A tasteful introduction to Sicilian cuisine

Italy is a foodies paradise, and each town has its own particular specialities. From region to region and city to city, each place has its form and interpretation of pasta, typical seasonal ingredients, wines, cheeses, and desserts. It would take months to work your way around the boot and taste everything.

Without the luxury of a twelve-month gourmet tour, I’d like to offer a quick appetizer of my little piece of Italy, Sicily, whose cuisine shows off its history and location at the centre of the Mediterranean.

The most important thing to remember is that all Italians take food very seriously, and sustenance is the unofficial religion of Italy. To make a mess of your cooking here is blasphemous. If you overcook the pasta, you could end up in jail, or worse still, be ostracized forever, branded as a lousy cook. Whatever you do, don’t overcook the pasta; it’s al dente or niente, my friends. 

I’ve heard jet-setting Italians on their way home from all over the world, talking about the food. Travelling everywhere from the Maldives to Ibiza, Italians will complain about not finding a decent plate of pasta to eat the whole time and therefore remaining morte di fame, literally dying of hunger, a sin punishable in Dante’s Inferno. 

I know who goes to the Maldives to eat pasta anyway? Travelling doesn’t mean eating the same things you make at home, but Italian’s are creatures of habit, and they will crave their pasta. I also assume finding a good plate of pasta at a restaurant would be the highest compliment an Italian could give, so it’s also a question of national pride.

Italians are fussy as they have it good at home. As usually is the case, Sicily is the microcosm for the rest of Italy; the perfection of Italian cuisine comes from the island and travels up the peninsula. Pasta was brought from Asia through the port of Messina; it quickly became popular in Southern Italy and gradually was dispersed throughout Italy in its many variations and reinterpretations.

In Sicily, food is local, fresh and strictly seasonal, which means the best ingredients cooked in traditional recipes during the appropriate time of year. The only imported fruits you will find here are bananas and pineapples for apparent reasons.

Being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea offers a notable selection of seafood luxuriously prepared lovingly all around the island from swordfish, tuna, and sardines prepared with simple natural ingredients like olive oil and garlic.

Fresh seafood is readily available in the towns along the coastline. At the same time, mountain villages are famous for their traditional farming products such as cheeses, salami cold cut meats, fresh pork sausages, tomatoes, aubergines and other fruits and vegetables. A menu for a wedding or other special occasion is dedicated entirely to the delicacies of the land (terra) or seafood (mare).

Sicily is a very fertile place, so you will find many things growing wild during the year. The art of foraging is very much alive and well. It provides the Sicilian table with various ingredients, including wild greens, multiple kinds of asparagus and mushrooms, and herbs like fennel and oregano.

A trip to the local food markets at any time of the year will give you a sense of what kind of products you will be tasting in the local restaurants or, if you are lucky enough to have relatives, what they will be making for you for lunch and dinner.

Wintertime is filled with decadent grapes, many different citrus varieties from unique blood oranges, navels, mandarins, grapefruit, citrus and the sweetest lemons you will ever taste.

The cold will give you an appetite, so it’s easy to stuff your face with arancini (rice balls filled with meat or ham and mozzarella) or many kinds of panini. Christmas time is about oven-roasted porchetta and fried baccala.

Spring is filled with refreshing fruits such as medlars (nespole), a little orange fruit originally from Japan, strawberries followed, towards the end of May apricots, then cherries and tiny, sweet pears. The countryside is full of wild fennel, asparagus and artichokes. Springtime is the best time to try the pasta con le sarde, a long fat hollowed-out spaghetti pasta known as bucatini prepared with fresh sardines, wild fennel and pine nuts or even local tuna (tonno) and swordfish (pesce spada).

Summertime gives you a plateful of different tastes from plums, peaches, apricots, cantaloupe, watermelon and figs, towards the end of August.

Autumn is the olive harvest; prickly pears (fichi d’india) and roasted chestnuts are sold in little kiosks in many towns. Specialities such as caponata, a sweet and sour vegetarian speciality with aubergines, celery, olives, capers and tomatoes and pepperoni (bell peppers).

Throughout the year, you can delve into the variegated palate of Sicilian wines and liquors, which offer undeniably exquisite experiences. Sicily has twenty-three nominated DOC wines, including Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice and Etna, etc.

Sicilian reds to die for include the eternally blissful Nero D’Avola, one of the oldest indigenous grapes. One particularly delightful red is Etna Rosso, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato produced on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.

For lovers of whites, there is plenty to taste in Sicily, including the Bianco D’Alcamo, an excellent white found all over Sicily, exclusively produced in the area between Alcamo and Trapani. While Kue is white with the sweet perfumes of peach, apricot is a perfect accompaniment for incredible Sicilian seafood.

The sugar content of the grapes and the Sicilian sunshine means Sicily lends itself well to the production of dessert wines. The best known of these is Marsala, the famous fortified wine first produced by the Englishman John Woodhouse in the eighteenth century. 

The Passito di Pantelleria is made from Zibibbo grapes dried in the sun to increase the sugar concentration, pure heaven from Sicily’s southernmost island. For the sweetest of the sweet, Malvasia di Lipari and Passito di Noto are harmonious wines with a honey aftertaste.

The Grappas made in Sicily are particularly intense and sweetened by the Pantelleria and Zibibbo varieties with an increased alcohol level thanks to a complex distillation process for those who can handle more vigorous fortified wines.

For lovers of fine cheeses, Sicily has a thing or two for you to taste too.

Some like the provola di Nebrodi, caciocavallo Ragusano and fresh ricotta are perfect on their own or as part of an antipasto, main course or even as a dessert accompanied by an array of Sicilian honey and jams which are pretty literally nectar of the gods.

Sicily has a beautiful selection of cured meats, and salami’s to relish for meat-eaters. The most famous is the Salami of Sant Angelo di Brolo. In the province of Messina, the salami del suino Nero is made from the sort after the native black swine of the Nebrodi mountains together with other products like fresh pork, coppa, lard, prosciutto and fresh barbecue sausage seasoned with wild fennel and chilli pepper. For the more adventurous carnivores, Sicilian’s are huge on eating horse meat prepared as a delicacy by most butchers on request.

Olive oil is a standard ingredient in the Sicilian kitchen, and the quality of Sicilian extra virgin olive oil is phenomenal. Sicily boasts several DOP areas whose products are protected by this exceptionally high-quality classification. These include the olive producing areas in the Iblei mountains near Syracuse, Ragusa, Catania and Nocellara del Belice.

Sicily is regarded as the lost garden of Eden simply because of its abundant fertility, an image which is reinforced by the wide range of fruits and vegetables grown here. Commercial market gardens dominate the provinces of Agrigento, Catania and Palermo with a rich harvest ranging from different varieties of eggplant (aubergines), artichokes, fennel, broccoli, tomatoes, peaches, pears, apricots, giant meaty Tarocco oranges also grown in the provinces of Messina and Siracusa. At the same time, Agrigento and Caltanisetta produce the best table grapes on the island.

One of the most famous fruits of Sicily is the pistachio of Bronte, a small town at the feet of Etna that produces the prized pistachio along with the provinces of Caltanissetta and Agrigento. Green gold or pistachio thrives in the island’s volcanic soil and is an excellent source of wealth as it is one of the most expensive nut varieties in the world. Almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios are the holy trinity of Sicilian desserts and are grown extensively on the island.

Having consumed the main dishes of the Sicilian table, then a Sicilian dessert is in order, which is a baroque triumph of colours, flavours and intense sweetness. You may be stuffed, but you need to taste a spoonful of the typical dolci Siciliane, which is heavenly but so very sweet.

They say the further south you go, the more sugar the locals take with their coffee. Like the sweetest coffee, the desserts are definitely for the insatiable sweet tooth, lovely creations such as the hyper sugar-coated cassata, cannoli filled with sugar-filled ricotta cheese and small marzipan sculptures deliciously displayed in all patisserie pastry shops. 

Most good restaurants offer the delicious semifreddo di mandorle or pistachios (almonds or pistachio parfait ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce.) Sicily is famous for its ice creams, granita ice drinks, and an endless variety of desserts, so be careful not to end up in a sugar-induced coma.

Every town has their particular selection of cakes, biscuits and desserts, which are prepared to celebrate various occasions throughout the year, from Easter, Christmas and other religious festivals. 

Many of the decadent creations were invented by Nun’s in convents who had the time and access to the high-quality ingredients to make them. Most biscuits or pastries sweets are associated with a particular religious celebration. Most of the products used in Sicilian patisserie were introduced to the island during the Arab period in the middle ages, like honey, pistachio, cinnamon, citrus, sultanas and candied fruits.

The selection of treats is endless: from the Sicilian cassata, a sponge cake filled with ricotta cream cheese and covered in a thick layer of icing decorated with dried fruit typical of Palermo. 

Cannoli are the world-famous fried tube-shaped shell dessert filled with sweetened ricotta or custard cream and enriched with pieces of dark chocolate or pistachios, almonds and dried fruits. 

The Giuggiulena are a caramelized honey nougat candy mixed with sesame seeds used around Christmas time and is a speciality of the cities of Ragusa, Siracusa and Catania.

The Impantiglie from Modica is a sweet raviolo filled with chocolate, almonds, cinnamon and orange peel. The hand-made chocolate of Modica is said to derive from an original Aztec recipe is unlike other chocolate you have ever tasted.

Wherever you go in Sicily, there is an endless choice of fine fresh fare; whether simply going to a daily fresh fruit market, street food is everywhere in most major cities. During the year, each town likes to show off their best products with local sagras or food festivals which give you a chance to taste everything on offer for a few euro’s change.

The most well-known markets on the island are the Vuccuria and Ballero at Palermo, Catania has La Fiera di Catania in Piazza Carlo Alberto and La Pescheria, which are its two main fresh food markets. There are hundreds of ‘sagre’ throughout the year. Some of the most famous include the ones dedicated to Granita at Acireale (June), Sagra del Mandorle (Almonds) at Agrigento in February, the Ricotta Festival at Vizzini (April) and the Couscous Festival at San Vito Lo Capo held in September.

Even eating out in Sicily is easy; the best food and wine will be found in local family-run restaurants or ‘trattorie’, which offer one hundred per cent local produce for only a fraction of the cost of any flashy restaurant around. Even going to eat in a simple Tavola calda or basic diner will give you the chance of a hot meal and a great selection of mains.

The fascinating aspect of Sicilian cuisine, apart from its impressive range and abundance, is the rich history behind each dish. Many peoples have invaded Sicily, who have enriched the elaborate tapestry of local cuisine.

Greeks brought grapes and olives and introduced Sicilians to winemaking; the Romans introduced fava or broad beans, chickpeas, lentils and some forms of pasta. While Arabs or, more accurately, North Africans brought almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, watermelon and rice.

Africa’s influence is still seen in the use of sweet and sour tastes together, which are now considered typically Sicilian. For example, the combination of raisins and pine nuts with vegetables and fish forms the basis of several typical dishes or the use of oranges with bitter vegetables and onions to make a fresh-tasting winter salad.

Normans brought some of their northern European innovations, including the rotating skewer for cooking meat and salting of fish. The Americas provided chilli, sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, prickly pear fruit and maize and all of these were incorporated into existing recipes and would now be unimaginable without them.

The world of Sicilian food is an expansive one, and I cannot recommend it more as I’m sure your appetite has undoubtedly been stimulated. There is no way I can do justice to this island’s cuisine, so please seek out these excellent books which have done Sicilian food and wine so much better than I can do in a single article.

Mary Taylor Simeti is an expert in Sicilian food and has adopted Sicily as her home for many decades. Her books Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle and Pomp and sustenance: twenty-five centuries of Sicilian food are packed with recipes and the rich history of Sicilian cuisine.

Sicilian wine has inspired many writers and historians to dedicate time to the islands oenology.

The world of Sicilian wine by Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino both experts in Italian wines, give you a comprehensive reference to the region of Sicily.

Palmento: a Sicilian Wine Odyssey by Robert Camuto is a truthful expose and exploration of the recent history and mythology of Sicily

The recently published The New Wines of Mount Etna by American ex-pat and Etna winemaker Benjamin North Spencer has been awarded the best European wine book of 2021.

The New Wines of Mount Etna is a beautiful book, a mixture of the fascinating viticulture history of Sicily and a guide to the thriving array of wine producers in the area.

Read my interview with Benjamin here.