It was tough going, but we managed to pick out 10 Sicilian food specialties (I wish it could be more!) that sum up Sicily’s culinary tradition and bring to life the culture and history of this delicious island. Spoiler: your mouth may start watering!
10 Of The Most Iconic Sicilian Food Specialties
When we talk about Sicily and the local cuisine, it doesn’t take long for this specialty to come up. But then we have to address the gender issue.
Everyone in Sicily (and beyond) knows the lexical storm that the name of this dish provokes. Briefly put: arancino (masculine) in Catania; arancina (feminine) in Palermo.
The masculine team argues that arancino derives from the dialect form arancinu, which is masculine. The feminine team claims that the term arancina comes from its appearance, like a “little orange” (although people from Catania wouldn’t agree, since their arancino is longer in shape).
This rice-based specialty was born when Sicily was ruled by the Arabs (9th – 11th centuries), who used to mix rice, saffron and meat together, naming the dumpling for its shape. It isn’t hard to guess how Sicilians immediately made the association with their delicious oranges.
The debate over a snack’s grammatical gender has reached a level of ferocity in Southern Italy that may surprise outsiders, but this has become “the mother of all Sicilian fights” that even prompted a response from Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s highest language regulation institution. Some people have even suggested introducing gender-neutral terms like arancin* or arancin@, not unlike similar linguistic innovations that have taken place in other languages in recent years.
Whichever way you fall, the version with meat and peas is the most traditional form, but ham and cheese is also very common.
Pane e panelle and pani câ meusa
Pane e panelle and pani câ meusa are two other famous examples of Sicilian street food. Both specialties usually include a soft mafalda (Sicilian bread) with sesame seeds, known as vastedda, stuffed with tasty chickpea fritters, the panelle, or spleen (meusa) and other veal or beef offal.
This is another dish that emerged under the Arabs, who were the first to discover chickpea flour, a delicious, low-cost ingredient that Sicilians were quick to adopt. Historically, the panellari in their lapini (trucks equipped with a frier) were said to have served such illustrious — and loyal — customers as Pirandello and Sciascia.
Meanwhile, pani câ meusa came from kosher cuisine. For religious reasons, Jewish butchers couldn’t accept payment, so they would sell all their leftover organ meats as pani câ meusa to make a little money.
After the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 by Ferdinand II of Aragon, cheese sellers, known as caciuttari, decided to keep selling this specialty. There are two versions today: the schietta (“unmarried”), with tripe and lemon, or the maritata (“married”), with tripe and caciocavallo (a stretched curd cheese) or ricotta.
Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is made with tomato sauce, fried eggplant, salted ricotta and basil. It’s undoubtedly one of the most well-known Sicilian specialties in Italy and around the world, with a name chosen by Catanese dramatist Nino Martoglio: given his fondness for this primo piatto, he called it na vera Norma, referencing the famous opera by another native of Catania, composer Vincenzo Bellini. The recipe reportedly had its official premiere on December 26, 1831, which happened to also be the opening night of Bellini’s “Norma.”
Tomatoes and eggplant are also the main ingredients in the famous caponata, a dish served hot or cold, as a starter or a side dish — although in the past, it was often eaten as a full meal, with a little bread to go with it.
Onion, garlic, olives, capers, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, basil, celery, bell pepper, carrots… There are many ingredients for many different versions. It’s up to you which one you want. Mix it all together in a sauce (strictly sweet and sour) and enjoy!
Pasta ch’i sardi
Another indispensable Sicilian starter: pasta with sardines. For this recipe, make sure to use bucatini pasta, and add sardines (or anchovies, or both), raisins, pine nuts (and/or chopped almonds), wild fennel and ’a muddica, or breadcrumbs. If you want, some variations also include onion, saffron and black pepper.
This recipe was said to have come from the innovative mind of Byzantine commander Euphemius of Messina’s chef. When the hungry Turkish fleet landed at Capo Granitola, he assembled a few meager ingredients to produce something that is still considered one of Sicily’s best, most iconic dishes.
A star ingredient of Sicilian cuisine is undoubtedly the humble pistachio, whose Bronte variety is world famous. This Catanese delicacy, known as green gold, is used in a number of sweet recipes, from ice cream, cannolo and cassata to cakes, semifreddi and a wide range of other desserts.
Pistachio ice cream is the perfect companion for typical Sicilian brioche. And pistachio pesto, a delicious savory condiment often mixed with cream, dried tomatoes, pancetta, salmon, shrimp or clams, is well worth a try. In terms of ingredients, the world is your oyster — just never forget to sprinkle a few crushed pistachios before serving!
Cannolo is another sweet treat that immediately springs to mind when we talk about Sicilian food. Here too, there are many variations, for both the crispy pastry and the ricotta filling. The list of possible sweet flavors is long and can include Marsala, cinnamon, cacao, coffee, honey, pistachios and candied fruits. Whichever one you choose, this is an iconic slow food that demands time and precision (but trust us, it’s worth it).
Cannolo is also a Carnival specialty. An early description dates back to 75 BCE, when Cicero, then Quaestor of Marsala (Libeum), referred to it as “a tube of flour made with edible sweetened milk.” The recipe became a favorite of the women of the Caltanissetta harem, who were forced to convert to Christianity and take the veil when Arab rule was ended. Thanks to them, the cannolo tradition has endured to this day.
The main ingredients of Sicilian cassata are sponge, ricotta, marzipan, pistachios, chocolate, candied fruits and rum. This specialty was originally an Easter cake. As a popular saying goes: Tintu è cu nun mancia a cassata a matina ri Pasqua. (“Pity the man who does not eat cassata on Easter morning.”)
The earliest variation dates back to Arab rule again, when the cake was baked with a shortcrust pastry and called quas’at (meaning “bowl,” in reference to the container used to make the pastry). Cassata as we know it now was first described in 1873 by Palermo confectioner Salvatore Gulì.
Marsala and Passito di Pantelleria
Marsala and Passito di Pantelleria also belong on this mouthwatering list of Sicilian food, both sources of great pride for the province of Trapani and Sicily as a whole. These are sweet wines with protected designation of origin status, the perfect tipple at the end of a meal, even better if accompanied by the desserts above.
Marsala was first produced in significant quantities by a Liverpool merchant named John Woodhouse. In 1773, as he was traveling to Mazara del Vallo, bad weather forced him to take shelter in an osteria in Marsala, where he was served this prestigious wine. Enraptured by the taste, Woodhouse bought up a large quantity to send back to England, where its popularity inspired the English merchant to increase his trade with the town of Marsala. Admiral Nelson himself was said to be one of the wine’s biggest fans, allegedly declaring it the “wine of victory” following his historic triumph at Trafalgar.
The origins of the Passito di Pantelleria date back even further. Made from the Zibibbo grape, this wine was described by General Mago Barco of Carthage as early as 200 BCE.
This article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.