Sicily is a melting pot of flavors; tastes here tell a tale of Norman, Arab and Greek influences. Centuries of invasion and occupation have woven their culinary traditions into the local cuisine to form a unique fusion of dishes and delicacies. This, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means that Sicily has some of the finest food in Europe and a tasting tour here is an essential part of the journey.
Check out our foodie’s guide to Italy at large!
Palermo is one of the best places in the world to sample street food. Stalls are found in most of the markets, many of which have been around for hundreds of years. Panelle is a tasty and filling snack made from fried chickpeas and polenta influenced by Arabic cuisine. Arancini are shaped like an orange (hence the name) but taste nothing like one. These are fried rice balls containing minced meat. In most parts of Sicily they are flavored with tomato but in Palermo the Arancini contain saffron, another Arab-influenced ingredient. In Palermo, the pizza looks different. Look out for Sfincione — a blend of bread and pizza topped with tomato, onion and cheese. It’s a delicious street food and ideal for a snack on the go.
And then there’s the famous spleen sandwich, otherwise known as Pani ca’ Meusa. This is a Palermo delicacy, traditionally using cow spleen or lung. The sandwich makers boil the meat, sprinkle it with lemon, and then fry it in lard just before eating. It is then placed in a bun, sprinkled with ricotta cheese and is ready for tasting, just like a burger. It’s an acquired taste but people travel for miles to get these famous sandwiches.
The Phoenicians first identified salt 2700 years ago in the Trapani region. Today this ancient tradition of harvesting sea salt continues, creating a unique photogenic landscape. Windmills were once used for harvesting salt, with just a couple still in use. Around Trapani there are piles of salt waiting to be processed and the lagoon, where harvesting takes place, is a nature reserve. The sea salt here is renowned for its higher concentrations of magnesium and potassium, with less sodium chloride. Trapani salt is popular with cooks and gastronomes for its distinctive flavor.
Sicilian wine is part of another ancient heritage and culture. This is where, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus got the Cyclops drunk on wine and blinded his single eye. This wine is among the finest in Europe, aided by the fertile volcanic soil around Mount Etna. The sulphur in the earth adds to the richness of flavor, producing lots of full red wines around Siracusa and Etna. One of the most famous white wines from Sicily is the Grillo, and widely found in the Trapani area. Sicily is also famed for its Marsala wine, a fortified drink which was a favorite of Admiral Lord Nelson. It’s around 20% proof and used a lot in cooking. Wine tastings and vineyard tours are a great way to get to know some of these wines and appreciate how they are produced.
Granita and Gelato
Sicily is famed for its ice creams in flavors like hazelnut, orange, and peach. The vast selection in an average gelateria will blow your mind. In Sicily check out the cannoli which are pastries filled with ricotta cheese–a breakfast snack or dessert. Another Sicilian delicacy is the brioche con gelato. That’s a sweet bun filled with ice cream. It’s delicious but you need to eat it quick before it melts and drips all over you. Granita is a Sicilian semi frozen dessert made from sugar, water and flavored by nuts or fruit. One of the best is almond granita – the Caffe Sicilia in Noto is one of the best places to taste this in Sicily. Almond granita and brioche are sometimes seen at breakfast in Sicily, especially in really hot weather.
Appreciate the Agritourism
One of the best things about Sicily is the locally produced food. Many olive groves are open for tours and tastings where visitors can see how this culinary essential is produced. Extra virgin olive oil is a specialty here. Local cheese makers also offer pre-booked visits to their farms to see ricotta and Ragusa cheese production (and tasting). A cooking lesson is another excellent way to dive into Sicilian cuisine and see how traditional dishes are made.
A visit to Sicily is not complete without a market visit. This is where Sicilians get their ingredients fresh each day and where visitors can appreciate the quality of the local food. Expect to see sun dried tomatoes and olives, fresh fish, fruit and vegetables among others. In Palermo the Porta Carini marks the historic entry to the city but it is also where the famous Capo Market starts and has existed for centuries. To see some of the best activity you’ll need to get up early- especially in Siracusa where 6am signals the start of the day for the fish market. Don’t forget to look out for family run delicatessens behind the stalls selling fabulous cold meats, cheeses, and take out sandwiches.
Sicilian food is a dream. Visit to taste some of the world’s most famed flavors.
Rachael Rowe is a freelance travel and health writer. Her portfolio is at www.rachaelrowe.com.