Good food is usually a priority for travelers to Sicily, as it should be: Ingredients are always fresh, and the recipes simple and time-tested. Whether you dine in a hole-in-the-wall dive or have five-star service, the choices are plentiful.
A Melting-Pot Cuisine
Island fare is a blend of the cuisines of Sicily's many conquerors and cultures. The lush citrus groves around Catania were originally planted by the Arabs. Even those magnificently intricate pastries and rich desserts are a direct result of the Arab invasions, which brought a taste of North Africa to the shores of Catania.
In time, subsequent invaders, including Norman rulers and Spanish viceroys, left their own legacy of "aristocratic food," often as part of huge banquets prepared by enormous staffs (no respectable aristocrat would have been without a monsù, or house chef) and presented by servants. These extravagant excesses were in direct contrast to the diet of the fishermen, the land tillers, and other working people who set a simple table based mainly on fish and the bountiful harvest of vegetables from the Sicilian countryside. But it's the rediscovery of these simple dishes, made with ingredients offered by the land and sea, that's finding favor once more in the kitchens of the best restaurants on the island.
Sicily at the Table
Sicily is blessed with some of the finest raw culinary materials in Italy. Using this incredible array of fresh ingredients from the sea and field, the chefs of Sicily fashion a delectable display of enticing platters, many of them better and more original than those found anywhere on the mainland of Italy.
Starters -- Sicilian antipasti are meals in themselves. My favorite opening to a meal is the island specialty caponatina (eggplant stew). It's made with eggplant, fresh tomatoes, olives, capers, onions, and celery in a sweet-and-sour sauce of vinegar and sugar, served at room temperature for full flavor.
Another savory starter is the antipasto caldo, made of bite-size arancine (rice balls), potato croquettes, panelle (chickpea fritters), diced pieces of omelet, and French fries. This starter is a meal alone, and most diners can't get through the first course after one of these. An antipasto misto is usually sun dried tomatoes, artichokes in vinaigrette, and local cheese and cured meats. I also could begin any meal in Sicily with an insalata di mare, a seafood salad of boiled squid, tasty bits of octopus, fat shrimp, and chopped fresh vegetables with a dressing of olive oil flavored with lemon juice or vinegar. Marinated raw anchovies doused with olive oil and red pepper are another classic seafood starter. The impepata di cozze, fresh mussels steamed in wine with garlic, red pepper, and parsley, is also another pre-meal classic.
First Courses -- For your primi, or first course -- especially if you've skipped the antipasti -- you'll be treated to delicious pasta and rice dishes or even couscous, the latter deriving from Sicily's centuries-old links with North Africa. Couscous dominates around western Sicily, where the cous cous alla trapanese is made with fish instead of the classic meat or mutton. Cous cous al nero di seppia, a variation of the more-famous rice-based dish, is also a favorite round these parts.
Spaghetti alla Norma (pasta with eggplant and aged ricotta), is a classic out of Catania, while pasta con le sarde, a simple but savory pasta with fresh sardines, served in a tomato and wild fennel sauce with raisins, pine nuts, and capers, is a staple of Palermo. Pesto alla siciliana varies, but the classic ingredients are olive oil, tomatoes, crushed almonds, pine nuts, ricotta, garlic, and basil. If you can have only one pasta dish, make it spaghetti con i ricci (pasta with sea urchin). It's simply sautéed in garlic and olive oil and is a sheer delight to the palate that leaves you wanting more. Note: For seafood first courses, adding any grated cheese on top is a big no-no.
Vegetables & Fruits -- Luscious local vegetables, used liberally in pastas and main courses, include vine-ripened tomatoes, spring-green zucchini (the yardstick-long variety), wild asparagus, tangy capers, many varieties of olives, broccoli and cauliflower the size of a child's head, thorny artichokes, fava beans, and tinniruma (tiny, tender leaves of the zucchini plant used in soups). Fruit is just as abundant: Flat peaches with intoxicating aromas, cantaloupes from the plains east of Agrigento, prickly pears in three different colors, the world-famous Uva Italia, a grape variety from Canicattì, and, of course, the citrus fruits that abound -- from the blood-red oranges of eastern Sicily, which get their distinctive color from the lava-enriched soil, to the tangy varieties the size of grapefruits, to the lemons, cedars, and bergamots.
Seafood -- Naturally, fresh fish and crustaceans are the dominant feature at most tables. The most popular fish dishes are tuna from the west and swordfish from the Straits of Messina. For most connoisseurs, fish is best served alla griglia (simply grilled), arrosto (roasted), al cartoccio (wrapped in tin foil), all'acquapazza (cooked in sea water), or simply boiled (the way octopus is always served). Involtini di pesce spada, grilled roulades of swordfish, are covered with breadcrumbs and sautéed in olive oil. Another swordfish classic is pescespada alla messinese, topped with olives, tomatoes, and capers. Sardines, another staple of Sicily, are used to create the succulent sarde a beccafico -- fried sardine filets covered with spiced breadcrumbs and sandwiched between two bay leaves. You can wholeheartedly bet that any fritto misto (small fish fried together) will include shrimp, calamari, and mullet.
Meats -- Traditionally, Sicilian cuisine is based largely on vegetables and the catch of the day harvested from coastal waters. But you can also fill your plate with marvelous meat specialties, including grigliata alla palermitana, which is a mixed variety of meats -- usually sausage, beef, and pork -- breaded and grilled (not fried). One of the better-known meat dishes is falsomagro, meaning "false lean;" it's the Sicilian answer to meatloaf. This rich, bountiful dish, a family favorite that fed hungry mouths when times were tough and the choice of ingredients limited, is composed of a large slab of beef wrapped around Sicilian sausages, prosciutto, raisins, pine nuts, cheese, a boiled egg or two, or whatever is available. The treat is tied with a string and stewed in a savory tomato sauce. This peasant's dish has now been elevated to gourmet status, as more and more local chefs are reworking this classic and serving it their way.
One Sicilian dish now served around the world is pollo alla Marsala (chicken in Marsala wine). A variation on this famous dish is veal Marsala, which originated among western Sicily's English families living here in the 19th century. Appearing on almost every menu is some form of involtini, a roulade made from grilled or roasted chicken or sliced beef, stuffed with a vegetable or meat filling. Sometimes a leafy vegetable such as radicchio is added to the filling. And no Sicilian barbeque would be complete without meat; pork, and sausage from the Nebrodi mountain range, mutton, and the classic stigghiole (lamb or veal intestines on a spit).
Desserts -- Sicily knows no bounds when it comes to desserts and sweets -- an exhaustive list would require an entire chapter! Narrowing it down, though, I'll start with cassata, perhaps the crowning glory of Sicilian desserts. It's a treat for the eyes and the taste buds alike -- layers of sponge cake are covered with sweetened ricotta, mixed with chocolate bits and candied fruit, and held together with a frosting of multicolored marzipan so elaborately decorated it's almost a shame to slice (but you will).
Another ricotta-based classic is the cannolo, a crunchy, deep-fried tube-like wafer filled with the same mix used for cassata, and sprinkled with pistachios. This is the real deal, not the makeshift varieties filled with cream. A word to the wise: The best pastry shops won't make cassata or cannoli in the summer, when ricotta is scarce around the island. Chocolate also figures prominently (and that's putting it mildly) in the lush setteveli -- seven layers of chocolate cake doused with different types of chocolate and pralines, then frosted with a syrupy fudge. Dare to resist this one, if you can. Sicily also lays claim to having invented gelato, when Sicilian Francesco Procopio opened his cafe in Paris and exported the stuff abroad. Softer in consistency than regular ice cream, the flavor varieties of gelato are endless, but my absolute favorite is the one made with pistacchio di Bronte, pistachios from the town on the slopes of Etna.
The dietetic version of gelato is granita, an ice with an almost ice-cream like consistency often eaten after meals but also for breakfast, accompanied by a brioche, shaped like a hamburger bun (the best ones always have a "cap"). There's no shortage of flavors here either, the classics being lemon, coffee, and blackberry. Don't say you weren't warned!
The Wines of Sicily
Sicilian wines have seen a renaissance in the last 20 years, thanks to the island's world-renowned wineries that have won prestigious international awards, as well as to the love and dedication of the local vintners. The wines are made from either autochthonous or transplanted grape varieties, and there isn't an area of the island that isn't known for a typical wine. Western Sicily is synonymous with Bianco d'Alcamo, a crisp white, and of course the sweet, thick Marsala has delighted palates for centuries. Nero d'Avola and Cerasuolo di Vittoria, with their deep red hues, are products of southeastern Sicily. The Nerello Mascalese comes from the foothills of Etna, where the lava-enriched soil confers its distinctive ruby-red color. The Mamertino, yet another red, comes from the Messina area and has been around since the times of Julius Caesar. The area around Menfi, on the southern coast, is renowned for its whites. Even the tiny islands surrounding Sicily have left their mark in the oenological world: Malvasia from Salina and Passito from Pantelleria are both golden-to-amber colored dessert wines with distinctive aromas and flavors. Wineries throughout Sicily open their doors to visits and tastings.
Agnolotti -- A crescent-shaped pasta shell stuffed with a mix of chopped meat, spices, vegetables, and cheese; when prepared in rectangular versions, the same combination of ingredients is identified as ravioli.
Anguilla alla veneziana -- Eel cooked in a sauce made from tuna and lemon.
Aragosta -- Lobster.
Arancini di riso -- Rice balls stuffed with peas, cheese, and meat, then coated with breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
Arrosto -- Roasted meat.
Baccalà -- Dried and salted codfish.
Bocconcini -- Veal layered with ham and cheese, then fried.
Bollito misto -- Assorted boiled meats served on a single platter.
Bottarga -- Dried and salted roe of gray mullet or tuna, which is pressed into loaves, cut into paper-thin slices, and dressed with lemon-laced virgin olive oil.
Bracciola -- Veal or pork chop.
Bresaola -- Air-dried spiced beef.
Bucatini -- Coarsely textured hollow spaghetti.
Cacciucco ali livornese -- Seafood stew.
Cannoli -- Crunchy fried tubular pastry filled with ricotta and studded with candied fruits, bits of chocolate, and pistachios.
Caponata -- Vegetable stew made with eggplants, capers, tomatoes, olives, onions, and celery in a sweet-and-sour sauce of vinegar and sugar. Served at room temperature.
Cappelletti -- Small ravioli ("little hats") stuffed with meat or cheese.
Carciofi -- Artichokes.
Carpaccio -- Thin slices of raw or cured beef, sometimes in a piquant sauce.
Cassata al galletto -- Cake made with vanilla-flavored frozen custard and, perhaps, candied fruits, bits of chocolate, hazelnuts, or pistachios.
Cassata Siciliana -- A richly caloric dessert that combines layers of sponge cake, ricotta cheese sweetened with Marsala or orange liqueur and candied fruit, bound together with a marzipan icing.
Cotoletta alla siciliana -- Thinly sliced breaded veal cutlet, fried, or grilled.
Cozze -- Mussels.
Fagioli -- Beans.
Fave -- Fava or broad beans.
Fontina -- Rich Alpine cow's-milk cheese.
Fritto misto -- A deep-fried medley of whatever small fish, shellfish, and squid are available in the marketplace that day.
Gnocchi -- Dumplings usually made from potatoes (gnocchi alla patate) or from semolina (gnocchi alla romana), often topped with combinations of cheese, spinach, vegetables; alla romana are strictly topped with parmigiano and butter.
Granita -- Flavored ice, with a smooth consistency.
Insalata di frutti di mare -- Seafood salad (usually octopus, shrimp and squid) garnished with lemon, olive oil, parsley, and spices.
Involtini -- Thinly sliced rolls of beef, veal, or pork, stuffed, and fried.
Mortadella -- Mild pork sausage, fashioned into large cylinders and served sliced; the original lunchmeat bologna (because its most famous center of production is Bologna).
Osso buco -- Beef or veal shank slowly braised until the bone marrow is tender and then served with a topping of chopped fresh parsley, capers, garlic and lemon peel.
Pancetta -- Herb-flavored pork belly, rolled into a cylinder and sliced.
Pancetta affumicata -- Smoked pork belly, served in slices: The Italian bacon.
Panettone -- A Christmas sweet consisting of a high dome-shaped loaf with a soft, spongy interior interspersed with candied fruit.
Panna -- Heavy cream.
Peperoni -- Green, yellow, or red sweet bell peppers.
Piccata al Marsala -- Thin escalope of veal braised in a pungent sauce flavored with Marsala wine.
Piselli al prosciutto -- Peas with diced ham.
Pizzaiola -- A thick tomato and oregano sauce, usually used to top a thick slice of beef.
Polenta -- Thick porridge or mush made from cornmeal flour, often served as a side dish.
Polenta e coniglio -- Rabbit stew served with polenta.
Pollo alla cacciatore -- Chicken with tomatoes, mushrooms, and carrots cooked in wine.
Salsa verde -- Literally "Green sauce," it's made with capers, anchovies, lemon juice and/or vinegar, and parsley.
Saltimbocca -- Veal scallop layered with prosciutto and sage; its name literally translates as "jump in your mouth," a reference to its tart and savory flavor.
Scaloppina alla Valdostana -- Escalope of veal stuffed with cheese and ham.
Scaloppine -- Thin slices of veal coated in flour and sautéed in butter.
Semifreddo -- A frozen dessert; usually ice cream with sponge cake.
Sfincione -- Sicilian square pizza with a sponge-like base topped with anchovies, onions, and tomatoes; sold in focaccerias and bakeries (but never in a pizzeria).
Sogliola -- Sole.
Spiedini -- Pieces of meat grilled on a skewer over an open flame.
Strozzapreti -- Small twisted nuggets of pasta, usually served with sauce; the name is literally translated as "priest-choker."
Stufato -- Beef braised in white wine with vegetables.
Trenette -- Thin noodles served with pesto sauce, potatoes, and green beans.
Zabaglione/zabaione -- Egg yolks whipped into the consistency of a custard, flavored with Marsala, and served warm as a dessert or as an ice-cream topping.
Zuccotto -- A liqueur-soaked sponge cake, molded into a dome and layered with chocolate, nuts, and whipped cream.
Zuppa inglese -- Sponge cake soaked in custard.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.