Let’s be honest. Most of us travel for food, and we know that experiencing a country like Italy is contingent on tasting it. For proof, look no further than the sheer number of TV shows, cookbooks, and podcasts dedicated to the flavors of Italy.
But while it’s no secret that Italian food is half the fun, the country boasts more than Rome’s famous carbonara or Naples’ brick-oven pizza. An island with many identities, Sicily is its own entity and has had centuries to perfect its local specialties. You’d be doing yourself a disservice not to embrace the dishes of the island. These recipes vary widely by region and are rich in folklore and the flavors of the season.
Street Treats in Sicily
No region in Italy does street food quite like Sicily, with arancine crowned king of the markets. Similar to Rome’s supplí, arancine are fried balls of rice filled with ragù, cheese, prosciutto, or spinach. Before you order one, however, take note: this popular food is a gendered dish. Meaning the Italian suffix for it changes depending on the region. Order masculine arancini on the eastern coast, and feminine arancine on the western side of the island–or prepare for a lecture on the highly-debated origin of riceballs.
Another fried treat perfect for eating while exploring is panelle, flat chickpea fritters that come straight from the fryer. Most commonly served in a soft bun as “pane con panelle,” this sandwich will satiate your carb fix. If you’re looking for more variety, opt for a panino with panelle and crocchè, Sicily’s iteration of potato croquettes. These fried fillings are equally tasty sans bread and commonly served at aperitivo (or the island’s abundant apericena).
If you want something heartier and more adventurous, pane con la milza divides even the locals into two camps. Those who love it and those who won’t go anywhere near it. Milza, better known in Sicilian as meusa, is best known in English as “spleen.” Rich with flavor and primed for a good story, it comes on a sesame roll with lemon with the option of caciocavallo cheese. Milza is a must-try to add to your bucket list. Sicily’s funkier offerings also include stigghiole, a variation of grilled intestines, and frittola. The latter is a mixture of butcher scraps that includes veal guts, hidden beneath cloth baskets.
Frozen Desserts for Breakfast
Gelato needs no explanation, but think of granita as its lesser-known, icier counterpart. Made with water instead of milk, it’s a refreshing alternative for vegans and lactose intolerant. Both are excellent on their own (and at any time of the day). For a filling breakfast, make like the locals and pair either with a brioche roll to assemble the world’s most literal ice cream sandwich. While gelato comes inside the roll, granita is served on the side, perfect for dipping the brioche in the icy mixture. I promise it tastes better than it sounds.
Scents and Flavors of Sicily
In the Sicilian palette, certain flavors pop up again and again in both sweet and savory recipes. Mandorla (almond) is not only a popular gelato option but it is also used to create a pesto sauce for Pasta alla Trapanese. It is loaded with sugar in order to mold into sweet marzipan shapes.
Grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, pistachios are similarly versatile and high-quality, thanks to the nutrients of the volcanic soil. Bronte pistachios add a nutty topping to everything from cannoli to pizza with mortadella. And a jar of pistachio cream makes for an easy yet delicious souvenir. Pistachio cream can be found at most grocery and specialty stores, and is a popular filling for croissants and donuts—and equally enjoyable straight from the spoon.
For a tangier taste of the island, the Sicilian lemon tops the citrus food chain and is best enjoyed via a slushy granita or a market order of lemonade. Likewise, oranges of all varieties are another star product in Sicily and make for the perfect balcony breakfast.
On the saltier side of things, ingredients like capers, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and anchovies appear in many dishes to add a briny flavor to pasta, salads, and vegetable sides.
I’d be remiss to overlook the importance of eggplants and tomatoes in Sicilian culture. These popular nightshades are everywhere in the island’s cuisine, most noticeably stacked between layers of mozzarella cheese in a parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan), and served in a sweet and sour sauce as caponata.
Ricotta takes the shape of Sicily’s trademark dessert: cannoli. This fried shell is filled with sweetened ricotta and often topped with chocolate chips and candied oranges, though it comes in infinite varieties. And the ricotta confections don’t stop there. Cassata is recognizable by its green marzipan shell and candied fruit toppings that render the dessert almost too pretty to eat. Inside the marzipan, you’ll find a creamy ricotta that matches the insides of a cannoli shell.
For something a little less sweet, try cassata al forno, a baked version of that same ricotta interior. The doughier genovesi, made in the hilltop town of Erica, is a sweetened pastry and another variety with ricotta.
Beyond dessert, ricotta complements all kinds of sandwiches, pasta dishes, and even vegetables — though it’s often so fresh, you’ll want to enjoy it on its own to savor its true flavors. You can never go wrong with a ricotta-stuffed roll, though sun-dried tomatoes add oomph to the savory cheese.
The Day’s Catch
Because Sicily is an island, it has garnered a reputation as a seafood haven with fresh fish, fried sardines, and sprawling octopus offered daily. For an authentically Sicilian experience, stop by the local markets to feast your eyes, ears, and nose on the catch of the day.
If you have access to a kitchen, order whatever is on display at the markets — chances are it was just caught. For a more hands-free approach to trying Sicilian seafood, stop by practically any restaurant and order sarde a beccafico: sardines stuffed with raisins, pine nuts, and bread crumbs. If pasta is more your thing, busiate ai frutti di mare is the best of both worlds and certain to give you a taste of Sicily.
The Dynamic Duo: Pizza and Pasta
While traditional Italian pizza is available throughout the island, Sicily’s claim to fame lies in the sfincione. With a focaccia-like crust, sfincione is thicker than the average pie, replete with a thin layer of sauce, anchovies, and the right amount of spice. You’ll find sfincione in markets and piazzas primarily on the West Coast, where vendors warm up slices straight from their carts. Meanwhile, the east coast is better known for its scacce flatbreads often served with onions, tomato, and ragusano cheese.
Although pasta is secondary to other Sicilian treats, the island’s trademark carbs are certainly worth a try. Timballo di anelletti is a popular baked pasta reminiscent of lasagna — if lasagna merged its layers with rings of miniature noodles. Baked pasta, with or without a pastry crust, is a nod to Sicily’s aristocratic monsú tradition which dates back to the 17th century. French nobility traveled to Sicily along with their chefs and created dishes that fused French cuisine with Sicily’s seasonal produce.
Named after Bellini’s famous opera Norma — pasta alla norma originates in the composer’s birth city of Catania and is one of Sicily’s most palatable pasta dishes. It’s a perfect trifecta of sweetness, acidity, and saltiness, combining fried eggplants, stewed tomatoes, and ricotta salata. Enjoyed from the east to the west coast, and abroad, this dish is a signature of the island.
See More: How To Spend 48 Hours In Palermo