When in Sicily, Eat as the Sicilians Do

April 26, 2016

“In a country rich in food traditions, no region is richer than Sicily.” Gillian Riley gets straight to the point in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. It's Italy's second largest island (the slightly triangular soccer ball of “the boot”) and most southern region, which means that its history is peppered with influences from the Greeks, Arabs, French, Spanish, and North Africans who would pass through.

South-Eastern Sicily Photo by Emiko Davies

It was known as the “garden paradise” by Arabs in the Middle Ages: Its beautiful and fruitful coastline and luxurious vegetation, all perfumed with orange blossom—something that Roman cookbook writer Ada Boni adds “could exist only in a land of sunshine”—provide the island with plenty of exquisite produce, from the freshest seafood to nuts, wine, sea salt, vegetables, and fruit. And so it follows that Sicily's food would be exquisite as well.

An icon of Sicilian cuisine, Pasta alla Norma is named after Catania-born Bellini's nineteenth-century opera Norma. This is the Eastern Sicilian city's signature dish, and some say it represents the moody volcano, Mount Etna, that looks over Catania: the black and red of the eggplant and tomato sauce represent the lava, while the showering of ricotta salata on top is like the snow that covers the mountain in winter.

Meanwhile, in the Western corner of Sicily, Trapani is famous for its couscous and this pesto trapanese, a refreshing sauce of almonds, garlic, and fresh tomatoes that tastes of summer.

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A brilliant way to use usually ignored celery leaves, this Sicilian olive salad of tangy, squashed green olives, and bright celery leaves makes an ideal antipasto or a side to grilled meat.

Ortigia Photo by Emiko Davies

Sicilians are renowned in Italy for their pastry-making—their beautiful desserts and refreshing granita are some of the best in the country. (It might be the only place in the world where it is acceptable to eat granita and brioche for breakfast!) The strong Arabic influence over Sicily in the Middle Ages is partly to thank for Sicily's prowess in the pastry section: They introduced sugar, citrus, nuts like pistachios and almonds, and durum wheat, amongst other things, as well as the techniques for candying fruit and making sorbets and flaky pastry.

Perhaps the most famous pastries are Sicilian cannoli—one bite of the crisp, freshly fried pastry encasing a creamy ricotta filling and you will understand instantly that Sicily does desserts better than anywhere else.

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Top Comment:
“We have a holiday home in Ragusa and so visit south east Sicily about 5 times a year. My absolute favourite sweets are the gremolata di pistacchi e granita di gelsi with brioche. The food is fantastic and genuine using the local produce.”
— connie

In the shadow of Mount Etna, an area famous for producing the world's tastiest pistachios, you can find gems like these gloriously simple pastine di pistacchi, dainty pistachio cookies (which also happen to be gluten-free!).

Then there is that beautiful, gaudy, slightly intimidating cassata. The cassata is a surprisingly delicate cake of sponge encasing ricotta and chocolate chip and covered in green marzipan and royal icing. Whole, candied fruit—a specialty of the region—tops the whole thing. Could there be more going on here? It's the ultimate Sicilian dessert, which is made all over the island from Palermo to Trapani and which they say is over a thousand years old and.

Related to the cassata are these exquisite Minne di Sant'Agata, which look suggestive enough to make you blush. Dedicated to the patron saint of Catania, Saint Agatha, these pastries of liquor-soaked sponge or short, sweet pastry hold a ricotta and chocolate filling are made to represent the young saint's breasts.

Stop blushing and try one! You'll want to book a flight to Sicily right away so you can take a bite into one while sitting in a sun-drenched, whitewashed piazza next to a table of old men in their black fedora hats.

Have you been to Sicily? What did you eat while you were there? Tell us in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • connie
  • Carin Falasco
    Carin Falasco
  • Kim
  • Peggasus
  • Jeanette DeMain
    Jeanette DeMain
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


connie August 31, 2016
We have a holiday home in Ragusa and so visit south east Sicily about 5 times a year. My absolute favourite sweets are the gremolata di pistacchi e granita di gelsi with brioche. The food is fantastic and genuine using the local produce.
Carin F. April 29, 2016
My husband and I had the most delicious meatballs in Taormina! They were long, flat and grilled on lemon leaves. We still dream about that lunch :)
Kim April 28, 2016
We aten the most wonderfull Siciliën fried Rice balls, don't remember the name, we bought them walking down the street to the beach in San Vino lo Cappo. They made the perfect picknick, stuffed with cheese/minched Meat or my favorites Crabmeat .. just thinking about al these wonderfull food, the couscous! makes me homesick for Sicilië..#travelingthereyearsago
Jeanette D. April 28, 2016
Peggasus April 26, 2016
I have been to Sicilia, a small town called Scicli, very near the bottom tip. I visited with my Italian boyfriend Gianni's family for a week. They literally butchered a hog in my honor, and I watched. I don't thing they'd ever seen a blonde down there, I was very conspicuous.
Emiko April 27, 2016
The photos at the top were taken in Ragusa and Marzamemi -- not too far away from Scicli! I've been there too, it's so beautiful. What a memory to take from that trip!!