Getting to Know Sicilian Food
It’s no secret that Italians love their food. It’s also, at this point, no secret that I also love all manner of tasty treats. Naturally, if you put the two of us together, we’re going to do a bit of eating.
Being from the United States, specifically a part with a great many Sicilian immigrant families, I thought I knew what Sicilian food would be like. Turns out, the ‘Italian’ or ‘Sicilian’ food that we eat in the US has got nothing on the original.
So, after five months in Sicily, I can safely say that I can put together a list of must-eats on this charming Mediterranean island.
Traditionally seen as a Sicilian street food, this is a non-negotiable tasting experience for any and all travelers to Sicily. Between the fact that these little balls of delectable tastiness are good eats and the fact that they’re cheap, my friends and I eat these all the time. Honestly, you can make a meal out of these for less than €3.
Arancini (ahr-ahn-chee-nee) are rice balls filled with something, usually something savory, then fried. There are two traditional recipes, and these you will find all over: al ragù (ahl rah-goo), which has a meat, tomato, cheese and vegetable filling, and al burro (ahl boo-roh), which has a mozzarella and prosciutto filling. However, there are some specialty shops, such as Ke Palle (Via Maqueda, 270) in Palermo. That make arancini with all manner of fillings – including dessert arancini, made with chocolate, Nutella, or apples and cinnamon!
My personal favorite from Ke Palle was zucca e gorgonzola (zoo-kah eh gohr-gohn-zoh-lah), which have chunks of pumpkin and a healthy portion of gorgonzola cheese. Bonus points: You can find arancini practically anywhere.
Sicily was the object of many a kingly land-grabbing spree back in the day, and you can see the effects in Sicilian food. One of the things that their Arab conquerors introduced to the Sicilians was chickpeas. In my opinion, panelle (pah-nel-eh) are the best use of chickpeas in Sicilian food. Panelle are chickpea fritters: fried chickpea dough that is nice and crispy on the outside and doughy on the inside. These are great as an appetizer.
Let’s just clear something up right now: Americans don’t eat Sicilian pizza. I don’t care what Pizza Hut says, their pizza is not sfincione (sfeen-choh-neh). And I have to say, this is one of my favorite Sicilian foods (you can also find it at Sicilian markets in the US!).
Sicilian pizza is different from pizza napolitana (pizza from Naples – what we usually think of when we think of Italian pizza). In fact, sfincione is halfway between a focaccia and a pizza. The crust of the pizza is thicker than in pizza napolitana, but it’s soft and airy, almost like bread from a loaf. It’s topped with tomato sauce, tomatoes, and cheese and then baked.
You can find sfincione in most tavola calda joints (tah-voh-lah kahl-dah) – in the case next to the arancini – and from street carts. When we were in Palermo, we met a very nice old man selling sfincione from his cart: He had slabs of sfincione the size of a loaf of bread and a gas oven, and when you forked over your €1.50 he grabbed a slab, tossed it in the oven, and two minutes later, presto! Your own piece of sfincione to enjoy as you stroll down the cobbled streets.
In any restaurant you go into in Sicily, there will be something on the menu labeled ‘alla Norma’ (ah-lah nohr-mah). I don’t know who Norma was or why they named this after her, but it’s good eating. Whenever you see ‘alla Norma,’ whether it be pasta or a pizza, the name refers to the toppings: tomatoes, fried eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata. I haven’t seen this dish in other parts of Italy, so you might as well try it here in Sicily, where it originated.
Sicily is an island! Islands are surrounded by water! And the water around Sicily is rife with fish – specifically, swordfish. This is the local delicacy here in Sicily. As you walk down the street, you’ll see pescherie (pes-keh-ree-eh; fish shops) with a massive swordfish head on display. In restaurants, you’ll see spada (spah-dah; swordfish) on the menu. Most places will offer spada in their pastas or as a steak. In Catania, we tried a pickled form of spada. While we’re glad we tried it, we preferred the fresh spada. Look for ‘pasta alla spada.’
Sicilians know how to do sweets. Many of their sweet treats involve a sweetened ricotta cheese filling. That’s traditionally what goes into cannoli (kah-noh-lee). It’s a tube of fried dough, filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, sometimes mixed with chocolate chips, and dusted with crushed pistacchi (pee-stah-kee; pistachios) and garnished with a candied orange peel. There are many variations on this recipe, including cannoli with chocolate filling, topped with chocolate chips, garnished with cherries, etc.
If you want to try traditional cannoli, but want the experience of both chocolate chips and pistacchi, there’s a cannoli cart in Palermo for you. In a store front, they’ve parked a wagon with a display case full of fried cannoli tubes and a ricotta cheese pump, and for €2 they fill and garnish your cannolo (kah-noh-loh; singular of cannoli) right before your eyes. (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 407)
The typical colazione italiana (koh-lah-zee-oh-ne ee-tah-lee-ah-nah; Italian breakfast) is a cappuccino e cornetto (kohr-net-oh; croissant), but summers in Sicily are much too warm for hot coffee in the morning. The locals, instead, opt for an ice dish in the summer: granita (grah-nee-tah).
Now, cafes all over Italy will offer granita during the breakfast hours, but the substance of the stuff differs depending on where you are. In Rome, it’s rather similar to a slushy. In Palermo, it’s more like a sorbet. My personal favorite is from Messina. This type of granita is a thick, icy liquid. Granite (grah-nee-teh; plural of granita) are flavored with different types of fruit, and sometimes coffee or chocolate.
I recommend ordering granita di fragola con brioche (grah-nee-tah dee frah-goh-lah kohn bree-osh): strawberry granita with a brioche bun. Most cafes will top the granita with panna (pah-nah; whipped cream). The way to eat it: scoop up the panna with a spoon, then dip pieces of the brioche into the granita. I know it sounds weird, but that’s the best way to experience granita.
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