The Piazzetta Sicilia at the World Fair in Milan, Trapàni artist Giovanna Colomba evokes the colours and flavours of Sicily, where memory is the future and ‘being Sicilian‘ is the ultimate in culinary expression. Her half-head images present a different perspective on the culture of an island that has been shaped by the cuisine of two continents and the culinary sensibilities of countless interlopers and invaders.
Two thousand five hundred years ago Sicily was a forested island, with a rich soil fed by the humus from decaying trees and vegetation, suited to a climate that was dry and hot for most of the year. Game roamed the hinterland, fish caressed the coast, wild animals and plants sustained the inhabitants.
From 950 to 1350 the Mediterranean basin was captured by southern European trading empires, from Islamic Spain to Sardina and the Balearies, across the Byzantine Empire to the Levantine. Sicily was at the heart of this trade, which stretched eastwards into India and the Mongol cosmos.
This period was characterised by the relationship between Christian and Islamic countries. Land in the region was constantly cleared of its forests as agriculture took hold. Sicily is included among those areas where this rampant civilisation brought soil erosion. In the Mediterranean basin many of those areas now grow olives because the plant thrives on stoney ground, Sicily included. Today most of the island is a desert.
With the land poor and only capable of growing olives, citrus fruits, herbs and plants that could survive the climate and the environment, fishing became an essential activity. In Sicily the fishing community were embedded within a complicated framework of informal and formal relationships of ownership, patronage, kinship, religion and political authority. It was much the same across the island, in every area of commerce and trade.
The history of food production in Sicily goes back to the time of the Romans, through the periods that saw Phoenician / Carthaginian, Greek, Arab (Moor), Norman, Spanish and Italian influence shape and reshape the island’s food culture, reflecting the contemporary gastronomic culture of the area and its deep societal roots.
Sicily’s location in the Mediterranean basin, the prized position of Palermo in the trade routes, its proximity to the African coast and its special climate has given the island a unique demographic that is reflected in that food culture, which is arguably the most diverse the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, throughout southern Europe and the continent in general.
The organoleptic qualities of its fruits, herbs, vegetables and wild plants – native and xeno generic – contrasts starkly with the poor quality soil on most of the island, while the freshness of its native fish underlines its status as an island culture. Method and tradition has turned these raw materials into fantastic street foods, which are now being recognised as special to the island.
Despite its hardships and famines, Sicily has survived. This is evident today in the street markets of Catania, Palermo and Siracusa, where the food produce and food culture of the island are celebrated in extensive elaboration and wondrous colour. It could be argued that the island and its people are experiencing a food renaissance, a remembering that contemporary food culture in Sicily is the total history of food in the Mediterranean basin.
Selected Foods that Originated in
or Moved through Sicily
Artichoke Globe or French artichoke originated in north Africa and grew wild in Sicily, where its red bitter leaves and flower head (heart) were used, being cultivated by the Greeks and Romans. Imported to France by Catherine de Médici, they are eaten by the Spanish, French and Italians and grown in Belgium, France and the Mediterranean countries. Vitamin C and fiber.
Aubergine An Asian native (Burmese region and northern India), aubergine or eggplant is a member of the nightshade family (peppers, potatoes and tomatoes) and is essentially a fruit not a vegetable. Aubergines were grown in Sicily over a thousand years ago and were distrusted by Sicilians who ate them reluctantly during famine years.
Fennel Native of southern Europe, the stalks, leaves, seeds and root are used. The root of Florence fennel is grown and used as a vegetable in Italian and Sicilian cooking. The seeds are used to flavour fish and fish sauces, added to vegetable sauces and breads and patisseries. An ingredient in sauerkraut and with cabbage dishes.
Peperoncino Native to Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, the peperoncino is a mild chilli often found pickled or bottled in olive oil. The term peperoncini applies to other Italian chillies, which range from the hot chillies of arancione a mazzetti on Stromboli, etna on Sicily and grisu on Sardinia to the mild peppino, piccante rosso di caienna and robustini.
Rice Sicily is believed to be one of the places where rice traders attempted to sell their product, during Moorish rule, and is now thought of as one of the routes of rice into Italy and the Po Valley.
Spinach Introduced to Sicily by invading Saracens in 827 from north Africa (having brought it from Persia), and then to Spain by the Moors, spinach was not cultivated in Europe until the 16th century.
Swiss Chard (aka Chard, Spinach Beet) Believed to be a native of Sicily, it has been cultivated for its leaves, which are rich in vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, and its stalks. The leaves are cooked as a green like spinach and the stalks are added to salads and soups.
Selected Italian Traditional Dishes
specific to Sicily
Each area of the island has its own recipes, local food traditions that differ from one place to the next. Coastal recipes are very different to the recipes in the inner mountain areas. As the majority of Sicilians were once very poor they did not eat sophisticated food, the food that is now regarded as traditional like arancine, caponata, cuccia, cudduruni, frascatola, macco di fave … These dishes were interpreted differently in each area and in many instances went by different names. Bread, cheese, chicken, legumes and olives made up the daily diet for most people. So the recipes that are now seen as traditional were not for the whole population until the middle of the last century and it is only now, in the second decade of the 21st century, that Sicily is embracing its food culture. Sicily also interprets dishes from other regions of Italy differently.
RecipesBest of Sicily + Sicily Land + Visit Sicily
Agneddu di Pasta di Zuccaru e Jarofulu
Easter sweets (marzipan lambs)
Agnello al Forno baked lamb
Agnello all’acciuga lamb with anchovies
Amaretti almond, apricot kernels and honey macaroons
Anelletti al forno baked ring-pasta
Arancine stuffed rice balls
Bistecca alla Palermitana Palermo steak
Bomba di Maccheroni macaroni cheese and vegetable bake
Braciolette alla Griglia grilled lamb bracelets
Calamaretti Fritti fried baby squid
Calamari Ripieni alla SicilianaSicilian stuffed squid
Cannoli Siciliani Sicilian Shells
Caponata sour-sweet vegetable salad
Capretto con Patate kid goat with potatoes
Capretto con Verdure kid goat with vegetables
Cassata Siciliana ITALY Sicilian sweet dessert
Cavatieddi home-made pasta shells with sauce
Cazzilli / Crocchè cheese and potato cylinders
Coniglio alla Siciliana Sicilian rabbit
Coniglio in Agrodolce sweet and sour rabbit
Costolette alla Siciliana Sicilian chops
Crispeddi flatbread with anchovies and oregano
Cudduruni stuffed breads
Fave al Guanciale broad beans and pork cheek
Focaccia con la Salsiccia flatbread with cheese and sausage
Gelato alla Bronte Pistachio pistachio ice-cream
Gelato alla Mandorla almond ice cream
Gelu i Muluni watermelon dessert
Lasagne alla Siciliana flat pasta with cheese and tomatoes
Maccaruni home-made macaroni
Maccheroni con la Carne macaroni with meat
‘Mbriulata di Caltanissetta stuffed pastry
Orecchiette con Broccoli e Acciughe pasta, anchovy, broccoli and garlic
Panelle chickpea fritters
Panelle di Fave bean fritters
Pani Cunzatu filled bread
Pasta alla Norma Norma’s pasta
Pasta con la Sarde pasta with sardines
Risotto con Carciofi e Piselli rice with artichokes and peas
Sarde a Beccafico stuffed sardines
Scorzette Candito Arancia candied orange
Scorzette Candito Limone candied lemon
Sfinciuni pizza bread with various toppings
Spaghetti alla Siracusana Siracusa spaghetti
Timpalla / Timpana macaroni, meat and cheese bake
Spaghetti con colatura di Alici pasta with anchovy sauceThe origins of dried pasta are locked in the lost stories of unknown Africans, Arabs, Etruscans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans … and the ancient traders of the Mediterranean. Pasta made like modern lasagna, ravioli, linguini, spaghetti and vermicelli was known to compilers of recipes from the fall of the Roman empire to the appearance of Normans in Sicily in the 11th century. It is from the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II, and his chronicler, Abdullah al Idrisi, that we know about the production and trade in a dried wire-like pasta called itriya. In the town of Trabìa (west of Palermo), ‘great quantities of pasta are made and exported everywhere‘. Durum wheat, a hard grain unusually low in gluten and traditionally grown around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, was used to produce itriya. The wheat thrived in Sicily‘s dry monsoon-like climate. The technique of drying thin strips of dough made with durum wheat and spring water spread from northern Africa into the northern Mediterranean, into Andalusia in southern Spain, into Sicily, into Apulia on the Adriatic coast of Italy and up to the valleys inside the Amalfi Coast and Naples and to Sardinia in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Over the centuries it grew into an industry covering Italy from Genoa in the north-west to Apulia in the south-east.
- 500 g spaghetti, cooked al dente
- 40 ml colatura di alici
- 30 g parsley, chopped
- 20 ml olive oil
- 15 g anchovies, chopped fine
- 1 lemon, juice
Mix anchovy sauce in a large bowl with the olive oil. Lemon juice will offset the saltiness if necessary. For a coarse sauce add anchovy pieces. Cook and drain spaghetti, toss with the parsley in the anchovy sauce, serve hot.
Panelle chickpea frittersFor the Palermo touch, panelle should eaten in bread rolls with a squeeze of lemon.
- 750 ml cold water
- 300 ml vegetable oil
- 250 g chickpea flour
- 30 ml sesame oil
- 10 g green pepper, ground
- 5 g salt
- 2 sheets of baking paper / parchment
Put chickpea flour in a large pot, whisk in water and seasonings. Bring heat up gently, stirring all the time until the mixtures starts to come away from the edges of the pot.
Pour the mixture onto the sheet of paper or parchment, cover with second sheet. Using a rolling pin roll into a very thin layer, around 3 mm.
Remove paper and cut dough into 5 cm squares.
Bring oil up to frying temperature, fry the squares until they begin to puff up and turn golden.
Dry panelle on kitchen paper, sprinkle with salt.
Arancine rice balls filled with meat sauce and cheese
- 500 g vialone nano rice
- 3 eggs
- 50 g white wheat flour
- 50 g pecorino siciliano cheese, grated
- 50 g breadcrumbs
- Saffron, softened in warm water
- 200 g ragú (or 100 g minced beef fried with 80 g peas, 60 g tomato purée, cooked until sauce is thick)
- 100 g mozzarella / primosale / scamorza cheese cut into 2 cm cubes
Follow the method described above.
Amaretti macaroonsLigurian, Piedmonte and Sicilian almond growers all claim these macaroons originated in their region, citing recipes over 1200 years old. That date also indicates an earlier tradition, and the argument that these confections were Arabic and travelled from north Africa across to Sicily and made their way north with the Normans and Spanish is plausible. What is certain is that amaretti are either hard or soft, and sometimes they are crisp with a soft centre.
- 300 g almonds, blanched, dried, lightly toasted, ground
- 150 g caster sugar
- 150 g icing sugar
- 70-80 g (2) egg whites
- 30 g apricot kernels, ground
- 3 g baking soda
Sieve the almonds into a large bowl, add the kernels and baking soda, mix thoroughly, add sugar, mix again, and finally the egg whites. Knead into a ball, wrap in clingfilm, refrigerate for overnight or for 12 hours.
Preheat oven to 230ºC.
Shape into small balls, about 10 g each, place on a parchment on baking trays. This amount makes about 65 macaroons.
Bake for seven minutes. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.
Baccalà Mantecato beaten stockfishStockfish is imported into northern and southern Italy, to Calabria, Campania, Liguria, Sicily and Veneto, taking two-thirds of the Norwegian production. This is the original recipe and method as determined by the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato in Venice.
- 250 g stockfish, soaked for 48 hours in 12 changes of fresh water, skinned, de- boned
- Olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 lemon
- Salt, pinch Pepper, pinch
Put the cod in a pot, cover with lightly salted cold water and bring to a low boil, simmer for 20 minutes with lemon and bay leaf. Whip the cod by hand with a wooden spoon, letting it absorb the drizzled oil ‘as if it were a mayonnaise’ to produce a shiny homogenous mass.
Season and finish with a little of the cod cooking water.
‘The dish is traditionally garnished with chopped parsley and accompanied by fresh or grilled Venetian white pearl polenta.’
Siciliana Pesce Spada fried Sicilian swordfishPan-fried fish is a speciality of the Atlantic fringe and the Mediterranean Basin, and of all the varieties of fish that are suitable for frying none compares to the swordfish that are caught in the Messina Strait. Swordfish is a traditional food of Sicily and loved by fish connoisseurs in all the Italian regions, especially when it is pan-fried. Some versions of this recipe call for the steaks to be marinaded in olive oil with parsley, seasonings and a splash of lemon juice for a couple of hours before cooking. This is the plain version.
- 1 kg swordfish steaks, 2 cm thick
- 60 ml olive oil
- 2 lemons, juice
- 30 g white wheat flour
Heat half of the oil in a large frying pan. Dust steaks with flour. Fry both sides, three minutes each. Repeat with remaining steaks. Season and splash with lemon juice.
Scorzette Candito Limone candied lemonThis is the Sicilian method, which means the island‘s large thick-skinned lemons should ideally be used. Amalfi citrons are an alternative.
- 500 g lemon peel
- 400 g sugar
- 15 ml water
Cut peels into long strips, removing the white pith, soak in cold water for 48 hours (with a change of water every 12 hours), drain and dry. Pour sugar into a saucepan, add water and cook over low heat. When the sugar caramelises, add peel and stir until it turns clear and takes on a bright colour. Pour onto a greased surface, separate with a fork. Put peel in sterilised jars.
Cassata Siciliana layered basin cakeCassata’s name comes from Arabic qas’at, basin, for its round shape or from Latin caseum, cheese because it’s full of ricotta cheese.
- 200 g ground almonds
- 100 ml water
- 200 g sugar
- green food colouring for cakes
Mix the ground almonds with the water and the sugar, add the green colouring to colour the paste. Mix until well combined then knead until soft and compact. At this point roll with a rolling pin and cut into a rectangular shape to be used for the outer part of the cassata.
- 500 g fresh ricotta
- 350 g sugar
- 70 g dark chocolate, diced
- 50 g zuccata
- 1 sachet of vanilla
Pass the ricotta through a sieve then add the sugar, the diced dark chocolate, 1 sachet of vanilla and the zuccata.
- 250 g caster sugar
- orange flower water
Dissolve the icing sugar in the water. Place on a low heat and add a little orange flower water. Allow to rest.
- 1 sponge
- 45 ml water
- 45 ml white Vermouth
- 30 g sugar
Cut the sponge into three disc shapes. Pour water, sugar and Vermouth into a bowl. Place the discs in the bowl. Use one of the soaked disks soaked to make the outer part of the cassata. Line the mould with clingfilm and arrange the marzipan rectangles on the edge of the mould, alternating rectangles of marzipan with slices of sponge of the same size. Place one of the soaked sponge discs on the bottom of the mould and spread the ricotta cream on top. Repeat with the second and third sponge discs then allow to rest for about half an hour. Flip over the mould, use the clingfilm to remove the cake and cover with the icing you prepared earlier.
- 400 g candied fruit
At this point cover the cassata with candied fruit. Place the cassata in the refrigerator and allow two hours before serving.
Timpalla / Timpana macaroni bakeA traditional timpana is made with breadcrumbs, butter, carrots, celery, macaroni, mushrooms, onions, parmigiano, pork fat, and tomato sauce. The vegetables except the mushrooms are fried in the fat and made into a sauce with the cheese. The macaroni, mushrooms and sauce are layered in a buttered breadcrumb coated baking dish, baked in a slow oven. In Malta, with the Sicilian influence, they make this version.
- 750 g puff pastry
- 500 g bacon, minced
- 500 g beef, minced
- 500 g macaroni, cooked al dente
- 400 g tomatoes
- 125 ml chicken/beef stock
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 90 g grano padano
- 2 onions, diced
- 45 g tomato paste
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 bay leaves
- Nutmeg, grated
- 1 egg, for glazing
- Olive oil, for frying
Preheat the oven to 220°C.
In a deep saucepan sauté onions, garlic and a bay leaf in oil for five minutes over a low heat, add the bacon followed by beef mince. Cook for 15 minutes.
Add tomatoes, stock and tomato paste followed by the seasonings and nutmeg. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Cook and drain macaroni.
Stir macaroni into meat mixture, add eggs followed by the cheese.
Pour into a greased baking tray, cover with pastry allowing some overlap.
Glaze the top and edges with beaten egg.
Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 180°C, bake for a further 30 minutes.
Gelato alla Mandorla almond ice creamAlmond ice cream is reknown throughout Italy, found in gelateria nationwide, nowhere more so than in Sicily where the almond crop rivals that of Mallorca.
- 250 ml cream
- 250 ml milk
- 125 g almonds, ground
- 50 g sugar
Bring milk to a low boil, add sugar, stir and cook gently for 20 minutes. Pour into a food processor, add almonds and cream, blend.
Pour into metal moulds, seal and refrigerate for 12 hours.
Fave al Guanciale broad beans and pork cheekIn many a Roman trattoria fave al guanciale is served as an antipasto with crusty white bread. This is a seasonal dish, served in the spring when the beans are young. In Sicily where the beans continue growing into the summer, it is a main course.
- 1 kg fresh young beans, blanched in boiling water, chilled
- 250 g pork cheek, sliced
- 1 large onion, chopped finely
- 50 g olive oil
- Sea salt
- Pepper, freshly ground
Fry the onion in the oil until it takes on colour at the edges. Add the pork, coating it in the oil and onion and fry gently for three minutes. Turn the heat down and carefully incorporate the beans. Some chefs like to remove the husks for a sweeter flavour from the beans but it is not necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Pour in enough water to half cover the mixture. Check the tenderness of the beans after ten minutes. They are ready when they are soft to the bite.
Dried fava beans are no substitute for the fresh beans, but you don’t have to visit the shores of the Mediterranean or arrive in Rome in the spring to appreciate this delicacy. Asian stores sell fresh fava and the dried beans are relatively easy to grow.
Tinned broad beans should be avoided. Cooked ham or pork are reliable options but the broad beans must be fresh.
The ratio of beans to bacon should be 2:1, beans to pork to 4:1. Some versions call for both bacon and pork.
Sarde a Beccafico stuffed sardinesThese delicately assembled sardines are one of the great traditional dishes of southern Italy, particularly Sicily. They require a light touch and a sensitive palate, the latter to achieve the sour-sweet balance with the stuffing. Anchovies, lemon juice, pine nuts and raisins with salt and pepper seasonings produce one of the great flavours of Mediterranean food, a taste that is redolent of sultry post-siesta afternoons.
- 800 g sardines, gutted and washed
- 150 g breadcrumbs
- 3 lemons, juiced
- 50 g pine nuts
- 50 g raisins, soaked for an hour in 75 ml warm white wine, drained, retaining liquid
- 60 ml olive oil
- 15 g anchovies, chopped
- 1 tsp sugar
Sauté breadcrumbs in half of the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat until they begin to turn brown, about three minutes, leave to cool.
Delicately remove the central bone from the sardines and open out without breaking the fish into two pieces, leaving the tail on and removing the head.
Preheat oven to 200°C.
Combine the breadcrumbs with the anchovies, pine nuts, raisins and a third of the lemon juice, season and taste. Adjust quantities if necessary.
Carefully place a teaspoon of the mixture onto the thick side of each sardine.
Close each sardine, giving it a little twist to make each one into a curved shape and place on a baking tray with the tails pointing up.
Mix together the remaining lemon juice, oil and soaking wine, add sugar for sweetness and drizzle over the sardines.
Spoon remaining anchovy-breadcrumb mixture into the gaps between the sardines.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Calamari Ripieni alla Siciliana Sicilian stuffed squidOne of the oldest recipes from the Mediterranean basin, and not exclusively associated with Italy, hardly cooked anymore yet delicious if the fish stock is aromatic and rich. Think of it as a dish that predates the invasion of American foods, vis beans, chillies, corn and tomatoes, filled with the produce from field and forest.
- 8 small squid, cleaned, bodies separated from legs
- 250 ml strong fish stock
- 150 ml white wine
- 75 ml spring water
- 1 egg, beaten
- 50 g leaves (from chard, chicory, spinach), cooked, chopped
- 45 g breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp herbs (from lovage, marjoram, rocket, sage), fresh, chopped
- 8 anchovy fillets, chopped
- 20 g pine nuts
- 15 g raisins, soaked in 50 ml red wine
- 10 g walnuts, crushed, chopped
- 10 small capers, rinsed and drained
- 20 black peppercorns, coarse ground
- 8 toothpicks
Blend the breadcrumbs and herbs for two minutes, flush out with the spring water and leave to soak, about an hour. Pour the red wine from the soaked raisins into a saucepan, bring to the boil and wilt the leaves, about three minutes, drain and leave to cool. Pour the white wine to the stock, bring to the boil, add squid and simmer the bodies for five minutes, leaving the legs to cook gently. Combine all the ingredients, spoon into squid sacs, without filling too much, secure with a toothpick. Place the squid in the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve with the legs in a small ladleful of the broth.
Calamaretti Fritti deep-fried baby squidIn trattoria throughout Sicily, baby squid hardly bigger than a marble are deep fried and served with lemon halves, sometimes with Italian chilli flakes. They can be made with larger members of the squid family, but these baby squid are a delicacy to be savoured, especially as you will need to go to the island to get access to the fresh fish. Here is the recipe, just in case a box of baby squid is handy.
- 900 g baby squid
- White flour
- Sunflower oil
Wash, then dry squid. Dust with flour, fry in an instant in smoking oil in a deep frier.
Another method calls for the squid to be dusted in flour, drenched in milk, then in oil and deep fried.
The intense heat seals the fish and prevents the ink sack from bursting.