Sicilian food culture is no one trick pony. We’ve talked elsewhere about the typical food that Sicilians eat at home and in restaurants, from fresh fish and pistachio-peppered pasta to Arab-influenced dishes like aubergine caponata. But on the streets of Sicily’s cities, a decidedly different food culture exists. In places like Palermo and Catania, vendors rustle up handheld snacks in back alleys and side streets, ready to be devoured by busy punters (and some lucky tourists). This is street food in its most elemental form, there’s none of the overpriced burgers, catchy names or artfully-decked out food vans we’ve come to associate with the words ‘street food’ here in the UK. Sicilian street foods are the real deal: affordable, portable and satisfying snacks to eat on the run. Hungry yet? Join us as we tuck into seven must-try Sicilian street eats.
Arancini are balls of rice that are shaped around a delicious filling (in Sicily meat ragù is traditional, but cheese is common too), before being breadcrumbed and fried until crisp. Wrapped in a serviette and served piping hot, they’re the ideal handheld snack. Arancini are common all over Italy now, but they originated in Sicily. Across the island you’ll find them piled high at street stalls, lined up neatly in rows at rosticceria (inexpensive fast food joints) and grasped in the hands of Sicilians standing at bar counters. These days there's a huge variety of arancini shapes, fillings and styles on offer – from seafood-stuffed creations to vegetarian versions filled with aubergine and tomato (pasta alla Norma, anyone?). Whatever arancino you choose, you’ll be sampling a quintessentially Sicilian snack.
Panelle are delightfully light fritters made from chickpea flour, which is an ingredient they share with another Italian classic: farinata. It was likely the Arab colonisers that ruled Sicily between the 9th and 11th centuries who were the first to grind chickpeas to create a rustic flour. This was then cooked with water, in a similar style to polenta. History is a little hazier on the details of who first decided to fry cooled squares of this batter in hot oil, but we’d like to raise a glass of Sicilian wine in their honour. Crisp, hot panelle are wonderful eaten as they are, but in Sicily’s capital Palermo you’ll find them packed inside a soft roll and doused in lemon juice for a snack called pane e panelle. Grabbed from a streetside stall or a friggitoria (a shop specialising in fried foods) and combined with a cold Italian beer, it’s Sicilian sustenance at its pared back best.
You can find thin crust Neapolitan pizza across Sicily nowadays, but true Sicilian pizza is different. Known as sfincione, it has a much thicker, focaccia-like base. In the classic incarnation, the pizza is cut into rectangular slabs and spread with a thick layer of tomato sauce, before being topped with anchovies, local Ragusano cheese and crispy fried breadcrumbs. There are different versions of sfincione in each of Sicily’s provinces too, and you’ll find them topped with all manner of ingredients, from artichoke hearts to crumbled sausage meat. The story goes that sfincione was first invented by the nuns of the San Vito monastery in Palermo as a festive bread, only to be eaten on Christmas eve. These days, it’s an everyday snack, found in the panificio (bakeries) and pasticceria (pastry shops) of Palermo and beyond.
Pani câ meusa
Prepare yourself. This one’s a little more challenging (but no less delicious). Pani câ meusa means ‘bread with spleen’ in the Sicilian dialect, and that’s more or less exactly what it is; lamb or veal spleen is first fried in fat, before being piled into a soft bread roll to create a meaty – and undeniably greasy – sandwich. Typically served with just a spritz of lemon juice (known as a schettu – ‘single’ in Sicilian), you also have the option of adding some grated Sicilian caciocavallo cheese, a combination that locals poetically describe as maritatu – ‘married’. Even if you’re still not sold, there’s no doubt that pani câ meusa is one of the most authentic Sicilian street foods you can try – every lunchtime you’ll find hungry locals queuing while theatrical vendors whip up sandwiches in seconds.
If a spleen sandwich didn’t do it for you, look away now. Stigghiola is another of Sicily’s more hardcore street snacks; sheep or goat intestine is wrapped around a skewer or a spring onion, then grilled over hot coals until smoky and charred. Once cooked, it’s seasoned liberally and drowned in lemon juice and herbs, before being chopped into bite size pieces and eaten straight away. Stigghiola is a great example of how the spirit of cucina povera (the peasant’s kitchen) lives on in Sicily; it was initially conceived as an affordable source of meat for the everyday Sicilian. These days, it’s an authentic window into Sicilian cuisine. The people of Palermo are particularly enamoured with stigghiola – you’ll find sellers manning stands at the city’s Ballarò and Vucciria markets from lunch until the small hours. Stigghiola is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but give it a chance and you’ll be rewarded with a deeply savoury Sicilian classic.
After all that offal, it’s time for something a little sweeter. Cannoli are, without doubt, Sicily’s most famous sweet snack. In the traditional version, tubes of crisp fried pastry shell are filled with fresh ricotta cream and candied fruits. These days, cannoli are a popular dessert all over Italy – often referred to as cannoli siciliano to give credit to their origin. They’ve become so popular that there’s now a plethora of different flavours and styles available, from chocolate-filled numbers to our Chef Roberta’s personal favourite: pistachio cannoli. In Sicily, any special occasion – from Sunday lunch, to a wedding party, or even a picnic – ends with a tray of dainty cannoli, and you’ll find them being fried up and filled in everywhere from hole in the wall stalls to upmarket pasticceria. For true Sicilians, there’s only one rule: to keep the pastry shell crisp, you should never buy or make pre-filled cannoli. Once they’re filled, it’s time to eat.
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