Before I visited Italy, I was under the impression that Italian food was pasta, pizza and, uh, not much more. I was especially ignorant of the fact that Italian food changes SO much depending on where you are in Italy, and Sicilian food is a whole different beast altogether!
Although Sicilian cuisine does have a lot in common with Italian cuisine, it also has Spanish, Greek, Arab and French influences thanks to the fact that just about everybody has governed Sicily at some point in time. Not only that but Sicilian land is incredibly fertile, with Sicily producing its own olives, pistachios, oranges, lemons, aubergines (eggplants), grapes, almonds and more, and when combined with the fact that Sicily is a small island, meaning that it has an abundance of fresh seafood to boot, you have a cuisine that is very special indeed.
Before you visit Sicily, I highly recommend familiarising yourself with what you can expect from Sicilian cuisine, otherwise you just might miss out on some absolutely incredible dishes. I mean, you wouldn’t go to Naples and not eat pizza right?
Well, there are also tonnes of Sicilian foods that you absolutely have to try on your Sicilian adventure, and so I’ve put together a list of 22 Sicilian foods that you can’t miss on a trip to the underrated Italian island.
22 Sicilian Foods You Have to Try!
1. Arancine (or arancini)
It wouldn’t feel right to begin this list with anything other than perhaps Sicily’s most iconic food – arancine (or arancini in Catania – the spelling is a huge point of contention between the two cities!). Arancine are balls of creamy risotto, deep fried in breadcrumbs and filled with whatever your heart desires. Popular fillings include meat ragu, spinach and mozzarella, prosciutto and mozzarella, pistachio cream, butter and speck.
Typically eaten as a hearty snack on the go, arancine can be found absolutely everywhere in Sicily and are wonderfully stodgy, flavoursome and great if you’re on a budget, with a typical arancina costing less than €2.
2. Pasta alla Norma
Created originally in Catania, pasta alla norma is one of the simplest yet most delicious Sicilian foods and very very popular. Best made with a tubular pasta such as penne or rigatoni, pasta alla norma is made by frying thinly sliced eggplant in extra virgin olive oil before tossing them into a fresh tomato sauce (with hints of garlic and chilli), and sprinkling a generous smattering of ricotta salata cheese on top (saltier and with a firmer texture than classic ricotta).
You will find pasta alla norma on every menu in Sicily, and it usually doesn’t cost more than €5-6.
One of the most quintessential Sicilian foods, caponata is an eggplant-based stew comprised of chopped eggplants and seasoned with sweet balsamic vinegar, capers, pine nuts and raisins, creating a delicate flavour that has to be tasted to be believed. It is served at room temperature and typically as a side dish (or as part of an antipasto platter), and regional variants include olives, celery, bell peppers, potatoes and carrots.
4. Pane con la Milza (or Pane ca Meusa in the Sicilian language)
Not for the faint-hearted (or the weak of stomach!) pane con la milza is a classic Sicilian street food that you will find in Palermo. It consists of chopped veal lung, trachea and spleen that have been boiled before being fried in lard and seasoned with a squirt of lemon juice. This is then added to a sesame seeded bun, and sometimes grated ricotta is added.
It may sound a bit icky, but really pane con la milza is no different to haggis, liver and onions or steak and kidney pie! Pane con la milza has quite a strong flavour and is very greasy, making it the perfect hangover food, and the best pane con la milza is always made by street vendors, such as those in the Ballaro market or Rocky Basille at La Vucciria market.
Although granita can now be found all over Italy, the birthplace of this refreshing summer dessert is actually Sicily! Granita is simply shaved ice with sugar and fruit flavouring, and it is essentially a sorbet, but with a slightly coarser texture, perfect for a light refreshment on a hot summer’s day – my favourite is the lemon version.
In the summertime, many Italians will order a coffee flavoured granita for breakfast with a brioche, and dip their brioche into the granita – yum!
6. Pasta con le Sarde
Another Palermo classic (although this dish can be found all over the island), pasta con de sarde is a pasta dish traditionally made with bucatini pasta and comprised of finely chopped sardines and anchovies, olive oil and onions and seasoned with wild fennel, saffron, raisons, pine nuts and salt, with a sprinkling of bread crumbs to finish.
We’re back to the sweet treats for number 7, and cannoli are perhaps the most quintessential Sicilian dessert. Cannoli (cannolo is the singular form of the word) are crispy tube-shaped shells made of fried pastry dough which are then filled with creamy ricotta and sprinkled with a variety of toppings.
Although the classic cannolo is a plain shell filled with plain ricotta and topped with candied fruits, you can customise your cannolo to become basically anything you want, adding pistachio, chocolate, orange, peanut butter, caramel and even Limoncello! Specialist cannoli shops also have different flavours of ricotta and different flavoured shells.
Not only do cannoli look pretty, but they also taste delicious, and if you’re like me and don’t have much of a sweet tooth then you can buy a mini cannolo to enjoy with your cappuccino.
Pro-tip – if you see cannoli in a shop window and the tubes have already been filled with ricotta then steer clear – the best cannoli will be injected with ricotta right there in front of you to prevent the tubes from going soft and losing their crunch!
8. Horse meat
Very popular in Catania, horse meat is a lean meat, high in iron, that sits somewhere between beef and venison. Although in Britain, eating horse meat is considered taboo, it is a delicacy in Catania, where pretty much every restaurant in Catania offers horse meat on the menu. Horse meat in Sicily is often served in burger or meatball form (be warned though – in Italy if you order a ‘burger’ you will get just the meat patty), with charred edges and tender pink insides.
One of the most classic Sicilian foods, and something you absolutely have to try when you visit Sicily, is the parmigiana (often wrongly called ‘parmigiana alla melanzana,’ which implies that the dish originates from Parma and not Sicily). As with many Sicilian dishes, the star of the show here is eggplant, which is baked in a dish with tomato sauce, basil, garlic, red onion and salty pecorino cheese and slow-cooked.
Although many recipes will tell you that the cheeses used in this dish are parmesan and mozzarella, the authentic Sicilian recipe will always feature pecorino, a mature cheese made from sheep’s milk.
If you go to any Sicilian food market, you will likely see billowing smoke emanating from grills, where middle-aged Sicilian men grill cipollata, or spring onions wrapped with thinly sliced streaky bacon – yum! A quintessential Sicilian street food, cipollata is hot greasy goodness, and is the real essence of working-class Palermo.
Another one for the brave among you, stigghiole (stigghiola singular) are another Sicilian street food speciality, typical of Sicily’s capital, Palermo. Stigghiola is lamb or veal intestines (lots of traditional Palermo street food includes offal), grilled until they are crispy and lightly seasoned with a squirt of lemon juice, parsley and chopped onions (sometimes the stigghiola is wrapped around a leek or spring onion). When they are done, they are sliced into bite-sized pieces and served alone as a tasty snack.
It may make you a little queasy to imagine eating a lamb’s intestines, but, as with many Sicilian foods, stigghiola is just one of those things that you shouldn’t knock until you’ve tried it! I personally enjoyed stigghiola – the smoke from the grill gave it a wonderful BBQ flavour, and even though it was a little chewy, it made for a great beer snack.
Okay, this is the last bit of offal I’m including, I swear! Frittula (frittola in Italian), is perhaps the most adventurous Sicilian food that there is – in fact, none of the young Sicilians that I have met have even tried it!
Another street food hailing from Palermo, frittula is made from the waste left over from a calf’s carcass including ground bone, cartilage, fat and meat scraps. This mixture is fried with lard, seasoned with bay leaves and pepper, and served either alone or in a bun.
Dating all the way back to the 15th century, frittula is perhaps the most mysterious of all the Sicilian foods on this list, due to the fact that the vendor, or u frittularu, keeps the mixture hidden at all times, in a wicker basket covered by a cloth. When you order a portion, the vendor will not remove the cloth, instead putting his arm underneath it and gathering together your portion out of sight!
When you imagine Sicilian foods, couscous is probably not the first thing to spring to mind, but remember those Arab influences I mentioned earlier? Well, this is where we see them. In fact, couscous is so popular in Western Sicily that for the past seventeen years, San Vito Lo Capo has held an annual CousCous Fest, which is actually one of the most renowned gastronomic events in the world!
Couscous alla Trapanese is a pillar of Sicilian cuisine, and unlike its Moroccan counterpart, which is usually made with meat, Sicilian couscous is made with fresh fish and seafood (such as red snapper, sea bass, calamari and mussels) and gets additional flavour from fish stock, cinnamon, bay leaves and almonds.
Couscous is actually the most important dish of the entire Trapani province, and you can guarantee that the only question you will be asked while you’re there is ‘have you tried the couscous yet?’
Sfinciuni (sfincione in Italian) is a kind of pizza bread (although never say that to a Sicilian!). Made with a bread base, this old ‘peasant food’ originated from a need to prepare dry, long-lasting products in order to nourish those working in fields far away from home. On top of the doughy bread base, the traditional recipe includes onions, anchovies, grilled vegetables and various cold cuts, although you can pretty much use anything you want as a topping!
Sfinciuni differs from place to place – for example, the Palermitan version bakes the bread base with tomato puree and finishes by seasoning it with salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil, whereas the Bagherese version skips the tomato puree altogether in favour of lashings of cheese, onions and breadcrumbs.
Very popular as a daytime snack, sfinciuni are also incredible popular at the end of a night out, and the sfinciuni shop on La Vucciria Palermo is always jam packed with drunk Sicilians at 4am, no matter which day it is!
Panelle is the word for deep-fried Sicilian chickpea fritters, another popular Palermitan street food. All over the city of Palermo you will find friggitorie, or ‘fry shops’ selling greasy goodness, and panelle are a staple of this. Panelle originated between the 9th and 11th centuries, during the period of Arab rule in Sicily, and a very popular way of eating panelle is on a sesame seed bun along with crocchè, or potato croquettes.
This delicious sandwich is called the U’ Pane chi Panelle e Crocchè and is the Sicilian equivalent to a chip butty, and as far as Sicilian foods go (especially Palermitan foods), it is a classic.
16. Pasta Pesce Spada
Take a walk through any bustling Sicilian food market and you can’t fail to spot the many decapitated swordfish on what seems like every stall.
This majestic fish is incredibly common in Sicily, and has a very lean texture, closer to meat than fish, and with an incredibly mild flavour. Made with rigatoni pasta, tomatoes and eggplant and flavoured with mint and/or oregano, pasta pesce spada is a sweet and simple recipe perfect for those long Sicilian summers.
Technically not a Sicilian food, selz is a refreshing summertime drink comprised of freshly squeezed lemon juice, sparkling water (seltzer) and a pinch of salt. Kiosks all over Sicily sell Selz for around a euro, and one of the first questions I was asked in Catania was ‘have you tried our drink yet?’ the drink, of course, being Selz.
18. Brioche con gelato
As kids, I’m sure we all dreamed of the day when we could have ice cream for breakfast, and in Sicily, they do! A brioche is a light, sweet Italian bread, and Sicilians cut their brioche in half and scoop a generous helping of gelato into the middle, often getting up to 4 different flavours of gelato and adding chocolate sprinkles, crushed pistachios and whipped cream.
Not having a sweet tooth myself, brioche con gelato is my nightmare, but I can think of more than a couple of people who would absolutely die at the thought of this indulgent brekkie.
19. Sarde a Beccafico
If you’ve noticed that Sicilians have a few favourite ingredients then you are not wrong. Eggplant, swordfish and sardines are so popular on this Mediterranean island, and Sarde a Beccafico pays homage to the Sicilian love for sardines.
Sarde a Beccafico, while traditionally a poor man’s food, are incredibly popular and are sardine fillets that are stuffed with raisins, herbs, lemon, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, before being rolled and baked until they are golden and crisp.
When I was reaching the end of my time in Palermo, I happened to mention that I had never tried Cassata, an admission which made my Palermitan friend incredulous.
‘What?! You’ve been in Sicily for 3 months and you’ve never tried cassata? Are you for real?!’
Why yes, I’m afraid I am.
Cassata is an incredibly sweet cake that consists of a moist sponge, sweetened with fruit juice, ricotta cheese and candied fruits. I personally cannot vouch for quite how sweet cassata is, but even my sweet loving friends have oftentimes conceded that this cake is even too sweet for them.
Is cassata too sweet? I guess you’ll just have to be the judge!
21. Cassatella di sant’Agata
Hailing from Catania, Cassatella di sant’Agata is another cake, but this one has a tragic story behind it. These cakes are named after Saint Agatha (Sant’Agata), a Christian martyr who was tortured and killed. This torture involved having her breasts cut off with pincers, and it is for this reason that the appearance of these cakes resembles a female breast…I’m not sure how I personally would feel if this happened to me and my ordeal was turned into a cake, but the intentions were good, I guess?!
22. Involtini di Pesce Spada
Swordfish again! Originally from Messina, these delights are made from thinly sliced swordfish, rolled and stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese before being cooked on a charcoal fire, which adds a wonderful smoked flavour. Flavoured with capers, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper, swordfish rolls are very unusual and a must-try Sicilian food.