Sicily is a land of warm sunshine, welcoming locals and some of Italy’s freshest and most diverse flavors. We wanted to know more about the culinary traditions of this iconic island so we reached out to Go Ahead Regional Director Giada, an expert on Sicilian cuisine. Here, she talks about the best characteristics of the island’s food scene and shares her favorite Sicilian dishes.
Dishes have varied cultural influences
When it comes to understanding the vibrancy and flavor of present-day Sicily, the past is the place to look. The island’s extensive history is marked by a string of foreign conquerers, all of which had an impact on the unique culture, architecture, agriculture and culinary traditions. As Giada points out, the island’s history shines through in every dish.
“Tradition and modern creativity find the perfect expression on Sicilian soil,” she says. “Sicily’s culinary tradition cannot be separated from the country’s intricate, legendary and often troubled history. There is a little of everything to be found in Sicilian flavors: The spices and exotic flavors of the Arabs, the flamboyant creativity of the Spanish and the rational, elegant combinations of the French. All of these cultures are reflected in Sicilian cuisine, creating a captivating and refined culinary art.”
The street food is top notch
“Sicily is a land of incredible street food, where taste and freshness can be enjoyed on the go,” says Giada. Outdoor vendors are found around almost every corner, but if you want to visit some of the best, Palermo is the place to go. Serving and eating street food is a centuries-old tradition in this capital city—here’s some world-renowned roadside fare to try.
Simple ingredients become something special in these fried rice balls, which are handmade with slightly varied ingredients and preparations on different parts of the island. These satisfying on-the-go snacks are often filled with meat ragù or ham and cheese. As Giada put it, “Arancini are where simplicity reaches the highest levels of complexity and taste.”
Like much of Sicily’s street food, this savory pizza-like snack originated in Palermo. It’s made with a thick, spongy dough similar to focaccia that serves as the base for a variety of mouthwatering toppings like simple tomato sauce, onions, anchovies, cheese and breadcrumbs. The perfect finish? A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Pani ca’ meusa
Palermo has been serving up these cow spleen-and-lung sandwiches since the 1800s. While it may seem unappetizing, the meat is tender and flavorful, often topped with lemon, ricotta or caciocavallo cheese and served on fresh sesame buns. For an authentic culinary experience in Palermo, they truly are a must-try.
The ingredients are seasonal & local
You won’t have the opportunity to try anything out of season in Sicily, where locals cook only with the freshest ingredients. According to Giada, “The key to understanding Sicilian food is to remember that everything is locally sourced. Even the most exotic cultivations have found the perfect soil on the island and nothing needs to be shipped in from far distances.”
Things to try in spring: Springtime in Sicily brings with it ripe cherries, fields of wild fennel, tender asparagus and large cauliflowers known as broccolo. It’s the time to savor just-caught tuna and swordfish. Don’t miss the traditional frittella, a dish made with freshly harvested carciofi (artichokes), fava beans and peas.
Things to try in summer: The fruits picked during the summer harvest lend themselves to a variety of granita (Italian ice) and gelato—perfect for beating the summer heat or even as a sweet treat at breakfast. From flavors like the classic coffee and almond to fig, cantaloupe or peach, there are so many refreshing types to choose from.
Things to try in fall: In August and you’re sure to find bastardoni, or prickly pears, at the local market and roasted chestnuts sold in the streets. Fall is also a good time to taste the Mediterranean vegetable medley known as caponata, which gets a salty flavor from the green olives picked during the fall harvest.
Things to try in winter: Sicilia’s mild winter months are the time to try ripe squash, tomatoes and just-picked pomegranates and grapes. Citrus fruits are also ready during the winter season; finish a meal the Italian way with a bite of one of the island’s most notable products: blood oranges.
The desserts are world-renowned
Sugar wasn’t introduced to Sicily until the 10th-century invasion by the Arabs (then known as the Saracens). In the time since, the island has made an impressive name for itself in the realm of confections. From its love of candied fruit to an undeniable mastery of marzipan, there are so many sweet treats to savor during a visit.
Cannoli: These iconic pastries are one of Sicily’s best-known products. The dessert’s crunchy shell is filled with a cream made of sweetened ricotta cheese, and the flavors and textures become even more well-rounded with the addition of candied fruit, chocolate chips or crushed pistachios.
Cassata: This famous Sicilian dessert is a must-try for anyone with a serious sweet tooth. It’s made from rounds of liqueur-soaked sponge cake layered with ricotta and then topped with green marzipan and white frosting. Candied fruits such as cherries, oranges and figs are popular garnishes.
Frutta di martorana: Sugar and almond paste combine to form these beautiful marzipan creations, which were invented in Palermo and are crafted to resemble amazingly realistic pieces of fruit.
Giada’s top 3 Sicilian dishes
Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines)
“This dish beautifully sums up the most interesting features of Sicilian cuisine. In this wonderful combination of flavors lies the complexity of Sicilian culinary art. The wild fennel and the sardines perfectly blend in with the pine nuts, raisins and a pinch of saffron in order to deliver a final dish of mystery and harmony. From the subtle saline flavors of the Mediterranean to the earthy flavors of the island’s many mountains, the whole of Sicily is in this dish.”
Involtini di pesce spada (roll-ups of sword fish)
“These roll-ups allow diners to enjoy one of the freshest and most delicious products from Sicily’s blue waters: swordfish! The thin slices of fish are perfectly dressed with a combination of bread crumbs, herbs and capers.”
Granita con brioche (Italian ice with sweet bread)
“My favorite Sicilian meal is breakfast. As soon as I touch down on Sicilian soil, I step back into the island’s century-old traditions and instead of indulging in a typical Italian breakfast of cornetto (croissant) and cappuccino, I prefer to sit down to the best combination on earth: granita con brioche. With the unique texture of the fruity, sugary ice and the softness of a lightly sweetened bun, I find this type of breakfast divine in its simplicity. Granita can be made with many different ingredients, including pistachios, almonds, prickly pears and mulberries. These classic tastes perfectly highlight the many colors of the island and offer locals and visitors a wonderful Sicilian mosaic of flavor.”
What’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten on tour in Sicily? Tell us in the comments below!