Sicily may only be separated from mainland Italy by a matter of miles, but it can often feel a world apart. The island has a distinct culture and way of life, a large part of which is due to its history of foreign occupation. Italy’s largest island has been conquered by a myriad of different cultures and civilizations, from the Arabs and Normans to the French and Spanish. Even though Sicily did join unified Italy in 1861, by then it had already developed an identity all of its own.
Nothing sums up Sicily’s melting pot of cultures better than its food, where North African influences sit proudly alongside Arabic-inspired spicing and Italian cucina povera dishes. Read on to discover more about the typical tastes of this intriguing island.
Traditional sicilian food
North African connection
Eastern Sicily may be just a few miles from the toe of Italy’s boot, but the island’s west is actually closer to North Africa than Italy. Sitting just across the sea from Tunisia has undoubtedly shaped Sicilian food, something that’s most obvious in the western provinces of Palermo, Agrigento and Trapani. Here, a stroll through a market is likely to be punctuated by a set of scents and sights that differ from the Italian norm. From raisins to rosewater and saffron to cinnamon, heady flavours more commonly found in African and Arab cultures are everywhere.
Take aubergine caponata; nowadays it’s one of Sicily’s foremost culinary exports, but caponata owes much to Arab and Middle Eastern influences – whether it’s the dish’s sweet and sour profile or the pine nuts and raisins that top it. The same goes for couscous, which was likely first introduced by the Berbers who conquered Sicily over a thousand years ago. Couscous is a staple across the western part of the island, particularly in Trapani, where it’s served with fresh fish from the city’s crescent-shaped bay.
Much of the produce that Sicily is now (rightly) famous for was also shaped by Arab and North African influences. Pistachios are a prime example; originally hailing from the Middle East, these emerald treasures were first brought to the island by Arab colonisers and soon thrived. These days, the pistachio is synonymous with Sicily; it’s here that Bronte pistachios – arguably the finest in the world – grow beneath the shadow of Mount Etna. Known locally as oro verde or ‘green gold’, you’ll find pistachio in many of Sicily’s signature dishes – from pistachio pesto on pasta, to pistachio cream inside the island’s favourite pastries: cannoli.
It’s a similar story with another of the island’s key crops: citrus. Arab settlers quickly spotted that the strong Sicilian sun was perfect for growing their favourite fruits and planted groves all over the island. Lemons, oranges, clementines and mandarins are all grown in Sicily, and grown well, but it’s blood oranges that take the island’s citrus crown – they even have Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status. You’ll find blood oranges in a host of Sicilian dishes, but we love them best as part of a refreshing salad or in limoncello’s lesser-known (but equally delightful) cousin, arancello.
It’s not only cultivated crops that Sicily is known for though; feathery fronds of wild fennel grow free across the island, their anise scent drifting on the wind. Wild fennel is used in many traditional Sicilian dishes, and perhaps the most popular incarnation is ‘salsiccia e finocchietto’ – a creamy sausage and fennel sauce that’s perfect for pasta.
It would be remiss of us to not talk about Sicily’s pasta. Although the origins of pasta in Italy are disputed, many food historians believe that pasta in the form we know today first came to Italy via Sicily. Again, Sicily’s proximity to Africa is key, as it was likely Arab traders who first brought the idea to the island; they’d typically carry pasta-like strands of dried durum wheat and water for sustenance during their long voyages across the sea. It makes sense then, that Sicilians mainly eat pasta shapes made from a pasta bianca (white dough) of durum wheat flour and water, rather than the rich egg pasta eaten in northern Italy.
Sicily has its own traditional pasta shapes too. Casarecce, pronounced ka-sa-RET-cheh and literally translated as ‘homemade’, is a scroll-like shape that originated on the island. Casarecce is made by wrapping small pieces of dough around a metal rod (a ferro or ferretto in Italian), which creates a groove down the middle that’s ideal for holding pesto. Busiate is another popular Sicilian pasta that’s shaped with a ferretto, but this time the pasta dough is spiralled around the rod to create a corkscrew-esque shape. Busiate originated in the western city of Trapani, so it’s typically served with the area’s traditional sauce: pesto alla Trapanese, a play on pesto alla Genovese made with tomatoes and almonds.
However, Sicily’s most famous pasta dish is undoubtedly pasta alla Norma. Hailing from Sicily’s second biggest city, Catania, this sauce is an ode to some of the island’s finest produce; golden fried aubergine is bathed in a rich tomato sauce and topped with shavings of Sicilian ricotta salata (salted ricotta) cheese.
Meat and fish
Seafood is an essential part of Sicilian cuisine. Surrounded by the waters of the Mediterranean, Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas, Sicily’s fishermen have long been spoilt for choice. From Catania to Palermo, Market counters across the island are loaded with freshly caught tuna, sardines, swordfish and heaps of gambero rosso (red prawns). Because the fish is so fresh, pesce crudo (raw fish) is a popular Sicilian specialty; the fish is cured in lemon juice, before being eaten with a simple dressing of olive oil, salt and fresh chilli. Eaten sat under the warm sun with a glass of cold local wine, it’s the ideal island antipasto. When Sicilians do decide to cook their seafood, they’ll often lean towards Sicily’s North African-influenced flavours. Island favourite pasta con le sarde is a perfect example – the mix of sardines, pine nuts, raisins and pasta is Sicily on a plate.
With so much fresh fish, Sicilians generally eat less meat than the rest of Italy. But when they do, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In true ‘cucina povera’ style, offal is common, particularly in the bustling markets of Palermo, where street traders grill everything from veal spleen to sheep intestine over smoking hot coals. Pani câ meusa – quite literally ‘spleen sandwich’ in Sicilian – is Palermo’s street food of choice, with the fried offal stuffed soft roll and topped with Sicilian Ragusano cheese.
Thankfully, you can still eat well on Sicily’s streets if you’re offal-averse. Arancini, breadcrumbed balls of saffron-scented rice with an oozing centre of meat ragù, are a classic Sicilian snack (they first originated on the island under Arab rule). In fact, street snacks are an integral part of daily life in Sicily – from sfincione to panelle, read more about Sicilian street food in our guide.