The Culinary Tradition of Sicily

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The culinary tradition of Sicily is worth on its own a trip to the Island. Sicilian cuisine has very ancient roots, combining Greek, Arab, Norman, Spanish and French elements, which create a unique fusion of flavours. This is why you will probably find a great variety of specialties even within few kilometres. The Greek brought wine and olive trees on the island, importing a concept of simple traditional cuisine bound to the earth and the sun, especially in the eastern part of Sicily. The Arab introduced the bittersweet flavours which characterize the cuisine in the western regions and islands (for instance the use of capers, raisin and almonds in numerous pasta dishes), and also the Cous cous, which represents a very common meal in Palermo or Trapani, as well as the spices (cinnamon and sesame above all). Even the Cassata, the most famous Sicilian cake, has Arab origins, although it was later influenced by baroque flavours during the Spanish occupation.

In general sweets and cakes are fantastic in Sicily, wherever you go you will find pastry and ice cream shops. The main strength of all Sicilian meals lies in the quality of the local products used: fruit and vegetables grow abundantly on the island, and there is a great variety of fresh oily fish (sardines, anchovies, mackerels..), which is very healthy and good for pasta dishes, like the popular pasta with pilchards. Of course the bigger fish like tuna and sword fish are also present and cooked in many different ways all over Sicily, or they can be used to prepare some tasty pasta dishes.

Eating in Sicily is a unique experience, and very cheap as well! Breakfasts in bar are so inviting that you can only give up to it. And prices are generally very low compared to other cities in North and central Italy. In many restaurants the average price for a full meal (including main course, second and drink) is 15 Euro, which becomes 20-25 if you have fish. Pizzas are very good and cheap.

And then you have an endless choice of snack bars and street stands where you can have fast snacks, which are as substantial as a normal meal. The choice in pastry shops and restaurants is impressive, with cakes and sweets of all kinds, either salt and sweet, from arancini to filled sandwiches. The rosticcerie sell baked pasta, lasagne, roast chicken, focaccia, fish and other specialties, to be eaten sitting on the outdoor tables. Markets also offer a wide choice of food, from sandwiches with meuza (spleen), to chickpeas omelettes, to fried vegetables, grilled fish, octopus, molluscs and fried fish. Moreover, in the cities you can still find the traditional shops selling focaccia or simple bakeries with baked cakes, either salt and sweet.

Starters and snacks

(but the portions are so rich that these starters actually replace a full meal):
  • Arancini: rice balls which are filled in different ways: with tomato soup, peas, butter, mozzarella and cooked ham. In Palermo the most common filling is represented by raisin and peanuts, and you can find the normal and the oversize version, which is as big as a grapefruit.
  • Caponata: is a mix of vegetables, fried and seasoned in a sour sauce. The base vegetables are aubergines, tomatoes, olives and onions, but they can vary according to one’s taste (pepperonis, spinach, cauliflower or celery, capers, peanuts, raisin, cinnamon, almonds exc..). The Caponata is considered as a starter or second course, but it is actually as substantial as a complete meal.
  • Cassatelle di formaggio: a fried mixture filled with cheese and sardines.
  • Cazzilli: potato balls filled with cheese and ham. Best served hot.
  • Crespelle catanesi: sweet rounded fritters filled with ricotta cheese or sardines and fennel seeds
  • Ficazza: typical dish of Trapani made with the internal parts of tuna fish.
  • Orange salad: oranges cut in thin slices and seasoned with oil and parsley
  • Filled olives: big green olives filled with pickled capers and anchovies or with tomato or pepperoni cream.
  • Panelle: ideally used to fill a sandwich, it consists of a snack made with chickpeas cream.
  • Pani ca’ meusa: sandwich filled with the internal parts of the veal, especially liver, spleen, lumber (boiled). It can be prepared either with salt and lemon or with pieces of ricotta cheese.
  • Sfigghiata (o nunnata): a quality of oily fish seasoned with oil and lemon, fried or used to prepare omelettes and fritters.

Focaccia and schiacciata

  • Cabucio: the typical focaccia of Trapani, flat and oven-baked, then cut in half and topped with tomato, anchovies, oregano, pepper, salt and oil.
  • Cudduruni: oven-baked focaccia seasoned with oil and garlic cloves.
  • Guastedde: similar to pizza, in the city of Enna you find them filled with fresh tomato and beacon, or with artichokes, anchovies and salt ricotta. In Palermo they are seasoned with sesame and fried with lard, ricotta cheese and caciocavallo.
  • Impanate siracusane: focaccia filled with broccoli, sausage, primosale (cheese), oil and chilli pepper, or with potatoes, tomatoes and onion.
  • Pastizzu: a quality of focaccia typical of Ragusa, with different fillings: smashed pork meat with salt and black pepper; fried chopped aubergines with peeled tomatoes, basil, cheese, pecorino or grated caciocavallo, oil, salt and pepper; ricotta cheese with peas and onion; ricotta cheese with spinaches; artichokes with oil, garlic and parsley, eggs, anchovies and tuma (cheese).
  • Rianata: a typical pizza prepared in Trapani, abundantly seasoned with oregano and made with fresh chopped tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, pecorino cheese, oil, salt and pepper. It is taken from the oven and served immediately.
  • Scacciata: homemade focaccia with various fillings: tuna cheese, anchovies, oil, salt and pepper; boiled cauliflower; cheese with anchovies, garlic and oil; anchovies with tuna cheese, oil and pepper; boiled broccoli fried in a pan; black olives, primosale cheese, anchovies, oil and pepper.
  • Scaccie: homemade focaccia typical of Modica, consisting of flat rounded layers of pastry containing various fillings, rolled and baked in the oven. Fillings include fried tomatoes with onion, grated caciocavallo and red hot chilli pepper, fried aubergines, fresh tomatoes, caciocavallo, basil, salt and pepper; ricotta with fresh onions, caciocavallo, eggs, salt and pepper.
  • Sfigghiulata: a layer of bread pastry filled with fresh pecorino or caciotta cheese, oregano and anchovies, or with cheese and sausage/salami. The pastry is rolled and baked in the oven.
  • Sfincione: again there are numerous ways to prepare this recipe, according to the region. The version prepared in Agrigento is a focaccia filled with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, black olives and grated parmesan cheese. The recipe in Palermo is a soft focaccia seasoned with primosale (cheese) or pecorino or caciocavallo, anchovies, onions, bread crumb, oregano, parsley, oil, salt, pepper and tomato sauce.

Pasta and main course

  • Cannelloni: one of the most typical Sicilian gastronomy excellences. They are filled with veal stew and grated caciocavallo cheese, and topped with eggs, caciocavallo and the stew sauce.
  • Cavatiddi: cavatelli are a kind of pasta made from wheat flour and water, and empty inside. They can be seasoned in many different ways.
  • Cous cous: a very popular dish in Sicily, it owes its presence on the Island (especially the western part), to the Arab dominance and the substantial Tunisian community which resides in Sicily. The village of San Vito Lo Capo celebrates every year this specialty with a big festival.
  • Maccu: mashed dried broad beans seasoned with fennel and extra virgin olive oil. There is a variant in Palermo prepared with yellow pumpkins. This is one of the most ancient preparations of the Mediterranean area.
  • Pasta alla Norma: a specialty of Catania, this is a kind of pasta (generally spaghetti or penne) seasoned with tomato, basil, salt ricotta or pecorino cheese with fried aubergines.
  • Pasta a picchi pacchiu: pasta seasoned with fresh tomatoes seasoned with oil, garlic, basil and chilli pepper, along with grated caciocavallo.
  • Busiate with pesto (o maccaruna di casa): homemade pasta prepared by wrapping some small rectangular-shaped pieces of pasta around the knitting needles. Pasta is then seasoned with pesto made of basil, fresh tomatoes, garlic, oil, salt and grated almonds.
  • Pasta ‘cchi masculini: pasta with mascolini, a quality of very small anchovies fried in oil with garlic and parsley, pecorino or ricotta cheese, salt and grated.
  • Pasta with chickpeas (ciceri ca pasta): pasta seasoned with beacon or lard, onion, oil, tomato sauce, chilli pepper, sage and Rosemary.
  • Pasta with crumb: seasoned with oil, garlic and anchovies, along with grated bread crumb.
  • Pasta with pilchards: the real Sicilian pasta and a very unparalleled delicacy. The boiling water used to cook pasta is seasoned with fennel. Pasta is seasoned with capers, pilchards, smashed onion, peanuts, pepper and fennel, usually it is topped with smashed almonds.
  • Pasta ‘ncasciata: maccheroni timbale made with ragù, eggs, meat balls, fried aubergines, peas, salami and caciocavallo, all coke in the oven and served with ragù.
  • Ravioli with mint and ricotta cheese: a typical specialty of the Island of Pantelleria, prepared with local fresh cheese
  • Spaghetti alla siracusana (Siracusa recipe): seasoned with botargo, olive oil, smoked fillet of herring and various herbs.
  • Spaghetti alla trapanese (Trapani recipe) : seasoned with pesto (made with basil, fresh tomatoes, garlic, oil, salt and grated almonds).

Meat

  • Badduzze: meat balls cook in different ways: in tomato sauce, grilled, in soups.
  • Carne agglassata: roast beef cooked slowly with lard, onion, white wine, rosemary, salt and pepper. Probably of French origins, a very fine dish.
  • Sicilian cutlet: deboned, flavoured in vinegar and spread with Parmesan cheese, garlic and parsley, then braised in eggs and breadcrumb and fried.
  • Farsu magru: big veal steak covered with eggs, cheese, ham, lard, peas, raisin (or peanuts), sausage and flavours. It is rolled and cooked with tomato sauce.
  • Scaloppini with Marsala: pork scaloppini braised with butter and Marsala.
  • Tripe: typical dish of the city of Enna, cooked in a pan in the oven, along with fried aubergines, cheese and eggs.

Fish

    Anchovies with orange: placed in a pan in layers, with olives, capers, lemon and herbs. Cooked in the oven and flavoured with orange juice.
  • Rolled slices of sword fish or tuna. The first ones are filled with provolone cheese, breadcrumb, garlic, basil, parsley, egg and inner parts of fish, all shredded and braised with onion. Served with a sauce made with oil, garlic, lemon juice, parsley and oregano. The tuna rollers are filled with crumb, parsley, garlic, eggs, pecorino cheese and tuna pulp. They are first fried then cooked in a saucepan with tomato and onion.
  • Impanata di pesce: a salt pie made with sword fish or smooth-hound. The base is a shortcrust pastry filled with a sauce made with onion, tomato, celery, olives, capers and chopped smooth-hound. The sword fish is best accompanied with a sauce made with tomato, oil, onion, celery, olives and capers, a layer of fried courgettes. Both pies are closed with a layer of shortcrust pastry and cooked in the oven.
  • Sword fish: sword fish cooked in a pan along with tomato sauce, potatoes, herbs, raisin, peanuts, capers, anchovies, olives and potatoes.
  • Sardines: there are numerous recipes to cook sardines, depending on the region. In Palermo the sardines are placed in a saucepan and covered with grated bread, anchovies, peanuts, cinnamon, raisin. They are baked in the oven and spread with lemon or orange juice. In Catania sardines are moistened in vinegar, covered with cheese, parsley and garlic, fried in egg and breadcrumb. The version is Messina is pretty similar, with the addition of a tomato sauce made with capers and olives, where the sardines are seasoned.
  • Tonno a sfincione: a very popular recipe in Palermo, with tuna slices spread in layers and seasoned with oil, salt, oregano, covered with grated bread, onion and fresh tomatoes, then baked in the oven.
  • Tunnina: tuna steaks fried and seasoned with lemon and oregano.

Vegetables

Vegetables are eaten in great quantity, either alone or in particular preparations:
Here is a summary of the main vegetables dishes.
  • Frittedda: with fried artichokes, peas, broad beans. In places like Palermo it is cooked in a sweet and sour sauce with vinegar, lemon and sugar, and served cool, while in Enna and the south of Sicily it is usually flavoured with fennel
  • Turkish salad: grilled vegetables served cool and flavoured with oil, garlic, salt and pepper.
  • aubergines: typical of Palermo. This dish consists of small aubergines cut in thin slices and fried.
  • Milinciani: rolled aubergines or pepperonis filled with a sauce made with grated bread, pecorino cheese, tomatoes, basil and parsley.
  • Pitaggio: peas stew made with broad beans, artichokes, to be found in Agrigento.
  • Salamoreci: salad with fresh tomatoes, tough bread, garlic, basil, oil, salt and pepper all softened in water
There is a consistent use of oil in Sicilian cuisine, just like in all Mediterranean countries. Oil is always meant of extra virgin quality.

Cheese

Cheese is also common on all Sicilian tables. The most famous is ricotta cheese, to be baked in the oven or dried in the sun. Other qualities are tuna, caciocavallo; provola; pecorino, primosale and ragusano.

Cakes and pies

Sweets are the pearl of Sicilian cuisine, with a tradition that has no competitors in terms of tastiness and variety. Cassata is a perfect summary of centuries of Sicilian history, made up of sugar cane, lemon, cider, orange, mandarin, almonds, which were all introduced in Sicily by the Arabs. Ricotta cheese was known on the island ever since the prehistoric age. The involucres is filled with all these ingredients and baked in the oven. Other variants with a base made of sponge cake and some colourful candied fruit decorations were introduced by the Normans and the Spanish.

Today the cassata is a sponge cake layered with ricotta cheese, sugar, chocolate pieces, candied fruit and a drop of maraschino (liqueur), covered with glaze or a layer of marzipan, generally decorated with green pastel icing and a lot of candied fruit.
It is served in all pastry shops and as a dessert in restaurants, but it is a very typical Sicilian habit to eat cakes in pastry shops after dinner.

Cannoli are typical Sicilian pastry desserts, made of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough. At time of eating they are filled with ricotta cheese and various combinations like chocolate, candied fruit, pistachio, nuts.
Frutta martorana is a marzipan fruit-shaped sweet, that owes its name to the convent in Palermo where nuns used to prepare it and sell it until the first half of the 20th century. Today you buy it in pastry shops and bakers.
Sicilian ice cream is probably the best you can find in Italy, thanks to the abundance of fresh fruit and the quality of its ingredients. It is likely to see Sicilians having breakfast with a brioche filled with ice cream. Generally the best flavours are the most traditional, like chocolate, cream, pistachio and almonds. Alternatively, you may taste the fantastic granita, this one also a breakfast specialty, along with a brioche. The classical taste is lemon, but also granita with coffee or almonds is superb. Another delicacy is almond milk, a very refreshing drink served in bars.

Besides these main cakes there are many other variants and qualities of Sicilian cakes and desserts, with recurring ingredients such as almond, ricotta, honey, pistachio, cinnamon and candied fruit.
The most common sweets with almonds are : baduzzi di cacao, biancomangiare, cardinali, conchiglie, cucchiteddi di Sciacca, mostaccioli di Messina. Ricotta cheese is used to prepare the iris, small emptied sandwiches softened with milk and filled with ricotta cheese, then fried in a mix of eggs, flour and grated bread, or the sfinci di San Giuseppe.

Many of these specialties are prepared only in certain parts of Sicily or on the occasion of traditional feasts, so take advantage of these occasions to have a taste of what the Sicilian cake tradition has to offer.

Wine

Sicilian wine is just as good and renowned as gastronomy. The most famous are liquorish wines, like Marsala, Malvasia (produced on the Eolie Islands) and Moscati (with Passito). But red wines are as well renowned, Nero d’Avola, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and Donnafugata just to name a few. Among the white wines are Alcamo, Etna and Donnafugata.

For those who wish to learn more about Sicily gastronomy and try some recipes, the following list of books may be of help:
  • Cascino, F., Cucina di Sicilia, Cefalù, Lorenzo Misuraca 1980
  • Colonna Romano, F., Sicilia in bocca, Palermo, Il Vespro 1975
  • Consoli, E., Sicilia. La cucina del sole, Catania, Tringale 1989
  • Coria, G., Profumi di Sicilia. Il libro della cucina siciliana, Palermo, Cavallotto 1981
  • Correnti, P., Il libro d’oro della cucina e dei vini di Sicilia, Milano, Mursia 1976
  • D’Alba, T., La cucina siciliana di derivazione araba, Palermo, Vittoretti 1980
  • De Simone, G., La cucina di Sicilia, Caltanissetta, Edizioni d’arte nuovo sud 1974.
  • Denti Di Pirajno, A., Siciliani a tavola, Milano, Longanesi & C. 1970
  • Dèttore, M., Sapori di Sicilia, Firenze, Grafiche Editoriale Padane 1999
  • Di Napoli Oliver, F., La grande cucina siciliana, Palermo, Flaccovio 1991
  • Limatora, G., Antica cucina siciliana, Napoli, Lito-Rama 1998
  • Lodato, N., Le ricette della mia cucina siciliana, Milano, Edizioni del riccio 1978
  • Pomar, A., Antichi sapori di Sicilia, Napoli, Edizioni del Mezzogiorno 1978
  • Randazzo, G., La cucina siciliana, Palermo, Reprint 1994
  • Sapio Bartelletti, N., La cucina siciliana nobile e popolare, Milano, Franco Angeli 1980