that is different from that on Italy’s mainland. It is a blend of the fresh produce that grows on the fertile volcanic island, with the products of the sea and its land and a touch of everyone who ever stepped on it.
Crossing the island by road is like walking in Sicily’s fresh markets. It only takes a few minutes of driving outside of any of the cities to find expansive pieces of agricultural land. The soil owing to Mount Etna and its volcanic explosions through the centuries, is incredibly fertile and rich.
Oranges, lemons, peach orchards, pistachio and almond trees, olive trees, cereal fields and vineyards cover the plains and hills anywhere that is a few kilometers from the developed coast.
The food in Sicily is always fresh and in season. When it is not, restaurant menus will indicate it, so patrons can frown upon it and decide not to eat it. And it is also local, so it changes from city to city. Proximity food is the norm not the exception, and it has been for millennia.
A Sicilian cookbook is thought to be the first ever cookbook written and dates back to the 5th century BC. It was authored by a Greek chef called Mithaecus when the island was part of Magna Grecia, and it brought Sicilian food to Greece and to the pages of Plato and Socrates.
Italian food is eminently simple: fresh ingredients cooked simply to elevate their flavors. Sicilian food is no different. The raw materials are glorious, the salt, pepper and olive oil only elevate them to perfection.
One night in Singapore, an American friend of mine admitted he was not impressed with the food in Italy. Upon further inquiry we concluded that it is because it didn’t have the generous amounts of seasoning you get in the US so it tasted bland to him.
Sicilian food shares this principle of simplicity and of letting the ingredients shine with the rest of Italy, and the Mediterranean at large, but has incorporated many influences.
You can see the coast of Calabria and the mainland on a clear day from Taormina or Catania, but as close as they both are, gastronomy has not traveled. The dishes you will eat in Sicily you may not easily find elsewhere in Italy.
Cassata, arancini or even pasta alla Norma (with tomato and aubergine) are local heroes, but unheard of in the mainland.
Likewise, you will find pizza everywhere in Sicily, especially in Palermo, like you find tapas everywhere in Spain, but it is not the protagonist snack, arancini are.
No doubt, to appreciate Sicilian food one must understand the link to its origins. Who brought it to the island? Who developed it? Why is it called that?
Some of the most popular ingredients in Sicilian food are the following:
- The fruits of the sea: Sardines abound in the waters around Sicily. The small silver fish is used in the star pasta dish but also as a starter on its own and as flavouring ingredient in many other dishes. Tuna is very common on Sicilian menus and used to be a force of economic development in the island. If you visit the Aegadian island of Favignana you can still see the large tuna factory now turned into a museum. Lastly, swordfish, also a popular fish, as is octopus.
- Nuts, particularly pistachios, pine nuts, almonds and hazelnuts, grown across the island and used in all kinds of dishes and drinks
- Citrus fruits were brought by the Arabs, with a specific type of lemon called Femminello that is typical of Syracuse and has a thicker and rougher skin. We have them in Spain as well, in fact these are the lemons my dad planted in our garden. There are also blood oranges, mandarins, peaches and apricots that grow wild and fall of the trees in the summertime. Sicily produces 90% of Italy’s lemons
- Aubergine, or eggplant, a vegetable that is very popular in Arabic cuisine (several popular Lebanese mezze use aubergines) and which is also used widely in Sicily
- Couscous more popular in the west of the island, which is closer to Africa
- Chocolate, tomatoes, corn and turkey were brought by the Spanish from Mexico
- The Arabs brought their sweets, and Sicilians have kept the sweet tooth alive taking it to a new level with intricate and colorful marzipans or torrone, and the famous cannoli and granita, favorites among visitors and locals
- Cheese, cheese and cheese, fresh goat milk ricotta being the most popular one used to make pasta dishes or desserts, but also the decorative caciocavallo that looks a bit like a breast and hangs from soups island-wide
- Olives and capers, of Greek influence and grown extensively in Sicily
Let’s have a look at the most popular Sicilian dishes.
Traditional Sicilian breakfast
Sicilians enjoy sweet breakfasts with pastries and breads taking the main role instead of the more Anglosaxon version of breakfast which includes savory items and eggs.
There is an eminently typical Sicilian breakfast that is exclusive of the island and which I am detailing below, you will not find this anywhere else in Italy.
Granita and brioche
The combination of a frozen granita with a fluffy brioche may sound a bit strange as a breakfast set but it is heavenly.
Granita is a type of sorbet that is famous of Sicily. The consistency and granularity of the ice varies from place to place but tends to be quite fine, but it’s not a drink, you eat it with a spoon (or with your brioche!), and goes fabulously with Sicily’s hot weather.
Why is granita so traditional of Sicily? Thanks to the mountains, especially Etna, which have snow-capped tops until the summer, ice would be cut from there and used to make granita as freezers did not exist.
Granita can be made using many flavors, and the good places make it fresh daily and change flavors as the day progresses. For breakfast, the most popular flavors are coffee, chocolate and the star ingredient: almond. You may also find strawberries, peaches or other fruits that are in season.
The best granita is made with fresh ingredients by blending fruit juices with water and sugar, and is not extremely sweet. It is usually served in a short glass, and can be topped with fresh cream. You can have more than one flavor in your glass and I loved combining almond and coffee with fresh cream.
For breakfast, your granita should be enjoyed with a fresh brioche. In Sicily, brioche is usually the size of a closed palm and has a thicker surface. It’s shape is always the same, with a middle button you can start with.
Do as locals do and dunk the brioche into the granita (yep, that’s why I always ordered the cream topping!). This Sicilian breakfast is a good enough reason to wake up in the morning, don’t you think?
Traditional Sicilian food is available throughout the island and it is common to find the popular dishes on every menu. It is impossible to sit down for a meal and not find Pasta alla Norma, tuna, caponata and cheese.
Italian meals are made of four dishes: Antipasti, pasta, main and dessert. In Sicily you will not be able to have all four at any seating because the portions are huge. My Sicilian food odyssey kicked off with a hungry me, ordering starters and mains at every meal and never making it to dessert.
I then changed my strategy and replaced the starter with a dessert. And even then it was hard to finish it all. Needless to say, pasta dishes can be very filling and Sicilians are a generous bunch.
Antipasti is the word used to refer to a range of starters that are usually eaten cold and often prepared ahead of time.
This includes cold cuts, cheese, sun dried tomatoes, olives, artichokes, roasted vegetables like aubergine or peppers, and sometimes small sandwiches. Antipasti, in Sicily, can also include small toasts with smoked fish or sardines.
Many restaurants will have an antipasti platter with a bit of many dishes usually to share. These are all best eaten with fresh bread, sometimes bread sticks are provided.
Caponata is about the most popular starter in Sicily and it is delicious. It is made with aubergines and other vegetables slowly cooked in tomato sauce until they are creamy and the aubergines have a honey-like texture and flavor.
You will find pine nuts, olives and sometimes even raisins or capers in your caponata and the vegetables change with the seasons but aubergines will always be there and peppers and onions are common.
It is thought that the dish’s name comes from the mahi mahi fish it used to accompany which is called capone in the Sicilian dialect.
As you can see, a simple Sicialin food like caponata can have something from each of the great civilisations that inhabited Sicily. There are Greek olives, Spanish tomatoes, and Arab nuts and aubergines.
Because it is a dish that is always homemade, the ingredients vary from grandma to grandma but it will always be invariably amazing and I could not avoid wanting to order it with everything.
While no two caponatas will taste the same, a lot of the expectations outside of Sicily have been created by entrepreneurial Sicilians who started to manufacture, bottle and export the sauce overseas, therefore creating an image of what traditional caponata should taste like.
This sort of aubergine lasagna is typical of the island and it is my most favorite Sicilian food. It is simple, made with fresh ingredients, cooked slowly and with excellent olive oil and tomatoes. What’s not to like?
Parmigiana is made with layers of aubergine and tomato and it is topped with cheese and baked in the oven.
These chickpea fritters can be eaten on their own, for example with some sauce or cheese, or in a sandwich, a typical street food from Palermo.
They are quite filling as we are talking about deep fried carbohydrates, and also quite tasty if you are that type of person. I am, so I found them very satisfying.
Sicilians are the pioneers of Italian street food and buying food off a street stall to eat on the go is a very common thing, particularly in Palermo which is considered one of the best street food cities in the world.
The word arancini indicates plural, because most likely you will have at least two of these common street snacks. Arancini are saffron rice balls traditionally filled with meat ragu and mozzarella then deep fried golden. They can be really filling, so a couple of them could be a full meal already.
Across Sicily you might find stalls that only sell arancini, and they will have different fillings. Other common ingredients are raisins and pine nuts, aubergine, and green peas. Note the shape of the arancini is almost always pyramidal.
The traditional ragu arancini have this shape whereas the ones that come with other fillings usually vary, this makes them easy to identify, like with empanadas in Argentinian cuisine.
Salami and other charcuterie items
Italians, like Spanish and French, love their charcuterie, cured meat and cold cuts and they are often served as appetizers with bread. Sicilians make a delicious salami sausage, sometimes with chilli or with pistachios.
My partner could not help eat massive servings of all the Italian meats for breakfast, they are delicious.
Pasta alla Norma, pasta with aubergine
This is probably one of the most popular Sicilian foods of all the ones on this list and you will find it in practically any Sicilian restaurant.
Named after Bellini’s opera Norma and originally from Catania like himself, the pasta used is usually short and twisted, for example busati, made of the locally grown durum wheat variety, and the sauce has aubergine, tomato and is topped with dried ricotta.
Pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines
This is probably the second most popular Sicilian dish in menus island-wide. Long pasta in this case, most probably spaghetti, topped with a sauce made with crumbled sardines, fennel, pine nuts and often times raisins.
Pasta con le sarde encapsulates Sicily’s mix of civilizations. You have the locally caught sardines, the Arabic influence in the raisins and pine nuts, and the wild fennel that add an aniseed flavor.
Busiate alla Trapanese
This pasta dish is made with almonds and tomatoes giving it a texture similar to that of pesto, which is why the sauce is often referred to as pesto Trapanese, and it is typical of Trapani.
If you ever watched Inspector Montalbano you will know that he loves this sauce and his housekeeper hates to see him eat it.
It is believed that this pesto variation is similar to that of Genova and that it was the Genoves sailors who brought their garlic and walnut sauce to the port of Trapani and the locals replaced the walnuts with the local almonds.
The most commonly eaten pasta with this sauce is busiati which is a very popular pasta in Sicily. It consists of short, twisted strings of pasta that are like a double spaghetti in thickness.
Deep fried seafood
Often found as a street snack served in take away brown paper bags, a mix of breaded and deep fried seafood and fish is commonly found in Sicily. This is not the healthiest of Sicilian food, but makes for an easy to eat, and filling, food to go.
If you walk towards Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre you will find several of these street stalls. In Favignana, a small island, they are also popular, and you can also find them in Syracuse.
Involtini, fish or meat rolls
Involtini just means rolls and in Sicily you can find both meat and fish rolls, the most common of which are the sardine or swordfish rolls, or beef ones. We tried them all, all were good.
Inside you can often find cheese (with the meat) and other times vegetables like peppers, tomatoes and aubergine, or spices, herbs and capers, and the rolls are usually cooked in a pan. Fish involtini can then be breaded and fried.
Involtini vary a lot from place to place as the chef’s creativity can turn a roll into many final products.
Polpo or octopus
Octopus is a very popular Sicilian food found across the island and eaten in many ways, as a cold salad starter, as a hot main, as a whole piece, chopped in small cubes, or even slices as carpaccio.
The best octopus is fresh, boiled slowly and for a long time so it is soft and not chewy, and simply grilled with olive oil or cooked in a tomato stew. We also had octopus many times because both me and my partner love it and it makes for a low fat rich source of protein.
The local version of pizza (I told you there is also pizza in Sicily) is also eaten as a street snack, has a thicker base that the pizza from Naples, and closer to foccacia than to pizza for its rectangular shape and its fluffier base.
Sometimes, sfincione comes white, without tomato sauce, but with sardines, onions and cheese. Other times it is topped with a simple tomato sauce but without cheese.
As mentioned at the beginning, Sicilain water are rich with tuna and islands like Favignana used to house thriving tuna industries. Tuna is widely available in menus across Sicily and you will find in many shapes and forms.
Usually, it is served grilled but you can also find it crusted with pistachio in more refined restaurants.
Baked caciocavallo cheese
Typical of Ragusa, caciocavallo cheese is a provola type of cheese which is eaten usually after baking it with olive oil in the oven in small clay bowls and then eaten like that with bread.
I will tell you one thing, this is as indulgent as it is rich and you will be best ordering it to accompany other light dishes, like a salad or soup. The portions are usually big and this is basically cheese, so it can be very filling but it is so good.
Seafood style couscous
Typical of Trapani where the Arab and African influence is strongest, couscous is a grain that doesn’t need boiling to cook, in fact, it is one of the easiest no fire foods you can eat, ready even just with boiling water from a kettle.
The version from Trapani comes with seafood, Trapani being an important seaport. It is similar to a Spanish paella, in that there is a granular carbohydrate surrounded by lots of seafood and vegetables, and it can be extremely tasty.
Sicilian desserts and sweets
Sicilian desserts are some of the sweetest in the world, similar to the level of sweetness that you can find in Arabic sweets. This is because they were inspired by them.
Arabs brought sugar to Sicily in the 9th century and the ingredient has since been used extensively instead of the honey that was used before.
Frutta Martorana, or marzipan
These small sugar bombs are so beautiful they could be used as decoration rather than food. And they were.
Legend has it that the nuns from a former convent called Martorana were the first to make them for hanging from the garden trees as if they were real fruit, and surprised the Archbishop who was visiting with an unusual sight.
Marzipan was brought to Sicily by the Arabs, who also brought it to Spain. It is made entirely of sugar, corn syrup and almond paste, shaped into small fruit pieces and then hand painted in bright colors and covered with liquid gum to give them their shiny appeal.
If you wander the streets of Taormina you will find beautiful marzipan for sale in some of the pretty shops. An epic one is Pasticceria Minotauro which has a huge selection of various marzipan in a couple of dozen fruit shapes, meringue, almond cookies and nougat.
Say Sicily and most people will say cannoli and The Godfather, these are the two most immediate thoughts that come to mind.
Sure, La Mafia, the beautiful beaches and all the historical sites as well, but cannoli are so ingrained in the local culture that you almost have to dodge them as if you were in an obstacle race as you eat your way through Sicily.
Cannoli are small heavenly cylinders. The deep fried pastry shell is filled with sweet ricotta cheese and sometimes topped with candied fruit or pistachio. The filling can sometimes be flavoured with fruits or hazelnut, and the pastry can be lined with chocolate for extra indulgence, but their essence is the same.
While outside Sicily you can find mini cannoli, the size of a finger, traditional Sicilian cannoli are about 1.5cm in diameter because the shell is fried after being rolled around a sugar cane stalk.
The ricotta needs to be fresh and made from goat’s milk, sweet and creamy, but not runny. I like the cannoli that have small pieces of candied citrus fruit mixed in, but you can also find them plain or with bits of chocolate to add some crunch.
The best cannoli are filled on the spot, and their pastry needs to have the right thickness level so as not to make it all about the shell, or crumble easily with every bite, and the ricotta needs to be sweet but light, a bit thicker than fresh cream, and cold.
The origins of cannoli are not fully certain but all the possible explanations point at both the Arabs which inhabited Sicily between the 9th and 11th century and various nuns living in convents.
Either way, everyone agrees that some of the ingredients, like sugar and pistachio, were brought by the Arabs, while ricotta was a local delight. Chocolate did not come until the Spanish arrival in the 16th century.
You will find cannoli in every menu in Sicily, and they are sold island-wide in pastry shops and cafes, making for the most popular sweet Sicilian food.
If you want to take a slice of Sicily back home, the airports have pastry shops selling them and they will wrap them properly so they keep their shape. The inside chocolate coating will prevent the pastry from getting soggy. Cannoli can keep for three days in the fridge.
Almonds and nuts in general, are very popular ingredients in Sicilian food and are used in all kinds of dishes. They are also a main ingredient in cookies which are eaten as snacks, breakfast items or tea time sweets.
Sicilian almond cookies tend to be of the chewy type, so they are not my favorite, and are topped with maraschino cherries, which I also don’t love, so they were not my favorite food, but certainly typically Sicilian.
Also brought by the Arabs was the nougat, or torrone, not to be confused by the Spanish turron eaten at Christmas and made with similar ingredients but of harder consistency. Torone in Sicily is made using pistachio.
Nougat is very popular in Sicily and you can easily find it for sale in pastry and cake shops on the island. It is also a typical food of many other countries where Persian and Ottoman influence abounds, like Azerbaijan, Balkan countries like Albania or Turkey itself.
Originally, it is believed that nougat was first eaten in the vast region between ancient Aleppo, Bukhara and Baghdad, in Europe it is a traditional Christmas sweet.
Ice cream with brioche
Hard to decide if this Sicilian food is a snack or a dessert? Most probably it is eaten as a dessert as you don’t find it in restaurant menus but it is available from gelato shops and bars.
It would probably not be acceptable to have ice cream for breakfast (although granita is not far from it), so Sicilians eat it in the afternoon, and on the go. Gelato is obviously popular in Sicily, but the local version of the Singapore ice cream sandwich uses the popular brioche to hold it together instead of a cone.
The Arab influence is nowhere as clear in Sicilian food as it is with the colorful Sicilian marzipans and cassata cake. This cake brings together all the best Sicilian ingredients into an indulgent dessert that is also a popular afternoon tea time sweet.
Cassata is made with a sponge cake soaked in liquor or juice, then layered with sweet ricotta cheese and candied fruit, covered in marzipan and topped with sugar icing. The cake is then decorated with candied fruit, usually lemon and orange skin and cherries.
It is believed that the cake originated in the area around Palermo in the 10th century, during Arab occupation. However, its history is cause for much debate among expert Sicilian chefs and historians. What we know for certain is that the Arabs brought sugar in the way it is being used to make cassata and that convent nuns probably continued to make it after the Moors left.
Depending on where you have your cassata its look may change. The degree and kind of decoration on the cake and whether the traditional green comes from pistachio marzipan or coloring is every chef’s choice, even the shape is up for discussion.
What I am sure everyone agrees with is how much of a calorific bomb it is, I could feel the sugar rush with every bite, and could not finish half of my small portion at Caffe Sicilia. But it was worth it for the journey it sent my senses on.
Sicilians love to drink as much as they love to eat and the island boasts several wine appellations and a few traditional local dessert wines and liqueurs.
Espresso, cappuccino and caffe latte
Not just Sicilian but Italian in general, coffee in a staple of any meal here and it cannot end without an espresso, a short, intense 30ml shot of the strongest coffee.
I wrote extensively about Sicilian wines before but it is always good to remind ourselves of the uniqueness of the Sicilain soil thanks to its volcanic origins and the days of sunshine and temperate weather the island enjoys.
There are 13 Appellations but two main wine producing regions in Sicily, the area near Mount Etna volcano, and the area near Marsala, at the other end of the island, in the west. Additionally, there are vineyards in the center and south of the island, especially near Syracuse.
The wines in Etna and the wines in Marsala are probably at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Etna is a niche volcanic type of wine with a very unique personality thanks to the soil it is grown in while Marsala wines are a more mass market option, growing sea level in very sunny and windy terrain.
Wines in Sicily are usually made with local varieties the most popular of which are the red Nero d’Avola and Nerelo Mascalese, and the whites Inzolia and Grillo. At any restaurant you will find wines made with these varieties.
Aside from the main regions and grapes, there are a few smaller and unique appellations that make wines that can’t be found elsewhere, like Marsala and Passito di pantelleria which I am exploring in the next sections.
More a tradition than a Sicilian food or drink, aperitivo is what happens in Sicily in the summertime during the hour before sunset and dinner. And I say it’s what happens because aperitivo Siciliano is not just a sunset cocktail but an entire affair.
If you sit down at any bar before dinner and order a drink the staff will serve you a host of other snacks to go with it. This could include some chips and olives only but it will most likely turn into a feast.
It is common to get chips, almonds, olives, crackers and even small sandwiches, toasts, pizza, etc. The first time this happened we thought it was because we were at the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea and they were the complimentary snacks offered by the hotel but we subsequently realised this is a common feature of Sicilian life.
Marsala wines are quite a unique type of fortified wine very similar to Spanish sherry which were originally brought to the international stage by a British trader. They are drunk usually on their own, either at aperitivo time or as a digestif, and used for cooking as well.
The wine was a locally consumed drink that became really famous abroad thanks to John Woodhouse, an English trader who stopped at Marsala port and discovered the wine in the 18th century.
In his trips back home, he would take Marsala wine and sell it in the UK where the wine was well-received. More British became interested and set their own properties in the region.
Subsequently, these wineries were acquired by Vincenzo Florio in the 19th century who consolidated the industry. Florio’s winery still exists and can be visited. If you visit Marsala you can easily stop by at a winery to taste them.
Passito di Pantelleria
Passito di Pantelleria is a unique dessert Sicilian wine made from a combination of regular and of dried up grapes that are grown and processed in the island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily, and the closest place to Africa.
The wines have been elevated to UNESCO Intangible Heritage because of it communal and historical value and because of the agricultural traditions that have been maintained for centuries.
Passito di Pantelleria is pretty sweet and can have a more or less syrupy taste depending on how much of the dried up grapes there is in each bottle. This is also what determines the kind of Passito di Pantelleria wine you will find.
Limoncello is not necessarily a Sicilian-only digestif, but it is very popular and commonly drunk in Sicily and you will find it on menus across the island. It is also locally produced.
Limoncello is made with the zest of Femminello lemons, the type that is widely available and grown on Sicily, and alcohol such as grappa or vodka. Water and sugar syrup is added afterwards and the degree of sweetness varies from bottle to bottle.
The resulting drink has between 25 and 30% of alcohol and is drunk on its own with or after dessert.
Amaretto or Almond liqueur
Amaretto is a traditional almond liqueur commonly found across Sicily but most popular in the eastern side of the island. The digestif is made with almonds but can also be made from apricot and peach peet.
The resulting liqueur is quite sweet, orange-brown and has the smell and taste of almonds. It is almost always drunk on its own after a meal.