A Sicily food odyssey is heaven for foodies. Despite all its culture and heritage—ancient Greek and Roman ruins, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and Baroque architecture—food is often the #1 reason to visit this fabled island.
While Sicily’s famous food dishes include pasta, tomato, cheese, oil olive, and seafood, there are novel ways that the island differs from the mainland. The main reason is Sicily’s conquerors—Greeks, Moors, Normans, Phoenicians, Romans, and Spanish—transplanted their own food ingredients. Saffron is a perfect example.
“By the time the island joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the local culture (and food) was so heavily influenced by its past that it was always going to stand out.”Great British Chefs
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Typical Foodie Questions
My family and friends have pestered me with questions since my return from Sicily.
“What did you think of the Sicilian food?”
Incredible. Amazing. Decadent.
“Did you gain a few pounds?”
Nope. But maybe climbing Mount Etna, walking miles through archeological sites, and hiking Zingaro Nature Reserve helped cancel out all the calories that I consumed.
“What was your favorite food?”
Granita con brioche. While resembling sorbet, granita felt coarse in my mouth. This semi-frozen dessert contains only water, sugar, and fruit. My favorite flavors were blackberry and lemon. The sinful part of eating granita is dipping a piece of my brioche bun into the granita. (During the hottest parts of summer, Sicilians eat granita con brioche for breakfast!)
Thanks to the Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy TV show, Sicily’s food scene is well-known. Tucci is famous for discovering the secrets and delights of Italy’s regional cuisines.
On the Sicily episode, Tucci visits a vineyard near Mount Etna as well as inspects the fish and vegetables at Palermo’s main food market. I followed in his footsteps.
My Local Guide
I toured Sicily as part of Exodus Travels’ “Treasures of Sicily.” Tiziano (“Tiz”) Tomasello is a local Sicilian guide hailing from Palermo. He loves food so much that it is a shame that he is not a food critic. Tiz knew all the little Italian shops, cafes, and market stalls to buy our sandwiches, pasta, pizza, and desserts.
He even gave us a two-page document entitled “Food and drinks to try to be a real Sicilian.”
Sicilians revel in being bad. In fact, in his novel The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa describes the typical desserts served at the Sicilian aristocrat’s bountiful table:
“. . . those cakes called ‘triumphs of gluttony’ filled with green pistachio paste, and shameless ‘virgin’s cakes,’ shaped like breasts.”Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Weird Meat Delicacies
I earned top marks for sampling most of the foods on this list except:
Carne di cavallo: Horse meat steaks cooked on a grill and served with salmoriglio (olive oil, vinegar, and oregano). I prefer to ride horses, not eat them.
Pane ca meusa: A sandwich of beef spleen, lungs, and entrails that are boiled then cooked in lard for hours and served on brioche rolls. I skipped this delicacy at the Palermo food market. Yuck.
Stigghiole: This popular Palermo street food features the guts of lamb stuck on a skewer and grilled. Thanks, but I prefer to pet lambs.
Our education commenced on day 2 en route to our Mount Etna hiking adventure. We were instructed to purchase cipollina. This puff pastry is folded in fours and filled with mozzarella, tomato sauce, ham, and (lots of) sweet onions. I still dream of this sandwich melting in my mouth as I sat atop the mountain and gazed at the volcano draped in fog.
I also cheated and bought a second lunch item even though Tiz said that one cipollina would fill us up. But I couldn’t resist the arancino (rice ball). Sicilian cooks fill the rice ball with ragu sauce, coat it in breadcrumbs, then deep fry (often in saffron).
“Popular basically everywhere. There is a big rivalry between Catania and Palermo about who makes it better.”Tiziano Tomasello
(Will it surprise you to learn that Palermo’s arancina is better than Catania’s arancino, according to Tiz?) This is hardly a surprise, given that the two cities cannot even agree on how to spell the name of the dish.
The ragu sauce is the most popular filling in the arancini, but Tiziano said other varieties include “white one (bechamel and ham), norma (aubergine and salted ricotta cheese), and pistachio.”
BTW, Sicily is paradise if you are vegetarian! There are so many vegetable entrees served in Italy. But the eggplant (aubergine) reigns supreme! The island is famous for these three eggplant recipes: Caponata, Pasta alla Norma, and Parmigiana. I consumed all three dishes with gusto on my Sicily food odyssey.
Caponata is a popular side dish for dinner. The ingredients—aubergine, onions, and tomatoes—resemble the recipe for French ratatouille. But Sicilian cooks also like to add olives, pine nuts, raisins, capers, and carrots. Typically, the chopped vegetables marinate in a sweetened vinegar so caponata has a sweet-sour taste.
Pasta all Norma is perfect for vegetarians. The Sicilians fry chunks of aubergine in olive oil, toss with tomato sauce, and sprinkle on grated salted ricotta cheese. “Never Parmesan cheese!” stressed Tiziano. He said the pasta dish is “named after ‘Norma’ by Catania-born composer Vincenzo Bellini.”
Parmigiana is well-known as Italian Americans’ “Eggplant Parmesan” recipe. The Sicilians layer rows of fried aubergine slices in a baking dish, then top with tomato sauce and cheese. It is baked in the oven.
Vegetarians also delight in the panelle, which is thin squares of fried chickpea flour fried in olive oil and served with little pieces of mint. You can order panelle sandwiches at the Palermo food market.
Tomato lovers will delight in Busiate alla trapanese, which is a specialty in Trapani. Cooks serve fresh pasta with Trapanese-style pesto (cherry tomatoes, almonds, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil).
The #1 most popular dish in Palermo is Pasta con le sarde (sardine). Chefs toss sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, and raisins over a bed of long pasta. The dish is also known as Pasta all Palermitana.
You should also be on the lookout for Sfincione in Sicily’s capital. This is Palermo’s version of the pizza. A sponge-like dough is topped with tomato sauce, caciocavallo cheese, anchovies, and onions.
Sardines are also a popular ingredient in sandwiches. Sarde a boccafico consists of sardines filled with breadcrumbs, raisins, pine nuts, bay leaves, parsley, and vinegar. The mixture is served in rolls or as a little sandwich.
No Sicily food odyssey is complete without eating fresh fish everyday!
I have already mentioned that granita con brioche was my favorite dessert during my Sicily food odyssey.
But the cannolo runs a close second. I celebrated my birthday in Sicily by eating this dessert, instead of a candle-topped cake. The Santa Caterina monastery in Palermo makes this decadent dessert. It is worth standing in line.
The bakers fill a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry dough with sweet ricotta cheese. The server will ask you if you want to roll the ends in pistachios, chocolate sprinkles, or dried fruits. Pure decadence!
Finally, no visit to Sicily is complete without visiting Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico in Erice. Since it is impossible to choose between the buccellati (almond cookies), cassata cakes, or fruit marzipan, you will need to try each one. Frutta martorana (marzipan) are usually available in fruit and vegetable shapes. Cassata is a round sponge cake moistened with liqueur and filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and candied fruit.
Finally, I want to circle back to my friends and family’s questions about what I ate in Sicily. The answer is local. Tiziano steered us to the local specialties in each of the regions we visited on the island. This immensely impacted how I reacted to my stopovers in Mount Etna, Noto, Ragusa Ibla, Erice, Selinunte, Palermo, Cefalu, and Taormina. I felt like I sat at the kitchen table eating what the locals love in each place.
Unquestionably, our memories of food stay with us, perhaps because they are multi-sensory. I know that I will forever associate Sicily with the sour-sweet taste of caponata, the crunch of pine nuts in Pasta con le sarde, the scent of fresh basil in Busiate alla trapanese, and the icy shock of granita melting on my tongue.
I have to agree with chef James Beard who declared: “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”