The Italian island of Sicily has a distinctive cuisine that has been influenced over the years by many different nationalities. The staples of fish, pasta, capers, olives, tomatoes and aubergines (eggplants) feature heavily in simple and fresh meals, often with the ingredients home-grown within a stone’s throw of the kitchen. But there’s also some elaborate and delicious dessert and beverages options thrown into the mix. In this post, I outline some of our most memorable Sicilian food and drink experiences.
Almost all the fruit you find on sale in Sicily is grown locally, with only a select few items imported. Three-quarters of Sicily’s landmass is used for agriculture, with wheat, corn, citrus fruits, tomatoes, olives, olive oil, artichokes, prickly pears, almonds, grape and pistachios among the top crops. These fruits may not look as perfect as the examples we get in our Australian supermarkets, but they are packed with way more flavour.
I love a good, salty caper-enhanced dish, and you’ll certainly find some of those on menus in Sicily, as capers are produced on Pantelleria (off the southern coast of Sicily) and in the Aeolian Islands to the north, particularly Salina, which is known as ‘the caper island’.
Cannoli were top of my list to try in Sicily, and we managed to have some for breakfast on our first morning there. Yes…for breakfast…which is quite normal in Sicily.
Cannolo (the singular form, meaning “little tube”) is a Sicilian specialty and a staple for locals. They consist of a fried pastry tube filled with a sweet, creamy filling (usually containing ricotta). The tubes range in size from mini ones about the size of finger, right up to monster full-sized ones which are about 20cms long and 4-5cms in diameter. The filling is often flavoured, and a variety of toppings (e.g. pistachios, chocolate chips, candied fruits) are added to the ends. The best cannoli are filled right in front of you, as that keeps the pastry super-crisp. Warning – start small, this is one rich and filling dessert…
Wines and liqueurs
Sicily is Italy’s third largest wine-producing region, most famously known for its fortified Marsala wines, but also producing a number of other varieties such as Zibibbo, Primativo, Moscato and Passito . Plus many of the towns or islands have their own specialty wines or liqueurs, such as Salina’s Malvasia, and Castlemola’s Vino alla Mandorla (almond liqueur).
I didn’t buy any wine by the 4 litre plastic bottle, but if you want to…you certainly can! And of course, every Sicilian bar serves the quintessential Italian summer aperitif – Aperol Spritz. I got quite a taste for those. 🙂
Fresh fish and seafood
Over 20 per cent of Italy’s fishing catch comes from the waters around Sicily, with the most common varieties being tuna, swordfish, sea bream, sardines, octopus, squid, prawns and mussels. It’s no surprise that these also feature in the menus of Sicilian restaurants. One of the classic Sicilian fish dishes is a whole fish cooked inside a salt-crust. When The Poolboy chose that from a menu, a tray of the day’s fish was brought to the table for him to select from.
You can hardly go to Italy and not have some pizza now could you? And we found that the pizza shops in Sicilian town streets were the perfect place to stop for a quick snack when The Impossible Princess’s spirits were flagging. Generally, this form of pizza was around 3 Euros a slice. Of course, you can also find great pizzerias that serve elaborate, delicious pizzas for dinner too, but the takeaway slice was the kid-friendly day-time snack choice!
Arancini are stuffed riceballs which are coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried. They are another Sicilian staple, and the traditional fillings vary depending on where you are within Sicily, but could be beef ragu, mozzarella, tomato, peas, proscuitto, spinach or even liver. They are another great snack you can buy cheaply and eat-on-the-go.
Blood orange juice and prosecco
You have to love a culture that considers prosecco an acceptable breakfast drink. Prosecco is a sparkling Italian white wine, and although it hails originally from the north of Italy, it is now available all over the world. Combine a glass of prosecco with a serve of blood orange juice and you have the perfect start to a day of sight-seeing!
Blood oranges have been cultivated extensively in Sicily since ancient times, and Sicily is the world’s largest producer of these fruits. The label ‘Arancia Rossa di Sicilia’ (Sicilian blood orange) is a Protected Geographic Indication – that is, it can only be used for fruit that is actually grown in the designated areas. Blood oranges are packed with Vitamin C, so they make a healthy breakfast juice choice.
What we call granita (‘granite’ in Italian) is a dessert that sits somewhere between sorbet and gelato or icecream in the food spectrum. It is made from sugar, water and various fruits or flavours, and made through a process of freezing the ingredients and then shaving or grinding them. Although it had its origins in Sicily, it can now be found all over Italy. Granite connoisseurs argue that the Sicilian granite has a different texture of the rest of Italy – a coarser grind of fruity ice. Common flavours in Sicily include lemon, almond, mint, strawberry, coffee, orange, chocolate, peach and pistachio. Served with a brioche, it is considered a breakfast dish. (Yes, another sweet breakfast option.)
Of course, if you’re going to Italy, you need to try the local pasta! In Sicily, the traditional pasta dishes tend to be simple – fresh ingredients with the minimum of fuss in putting them together – think, pasta alla norma or pasta con la sarde. My absolute favourite pasta in Sicily was the one above – a Sicilian lemon linguine. Just five ingredients make up the sauce – lemon, garlic, oil, pepper and parsley.
Burrata is not a Sicilian cheese, as it has its origins in Apulia in the south of Italy’s mainland, but you will find it extensively on menus and it is NOT to be missed. Burrata is a fresh cheese made from mozzarella and cream (see bottom right photo above for traditional mozzarella). It starts off being made as mozzarella usually is, but while it is still hot, the cheese is formed into a hollow ball and filled with cream, so that the finished product has a solid mozzarella outside and an soft, gooey buttery centre. It can be eaten simply, with fresh basil and tomato, or included in a more elaborate dish as in the photos above. Whichever way you eat it, it is indescribably delicious, and I’m now on a mission to find an acceptable locally-made version of this, so I can enjoy it at home.
Frutta martorna are traditional Sicilian sweets made of marzipane and painted with food colourings to look like fruit and vegetables. You’ll see them in shop windows all over Sicily. They look very attractive, but I think they may be an acquired taste to eat. Definitely worth trying once though!
Gelato is made with milk, cream and sugar (and sometimes eggs) and flavored with fruits, nuts or other flavourings, such as chocolate or coffee. It is generally lower in fat, but higher in sugar, than other styles of ice cream, and is denser in texture.
Found all over the country, the origins of Italian gelato are the subject of much debate, but one story says that it was actually ‘invented’ in Sicily in Roman times, when snow and ice was brought down from the peak of Mount Etna to be mixed with fruits to create frozen desserts.
I’ve saved the best food/drink experience for last…
After the first few bars we visited, we quickly realised that when you order a drink in Sicilian bars in the evening, you generally also get a spread of food for the table. It’s a very civilised practice – a bit of something to line the stomach, as you sip on your Aperol Spritz. We nicknamed it ‘drinks dinner’, as some bars provided enough food to keep you going for hours. Even the most basic of ‘drinks dinner’ we received consisted of some olives, a bowl of nuts, a few chopped up vegetables, and some potato chips.
The real name for this Italian custom is ‘aperitivo‘ and evening aperitivo is usually from 7pm to 9pm. Aperitivo had its origins in Milan in the 1920s where folks would meet before dinner to have a small bitter drink together with some small morsels of food. Apparently, the idea was that the bitterness of the drink together with a small snack ‘opened the stomach’ – giving you a better appetite for dinner which was still to come.
Apertivo can also happen during the day, as we discovered when we ordered a mid-afternoon Aperol Spritz at a bar in Lipari and received large platters of snacks (see top right photo above).
What food experience would you be trying first?
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