A guide to the best Sicilian food
With this article, I share some historical facts about Sicilian cuisine and I make my personal top 15 of the best Sicilian dishes. Every food paragraph inside the article includes some tips on how to best enjoy Sicilian cuisine. Buon Appetito!
Facts about Sicilian Food
Sicily is the largest island of the mediterranean sea and one of the top travel destinations of Italy. Every year Sicily attracts millions of tourists thanks to the rich historical heritage and beautiful nature, made of pristine beaches, active volcanoes, and some amazing mountain ranges. Sicilian cuisine is incredibly unique. While much of it is Italian, and excellent ingredients like parmesan cheese and pasta nowadays are commonly used for cooking, Sicily has traditional Sicilian dishes that have received the influence of the many dominations that conquered this island in the past three thousand years. The gastronomic contributions provided by each domination in Sicily have been different and precious: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards have influenced our cuisine by bringing ingredients and cooking methods. The Sicilians have not limited themselves to passively copying; they have reworked the new dishes with inspiration, adapting them to their needs and expressing an original gastronomic identity. At the Spaniards' time, the cuisine reached the highlight of creativity: with ingredients from the New World such as cocoa, tomato and eggplant. In the typical Sicilian food, we have elaborate, opulent dishes with contrasting flavors: caponata (sweet and sour veggie), sarde a beccafico,(Sardines stuffed with raisin and bread crumb) pasta with sardines and pine nuts. Among the desserts, we remember the Sicilian cassata with Arab origins, but which had "a definitive edition" with the Iberian sponge cake and the chocolate of the Americas. At that time, Sicilian housewives strove to recreate the nobles dishes at home by replacing the original ingredients with more modest ones: this is how sardines a lenguata, a poor version of the lenguado of the Spanish nobles (sole), were born. Sardines, humbler fish than sole, were bought almost rotten at a lower price; they were boned, dipped in vinegar to cover the stench, floured, and fried. The numerous omelets, sisters of tortillas, are also of Iberian origin. Our "Tavola Calda," the Sicilian fast food (primarily calzone), have the same origin, descendants of Spanish empanadas. It is also likely that some grandparents' habit of eating peaches dipped in wine at the end of a meal has an entirely Iberian origin. Doesn't that sound like a Sicilian version of Spanish sangria? Ok, let's found out my personal top fifteen of the most famous and delicious Sicilian food.
My top 15 Best Sicilian dishes
This traditional Sicilian food is part of the "Tavola Calda" (Fast food). It's so popular that a long-lasting diatribe between Catania and Palermo has not been settled yet. In Catania, like in the rest of Sicily is called "Arancino," but in Palermo is known as "Arancina." Arancini are small rice balls filled with chunks of meat, tomato sauce, peas, and mozzarella. Then they are coated in breadcrumb and fried. The "rice" used is risotto and is traditionally made with saffron, giving the orange bulb's colour. Nowadays, you find arancini stuffed with many different ingredients.
Tip: try some arancino filled with salmon or the one alla norma with aubergines.
Tip: Catania district has one of the best Tavola Calda of Sicily.
Tip. A fair price for one Arancino is around €1,50
I know that cous-cous might not sound like a typical Sicilian food, but in the district of Trapani on the west coast of Sicily, not far from the North African coast, is one of the most popular food. It is a delicious fish dish; it was born in the homes of fishermen families who, to prepare it, had fish and a few other simple foods available: durum wheat semolina, garlic, bay leaf, onion, and olive oil. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find cous-cous in the menù of restaurants outside the Trapani district.
Tip: In September, in San Vito Lo Capo (Trapani), take place one of the biggest cous-cous festivals of the Mediterranean sea.
3 Pasta with sea urchins
Ok, I understand that you might not have heard before about pasta topped with raw sea urchins and sure is not the most famous Sicilian food, but trust me that if you like raw fish and seafood, you are going to love it. The pasta is boiled. Once ready, it's transferred in a hot frypan with olive oil, garlic, and parsley mixed with the sea urchins for two minutes and voila' is ready. Local chefs fight to put their hands on fresh sea urchins. A plate of pasta with sea urchins starts at around €15.
Tips: Some smart-arse blends the much cheaper mussels with the sea urchins eggs!
4 Pasta alla Norma
Sicilians, like greeks, cook aubergines in many different ways, and be sure that while traveling in Sicily, you will find in almost any restaurant the "Pasta alla Norma". Like many traditional Sicilian cuisine recipes, even this one is simple to prepare it' is all about fresh products. The ingredients are fried aubergines, tomato sauce, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of "Ricotta infornata" (Ricotta cheese baked in the oven).
Tip: Do not use Parmesan Cheese but ask for "Ricotta infornata," the original cheese for the pasta Alla Norma.
All Sicilians love this delicious vegetarian dish, and if you ever travel to Sicily, you have to taste it. Once again, the star of this plate is the aubergine. The Parmigiana (not to be confused with Parmigiano cheese) is made by layers of sliced fried aubergines with in between each layer tomato sauce, basil, pecorino cheese, and black pepper. Before being served, the Parmigiana is baked in the oven for ten minutes to create a slightly crispy surface. Parmigiana is a typical Sicilian food.
Tip. Try to eat the parmigiana cold; it's even better.
6 Involtini di pesce spada.
Swordfish is not my favorite fish, but the involtini (rolls)of Pesce Spada are truly delicious, low calories, and healthy. This dish is prepared by thin slicing the belly of the swordfish. Bread crumb mixed with parsley, olive oil, garlic, pecorino cheese is placed upon the slices of fish. Then the slices of swordfish are rolled and close with a toot pick forming a cylinder. The involtini can be fried, cooked in the oven, or stirfried in a pan with tomatoes, green olives, capers, and garlic.
Tip: try the involtini alla "Messinese" (Messina style) are the most simple. I love them.
Tip: The involtini can be prepared with meat. Involtini di carne.
7 Horse meat meatballs
After reading the title, some out there is already hating me. Yes, Sicilians eat horse and donkey meat. The meatballs are prepared with minced meat mixed with pecorino cheese, garlic, parsley, and eggs. Once the ingredients are combined using the hands, the minced meat is shaped into a ball placed between two lemon leaves and barbequed. After being cooked and deepened into vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, the meatball is placed inside a roll of bread. The horse meat is among the best Sicilian street food... well if you like horse meat!
Tip. To try the best meatball of horse meat, go to Catania Via Plebiscito, it's the kingdom of horsemeat.
8 Sarde a Beccafico
Sardines a beccafico are typical Sicilian dish and are served both as an appetizer and as a second course. It is a recipe with a humble origin, born as an imitation of "stuffed beccafico," an aristocratic dish in which birds were stuffed with their entrails. In sardines, the procedure is similar, but breadcrumbs and pine nuts are used instead of offal. There are variations throughout Sicily. In Messina, they are stewed in a pan with tomato sauce instead of becked in the oven. Furthermore, instead of being rolled upon themselves, two sardines fillets are used, stuffed like a sandwich. The sarde a beccafico is authentic Sicilian food.
Tip: Try the Sarde beccafico, Messina style, with tomato sauce and capers
9 Spaghetti al nero di seppia.
The spaghetti with the cuttlefish ink is a classic Sicilian recipe and a must-have dish in Sicily. To prepare this delicious pasta plate slice, a cuttlefish fried it in extra virgin olive oil with garlic for a few minutes, then add a touch of white wine and the cuttlefish ink. When the pasta has finished boiling, add it to the pan with the sauce and stir it for a minute.
Tip: Pair this fish dish with some white wine produced from "Grillo" grapes
10 Pesce stocco alla Ghiotta.
This dish has Norman origin, and it's prepared using dried codfish, known as stockfish, introduced in the Mediterranean from the Vikings or merchants that traded with them. The stockfish is a popular Sicilian dish, and it's cooked mainly in winter. The fish is left in water for three days to rehydrate, and then it's stewed with tomato sauce, carrots, capers potato, green olive, and chilly pepper.
Tip: Try the stockfish salad, an authentic Sicilian summer recipe.
11 Pasta with pesto alla Trapanese
The basil pesto from Genova is famous worldwide. In Trapani on the west coast of Sicily, locals prepare another pesto type using the best Sicilian products. Trapanese pesto is a traditional condiment mainly used to dress pasta. It is a raw sauce pounded with a mortar; the main ingredients are oil, basil, tomato, almonds, pecorino cheese, and red garlic.
Tip try with the "busiate," a typical pasta from Trapani.
12 Panella Sicilian street food
Panelle is believed to be of Arab origin and is a Sicilian street food cooked just in Palermo and his district. Panelle are Sicilian fritters made from chickpea flour and other ingredients and are often eaten between slices of bread or on a roll, like a sandwich.
Tip, make sure the Panelle has been fried shortly before being consumed!
13 Panino ca Meusa
The sandwich with the spleen is one of those authentic Palermo street food recipes and maybe food just some Sicilians. The Meusa is a poor dish born about 1100 years ago when butchers of Jewish origin settled in Palermo. These, not receiving money for their work due to their religious faith, withheld the calf's entrails as a reward: guts, lungs, spleen, and heart. There was no liver among this offal because it had a more significant economic value and was sold separately. The Jewish butchers had to find a way to turn this reward into money, and finally, one day, they had a brilliant idea. They realized that Christians used to eat animals' entrails, accompanying them with cheese or ricotta, inspired by this custom. They created a sandwich stuffed with lung, spleen, and "scannarozzato," or cartilage pieces from the ox's trachea.
Tip: Palermo is the best place where to try Panino ca Meusa!
The original recipe of Sicilian caponata or "caponatina" has very few variations. In fact, it is not one of those recipes that every country has its own way—same ingredients, same steps, and above all, a lot of love in making it. The Sicilian caponata has a flaw; it is a little long in preparation. The original recipe for Sicilian caponatina fry red peppers, aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions; capers and pine nuts are added towards the end. The final touch is vinegar and sugar to give it the typical sweet and sour taste.
Tip: Ask for this dish as an appetizer.
I want to close this article, including a specialty made of sweet ricotta cheese, pieces of chocolate, and candied fruit. Originally Cannoli was prepared on the carnival festivity; over time, the preparation has lost its character of occasionality and has experienced a notable diffusion on the national territory, quickly becoming a well-known example of Italian pastry art in the world.
Tip the Cannoli must be stuffed with ricotta when you eat it!
Is this all to be known about Sicilian food?
No, this list of the top 15 Sicilian dishes is not all there is to try out of the Sicilian cuisine. My article scratches just the surface of a very complex and rich Mediterranean culinary culture. My advice is to allow yourself to try dishes that you never heard before, to be open mind about suggestions coming from the waiters, and keep an eye on what locals order at the restaurants.