As of this writing, I still have yet to visit Sicily. I’ve always want to, but I’ve also always wanted to see everything. After seeing the major cities in Italy, I had no priority of what to see next because I wanted to see it all.
From the time I moved to Italy we’ve celebrated Carnevale in Venice, taken road trips in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Tuscany, Umbria, Tuscany again. We celebrated Carnevale in Ivrea, went to the beach, hiked above the beach and hiked throughout the Alps. I’ve seen the Dolomites and relaxed on Elba Island. We visited Rome more than once and enjoyed the benefits of our own backyard. Most of these trips, however, were done on long weekends. We took the car, went exploring. Anything further than Umbria meant taking much more time than an extended weekend. We needed to actually plaaaan a trip.
And so, of course, it never happened.
Now, just as we’re really trying to fit Sicily into our lives, it seems everyone else is doing it as well. Just to taunt us, I’m sure. Both of of my brother-in-laws went. Marco’s colleague. Another colleague. Close friends. It seems everyone decided Sicily is the place to be this year, and I can’t blame them!
They say the planning and dreaming of a trip is half of the pleasure of a trip, so until I can get there, let’s do that. I like to start with the food.
Sicily’s Historically Mixed Cuisine:
I’m fascinated by Sicily’s food just as much as I’m fascinated by its tumultuous history. Maybe that’s because you can see its long, jagged history directly in its cuisine.
Sicily’s food, like all of Italy’s regional food, goes hand in hand with its history. We can see the influence of the Greeks, Spanish, Norman and Arab rule in Sicily’s cuisine. In fact, its cuisine is one of the most notably different cuisines from the rest of Italy. In Sicily you’ll find a wide variety of spices, but more surprisingly you’ll find all those spices mixed together. Saffron, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, even cinnamon (rare in mainland Italy). There’s the rich terra that grows apricots, citrus, and melons, as well as pistachios, pine nuts and olives. Fresh vegetables like eggplant, peppers and tomatoes reign, along with fish such as tuna, sea bass and swordfish.
Though long a poor island, this is not cucina povera, with simple, easy-to-get ingredients. Here you’ll find the poor cooking with a wealth of rich flavors and fragrances.
There’s also nothing like Sicilian desserts in all of Italy. Usually Marco rolls his eyes as I launch, yet again, into an explanation of Italian’s desserts tending to be quite poor, less sweet, less elaborate.
That’s not the case in Sicily. In Sicily, monks and nuns became veritable pastry chefs after choosing that profession to make money for their monasteries. They candied fruit and perfected the art of gelato and granita. Incredible ingredients and a heavenly patience created some of the best desserts in Italy.
In Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, a beautiful tome of a book on Italian food region-by-region, Italy-extraordinare Fred Plotkin doesn’t even list the top Sicilian foods, saying “it is impossible to list even a small number of the great foods of the island…” and suggesting where we can go to study more. He’s right. A basic knowledge of the island and its food would take a much more in-depth study, but we all have to start somewhere.
There is so. much. to know about this incredible island, but if I had to choose the top Sicilian foods, the most known the world over, these would be it.
Named little oranges because they are round and slightly orange, these are fried balls of rice flavored with meat or vegetables. Originally served in fry shops or food carts, you can now often find them served as appetizers as well.
Eggplant absolutely reigns in Sicily in a myriad of forms, but the caponata is exemplary. A mix of veggies, the classic caponata has all the best flavors of Sicily: onion, eggplant, olives, capers, pine nuts and sometimes (or maybe it’s just me) raisins.
If there’s one universal Italian food, it’s pasta. What’s regional about it, and most important, is the sauce. Sicily has some notable pasta dishes, from spaghetti ai ricci, or spaghetti with sea urchin, to pasta con le sarde (sardines). Non-seafood favorites are pasta alla norma, a Catanian dish with mozzarella and eggplant and pesto alla trapanese, a pesto from Trapani made with almonds and cherry tomatoes popular throughout western Sicily.
Pani câ meusa
A panino con la milza, or pani câ meusa in the local dialect is a classic working man’s food from Palermo. Today, you can find it in street food stands far beyond the capital city. Slightly surprising considering what this sandwich is: a sesame seed bun filled with veal spleen and sometimes lung that’s been boiled and fried. But you can add cheese!
Involtini di pesce spada
Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous secondi on a Sicilian menu are these swordfish involtini. Swordfish is a power player in Sicilian cuisine, and these involtini are a classic. Especially popular in Catania, it’s simple, summery and fresh.
A legacy of Arab rule, you aren’t likely to find it anywhere else in Italy.
A cassata Siciliana is a bomb of a cake made with a type of sponge cake, ricotta, sugar, vanilla, chocolate, pistachios as well as cinnamon, icing, candied fruit and marzipan, this is not your typical semi-sweet Italian dessert. It packs all the flavors of Sicily into one super sweet and brightly colored cake.
Gelato, Granita and Sorbetto
You can eat gelato anywhere in Italy, but this may just be ground zero. It’s said that the Arabs brought a dessert similar to sherbet to the island, flavored with sugar and the citrus and almond plants they brought with them and planted throughout the island. Over the years milk and cream were added, essentially bringing about the Italian gelato. When in Sicily, go for the native flavors, like sorbetto di mandarino or granita alla mandorla (almonds) or pistachio gelato.
Most of us have tried these deep fried cylinders filled with ricotta, but I can’t imagine they’re anything like freshly made cannoli with local ricotta made that week garnished with chocolate chips, classic candied fruit or bright green pistachios grown in Bronte, Sicily. Originally a treat for Carnevale, you can find these year round now.