It’s not all ancient temple ruins, baroque hill towns and drop-dead-gorgeous beaches. Such is the epicurean clout, nous and diversity of this Mediterranean heavyweight that it’s perfectly feasible to simply eat your way around Sicily and its ocean-fueled archipelagos.
Spaghetti ai ricci in sea-urchin sauce, swordfish carpaccio on a seafront terrace, veg-spiked arancini and primeval offal at a market: whatever the time, place or occasion, Sicily cooks up traditional dishes and street snacks bursting with seasonal flavor and top-quality island produce.
Fish and shellfish abound in this sun-spun kitchen. Over the centuries successive waves of invaders, poverty and deprivation have spiced things up with foreign flavors and smart tricks. And in the face of a changing climate, innovative Sicilian farmers and winemakers experiment with new ways to grow old crops – and find new crops to replace old crops.
Pair all this with the island’s feisty line-up of cooks – Michelin-starred god, third-generation trattoria chef, wizened and oh-so-wise nonna (grandma) – and it’s a match made in earthy, honest, foodie heaven.
Celebrate Sicilian culinary tradition in a Slow Food trattoria
Each town, village, even mountain, has its own specialties and traditional dishes mirroring the land, season and ancestral heritage. Celebrate the differences with pasta alla norma (pasta with eggplant, ricotta, basil and tomatoes) in a traditional trattoria in Catania, pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines, pine nuts, raisins and wild fennel) in Palermo and agghiotta di pesce spada (swordfish with pine nuts, sultanas, capers, olives and tomatoes) in Messina.
Where to try it: Slow Food–endorsed Me Cumpari Turiddu in Catania, Buatta or Ferro di Cavallo in Palermo and Casa & Putia in Messina.
Sink your teeth into a virgin’s breast
Honestly, Sicily’s enticing array of sweets and cakes crafted from homegrown almonds, pistachios, spices and centuries of know-how is reason alone to never leave.
Top prize for instant seduction goes to minne di vergine ("virgin’s breast") – an individual iced-white cake with a cherry on the top. Other naughty-but-nice bites sold at pasticcerie (cake shops) include torte di ricotta (ricotta cake), exquisitely sculpted marzipan fruits and cassata (an insanely sweet dessert cake made with ricotta, vanilla, pea-green icing and candied fruit).
Where to try it: Dig into Sicily's centuries-old tradition of convent pastry-making at I Segreti del Chiostro, in a 14th-century Palermo monastery, and old-world Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico in Erice. In baroque showpiece town Noto, creative third-generation pastry chef Corrado Assenza keeps things edgy at historic Caffè Sicilia.
Crunch a creamy cannolo – fingers only!
A raft of unspoken rules surround Sicily's iconic cannolo (plural: cannoli) – a crispy, tubular pastry shell filled to order with velvety ricotta cream. Avoid pre-filled shells; left to sit, the shell becomes soggy, destroying the entire crunchy bliss of the cannoli experience. Ditch cutlery – eating is strictly fingers only. Alternate ends between bites.
Where to try it: For classic cannoli, Catania’s I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza or Pasticceria D’Amore in Taormina. Gourmets: the deconstructed cannolo dessert at fine-dining Kalòs in Agrigento is out of this world. Syracuse street fiends: try cannolo in a cone at Cannoli del Re.
Scoff calf spleen and goat intestines on a Palermo street
Sicilian street food doesn't get cheaper or more spectacular than Palermo's signature pani câ mèusa – a soft bread bun stuffed with boiled and lard-fried calf spleen, lung and trachea. The other gut-busting old timer is stighiola (veal, lamb or goat intestines wrapped around a spring onion or leek), brought to Palermo by the Greeks 2000-odd years ago. The grilled offal is always served in chunks, salted, with a fresh wedge of lime.
Where to try it: For monster-sized pani câ mèusa in Palermo, celebrated sandwich shops Francu U Vastiddaru and Pani câ Meusa Porta Carbone. At Mercato della Vucciria track down Rocky Basile, one of Palermo’s last-remaining mèusari who hawks pani câ mèusa from a hand-pushed cart loaded with a steaming stainless-steel vat of boiled beef. For grilled-while-you-wait stighiola, join the line at Mercato di Ballarò’s El Bocadillo.
Play ball: snack attack on arancini
If Sicilians aren’t nursing a gelato (in a cone or brioche bun) during Sunday’s sacrosanct passeggiata (afternoon stroll), they’re popping arancini. The deep-fried rice balls – roughly golf-ball sized – are coated with breadcrumbs and filled with meat, sausage, cheese, herbs, veg and nuts of all sorts; pistachios, harvested in fall, are a diehard favorite.
Where to try it: Flavors are wild and seasonal – swordfish and eggplant perhaps, or curried chicken and apple? – at dedicated arancineria Cantunera in Ragusa Ibla and Modica. Wash down with local craft beer for maximum effect.
Keep cool – suck ice
Beat Palermo’s city heat with an old-school beaker of grattatella – ice shavings scratched by hand from a huge block of ice wrapped in a cloth and served with fresh fruit syrup. Island-wide, granita (crushed ice made with fresh fruit) is cool any time of day. Go local: buy a brioche (sweet bread bun) to rip and dunk in the crushed ice. Mulberry, pomegranate, pistachio and watermelon are hot August flavors.
Where to try it: Piero Caccamo scratches ice to order behind his Grattatella all'antica no Zu' Vicè cart at Palermo’s Mercato del Capo or in front of Teatro Massimo. On the Aeolian island of Salina, Da Alfredo by Lingua's pebble beach is famed for its granita. Ricotta granita with candied capers and toasted capers at Pa.Pe.Ro' in bijou fishing hamlet Rinella, on Salina's southern coast, is celestial.
Embrace world flavors with couscous alla trapanese
In western Sicily, Trapani's unique position on the sea route to Tunisia has made couscous a local specialty. Think a steaming-hot bowl of aromatic seafood, garlic, chili, tomatoes, saffron, parsley and wine broth, which you ladle over a heap of couscous. Share as a primi or order as a meal in itself.
Where to try it: Modern osteria La Bettolaccia; reservations essential.
Taste Marsala and Etna vintages with winemakers
Predictably, Italy’s second-largest wine-producing region is worth a tipple. Native Catarratto, Grillo and Inzoli grapes fuel elegant whites and Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Frappato yield robust reds. Don’t miss Sicily's only DOCG wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, blending Nero d'Avola and Frappato.
Get the inside story over degustazione (wine tasting) with local wine growers: in sumptuous noble villas on the volcanic, vineyard-clad slopes of Mt Etna and in 19th-century wine cellars in sweet-wine town Marsala.
Where to try it: In Marsala, at Cantine Florio or in the company of spectacular grassroots Sicilian cuisine at Ciacco Putia Gourmet. Around Catania, on a road trip by bicycle or car along La Strada del Vino dell’Etna; village- and vineyard-hopping aboard the narrow-gauge Etna Wine Train is pretty damn cool too. To overnight in an abandoned village-turned-winery, Tenuta di Fessina.
Feast on Aeolian island and ocean flavors
Mediterranean fish and shellfish – particularly swordfish, tuna, mackerel and delicate fingernail-sized clams – are lasting foundations of Sicilian cuisine: frittura mista (a battered, deep-fried mix of shrimp, squid and/or fish), carpaccio di spada (raw marinated swordfish) and tonno scottato al pistachio (seared tuna in pistachio crust) are practically staples.
But it is in eco-sourced kitchens on Sicily’s seven-island Aeolian archipelago that fresh produce and flavors peak. Think hand-picked figs, pomegranates, capers and caper flowers, honey-sweet Malvasia wine, mountains of wild herbs and mulberry granita in spades.
Where to try it: For creative spins on local swordfish (fresh May to September), trendy Kasbah in Lipari town. Vulcano’s Il Cappero celebrates island produce with a surprise, 10-course tasting menu and million-dollar sea views. On Marettimo, reserve at least 24 hours in advance to order Trattoria Il Veliero’s masterpiece lobster soup.
Vegetarians and vegans
Sicily’s natural abundance of top quality, sun-filled fruit and veg make catering to non-meat eaters an instinct since birth – plenty of classic Sicilian antipasti, pastas and contorni (side dishes) feature just veg.
Vegetarians can’t go wrong with caponata (Sicily’s emblematic appetizer of eggplant, tomatoes, olives and capers) and busiate alla trapanese (hand-twirled, spaghetti-like pasta from Trapani, with tomato, basil, garlic and almond pesto). Pane cunzato (open sandwiches), piled high with a choice of toppings, are meals in themselves (those at Malvasia on the Aeolian island of Vulcano and in Milazzo are legendary).
It’s a rockier ride for vegans: many island dishes feature butter, eggs or another animal product. When buying cannoli, check what oil the shell was deep-fried in – traditionally it's pork lard, though many pastry chefs these days use vegetable oil.