Wining and dining
Sicily’s gastronomic delights
We are many that claim Sicily has the absolute best cuisine in all of Europe. The fantastic climate, fertile soils, altitude variations and fluctuating levels of rainfall, temperature and mineral content in the various regions, has made it possible to grow a very wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes, throughout the whole year. In addition you also have the wild growing delicacies, like wild fennel, thyme, salvia, cicoria and asparagus, porcini mushrooms, mulberries, prickly pear “fichi d’india”, figs and capers. The wealth and quality of ingredients is exceptional even by Italian standards. Meat-wise its best to stick to lamb in the spring and wild black boar from the Nebrodi Mountains, unless you are into horse meat, being quite common in some areas. However, when it comes to seafood, Sicily is truly blessed with a rich smorgasbord of fish, crustaceans and molluscs from the 3 seas surrounding the island. Best known are the tuna, sardines, clams, anchovies, swordfish and prawns, with the red prawns from Mazara being an absolute delicacy.
Add to that, the fact that Sicily has been under a myriad of foreign dominations for thousands of years, each introducing new ingredients, planting and harvesting methods, recipes and craftsmanship.
Greeks brought grapes and olives and introduced the art of wine making to the locals.
Romans introduced a variety of legumes, like the fava beans, chick peas, lentils and some forms of pasta and started a substantial grain production on the island.
Arabs brought almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, water melon, rice and couscous.
They introduced many tastes that are now considered typically Sicilian, including the sweet and sour combinations of raisins and pine-nuts with vegetables and fish that form the basis of several common dishes.
It’s the arabs that started Sicilys long sweet tradition with gelato and granita, marzipan and candied fruits and the “cassata siciliana” going as far back as 1500 years. We also have them to thank for the advanced farming and irrigation techniques as well as the distilled grape must to create grappa.
Normans brought some of their northern European innovations including rotisserie and fish-curing techniques. The French who later followed them brought a legacy of fancy chefs for the aristocracy, known as Monsú.
The Spanish brought many crucial ingredients of today’s Sicilian cuisine, like chilli and sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and maize.
Here are some of Sicilys special treats
Pasta alla norma
Pasta alla Norma is probably the most famous Sicilian dish, made with local tomatoes, aubergines, garlic, basil and ricotta salata, salted ricotta.
Pasta con le sarde
Fresh sardines, salted anchovy fillets and wild fennel are made into a sauce with distinct North African flair thanks to the addition of pine nuts, raisins and saffron, before being stirred through bucatini, a type of spaghetti with a hole running through the centre. Crisp breadcrumbs are normally sprinkled on top for extra texture, and you’ll sometimes see white wine or almonds added as well.
Spaghetti ai ricci
Linguine o spaghetti with sea-urchins, is a delicacy. It’s tricky to get it just right so you would want to pick a restaurante that specialises in fresh seafood. It has to be super fresh, made quickly and served instantly.
Busiate al pesto Trapanese
The pesto from Trapani contains almonds, tomatoes, basil, garlic and Pecorino cheese and it’s traditionally served with busiate, a local pasta shape which is similar to fusilli.
Sarde a beccafico
Fresh big sardines stuffed with pine nuts, raisins and breadcrumbs before being baked.
Involtini di pesce spada
Thin slices of swordfish are topped with capers, pine nuts, raisins, olives and lemon, before being rolled up into a spiral and secured with a skewer. They’re then baked, fried or grilled, sometimes with extra breadcrumbs around the outside, too.
These “Sicilian rolls” are made up of veal, with onions, tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts.
Sliced, fried eggplant layered with cheese and tomato before being baked, in some homes they add egg and or ham as well.
Arguably Sicily’s most famous culinary export, caponata is now seen on menus across Europe. But it’s the perfect example of external influences over the island’s cuisine. The recipe can change from place to place (there are even versions with dark chocolate), but it must always contain aubergines, pine nuts, raisins and plenty of vinegar. Served at room temperature, usually as an antipasto, the fried aubergine is turned into a stew with celery, onion and tomatoes, before being flavoured with capers, olives, pine nuts and raisins. The sweetened vinegar finishes it off with a lovely tang.
Maccu or maccu di fave
This ancient Sicilian soup prepared with dried and crushed fava beans and fennel. You wont find it restaurants marketed to tourists.
Couscous al pesce
Western Sicily, and specifically Trapani is where you will find a wide variety of couscous dishes, most of them teeming with fresh seafood, shellfish, saffron, and almonds. San vito Lo Capo in the Trapani province is also home to the yearly couscous festival with the world championships of couscous is being held.
Italy’s famous gambero rosso (red prawns) are caught by the local fishermen around Mazara del Vallo on the western coast of the island are regarded as the best in the world, being sent to the very best Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Italy. They are nicely combined with fresh artichoke and cherry tomatoes in pasta dishes. When they’re at their freshest, they are eaten raw with a sprinkle of fine local oil and a squeeze of lemon juice or together with slices of blood orange.
Fish in Sicily is so fresh, it’s rarely served with sauces or even much seasoning. This is a classic example: It’s simply boiled octopus, usually served with a good olive oil and some lemon juice.
One hearty dish that has stood the test of time is traditional beef or veal farsu magru (falsely lean). A lean cut of meat is stuffed with minced meat or ham, breadcrumbs, cheeses, spices and boiled eggs, then rolled to appear more like a roast. Found mostly in Palermo.
Maialino nero dei Nebrodi
Sicily’s indigenous black swine originates from the Nebrodi Mountains in northeast Sicily. You can visit farms dedicated to raising mailino nero, where pastures studded with acorns, olives, and carobs make for sausage with sensational flavor. Since production is strictly controlled, this heritage meat is an A-list item on gourmand menus and in elite butcher shops. Served Chiaramonte style—ribs stuffed with garlic, onion, salami, tomato, parsley, oregano, bread crumbs and just enough of Ragusa’s local cheese.
Coniglio in agrodolce
Sicilian rabbit marinated in a sweet and sour mix of red vinegar sauce with onions, green olives and capers known as agrodolce. Sometimes topped with the famed chocolate of Modica—an Aztecan recipe brought by the Spanish during the 16th century.
The very cradle of streetfood
Streetfood in Sicily has a 200 year tradition. It was in the ancient Greek cities of Sicily that the first “street food” was born. People liked to eat at any time and with their hands, during shopping, meeting up with friends, discussing business. Sauces, deep-fried foods, meat and small snacks were served outside as a modern street food stand. Street food is still very popular in Catania and Palermo but also in Syracuse.
One of Sicilys famous culinary experiences; a pointy ball of creamy risotto rice with the stuffing of choice, that’s breaded and then deep-fried.
Pani ca meusa
The name of this street food means, literally, “bread with spleen”! It’s bread, stuffed with chopped spleens and lungs of veal. It’s most common and super popular in Palermo.
Pane e pannelle
A favorite street food of Palermo, panelle—or chickpea fritters—are served between bread, like a sandwich, but usually they serve the panelle separate as well.
Like a pizza, but fluffier. The dough is spongy and delicious, and the topping includes onions, caciocavallo cheese, bread crumbs, and (of course) olive oil!
Again from Palermo, these are skewered roasted innards.
Arrusti e mangia
“Grill and eat” mostly Carne di cavallo/horse bbq’ed on the streets of Catania. Steaks and horse meatballs, donkey fillets, rolls and veal chops, pork ribs and sprinkled with “salmoriglio”, a dressing made from olive oil, rosemary, lemon, vinegar and chili pepper.
Bacon wrapped around spring onion and roasted on the bbq.
Deep fried puffy pastry sculled with ricotta cheese and a bit of anchovies.
Filled and grilled bred. Catania has large food-trucks throughout the city, loaded with a huge variety of ingredients to put in the middle of the cut in half bread.
Local street food like: arancini (fried rice balls), cipollina (puff pastry filled with onion), pizzete (little pizzas), bomba, cartocciata, scacciata, siciliana (a type of fried calzone), bolognese, that is kept warm. Mainly found in Catania.
A paradise for sweet lovers
Sicilian sweets are very different to those you find on the mainland. Adorned with candied fruit, flavoured with nuts, and enriched with sheep’s milk ricotta (as compared with the milder cows’ milk version), they owe their origins, like lots of other Sicilian foods, to the island’s many layers of history, most notably the conquest by Saracen invaders from North Africa. By the end of the tenth century, the Saracens had introduced pistachios, oranges, lemons, and dates, as well as refined sugar and spices such as cinnamon and cloves. They brought the art of preparing elaborate pastries, ices, candied fruit, and almond- and pistachio-based confections. Later, these traditions blended with others; chocolate arrived from Spain during the renaissance, and in the 19th century, Swiss pastry chefs who had migrated to Sicily started blending it with ricotta in desserts.We’re all more than familiar with Sicily’s own sugary and creamy incarnations, cannoli and cassata, yet not many, I think, are aware of the amazing history behind their creation, a history that mirrors closely that of the land where they both were conceived. And what about the other symbols of Sicily’s sweetest side? What about the fresh, zesty granita and its faithful companion, the brioche con il tuppo? Or biancomagiare di mandorle, delightful child of one of Sicily’s many agricultural excellences, almonds.
“I cannoli” together with the “cassata” is the most famous Sicilian pastry in the world. A rolled up tube of fried pastry, filled with fresh sweetened ricotta and your choice of candid fruits, chopped pistachios or chocolate bits. While there’s a fair amount of sugar or honey mixed into the ricotta filling, the sweetness doesn’t overpower the ricotta’s fresh, delicate flavour. A good cannolo is always made fresh.
In Palermo, the ends are adorned with two candied cherries and the top garnished with a sliver of orange peel. Meanwhile, in the eastern part of the island, the cannolo is sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts or pistachios. There’s also a distinction to be made between the elegant city version, with a light whipped ricotta filling, and the more “authentic” country version, filled with a dense ricotta, far less refined. When prepared in the traditional way, the cannoli are 15-20 centimetres long, however you will also find small finger sized ones as well as fist size ones.
It appears that the cannolo was born in Caltanissetta, and its inspiration was an ancient Roman recipe reinterpreted by the Arabs who once occupied the city. Legend tells that it was the emir’s beautiful wives who invented the dessert. Initially the pastry was only prepared at carnival time, but people quickly realised that is was a shame to enjoy this delicacy only once a year.
Few foods could be more colorful, more Sicilian, or more work. A sponge cake is soaked in liqueur and or fruit juice, then layered with slices with sweetened ricotta (perhaps mixed with candied fruit and chocolate bits), then covered with green-colored almond paste, an again the entire creation is covered in a sugar-and-egg-white icing, and then go to town with the decorations, artistic frosting with candied cherries, oranges, and other fruits. The whole effort makes for an airy-yet-moist cake. Cassata combines the flavors of other Sicilian specialties, from cannoli to marzipan to candied fruit, with seeming effortlessness.
Cassata is believed to have originated in Palermo in the 10th century, when under Muslim rule. The Arabic name al-Qassāṭỉ القشاطي (Arabic for ‘cassata-maker’) is first mentioned in Corleone in 1178 The Arabic word qas’ah, from which cassata may derive, refers to the bowl that is used to shape the cake
Bacione di Taormina
Kiss from Taormina…The coating of pistachio or chocolate hides a soft, cocoa-and-almond filling, with a texture just a shade firmer than peanut butter. Mixed in are sugar-covered almonds, nuts, and pieces of chocolate. It’s not quite as sweet as it sounds.
Very lifelike fruit imitations made with marzipan, small masterpieces …almond paste mixed with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar almond paste. But it is al to more than what first catches the eye, often with hidden layers and fillings you can’t see until you take a bite. Every detail is attended to (spun-sugar peach fuzz, impeccable dyes, paper stems),
While you can now find torrone, or nougat made from a sugar-and-honey syrup, all across Italy, it probably got its start in Sicily. The top of a piece of torrone has a glass-hard gloss of royal icing, but the rest of the bar is just on the soft side of chewy, almost like a hardened bar of taffy. In Sicily, it’s most common to see torrone mixed with almonds, giving it a delicate, sweet flavor. You’ll also find torrone that’s been jazzed up with candied fruit—like these slices of candied orange, which added a little bitterness and zest to each bite.
Biscotti con Mandorla
This classic Sicilian almond cookie represents Italian baking at its best. The cookies are baked until the edges of the swirls have only barely crisped, while the rest remains moist and chewy. Each bite packs a powerful pistachio punch— a taste all the more potent because these are, of course, Sicilian pistachios, which are known for their especially strong flavor, with an almond on top.
Mattonella di Cioccolato con Fichi
The name “little brick” couldn’t be more appropriate. it’s quite heave for being so small, packed with white chocolate, crumbled with Sicilian pistachios, with a cover of thick layer of dark chocolate that’s been mixed with dried figs.
Nobody candies fruit like here in Sicily, oranges being the most popular. Eaten as is one cut up in pieces and used in a variety of other desserts.
Paste di Mandorle
Almonds are big in Sicily—so big that even almond paste comes in many forms. While the best-known version outside of Sicily might be marzipan, here in Sicily pasta di mandorle is widely used. The almond paste is mixed with candied citrus fruit and whole almonds, then wrapped in a layer of white chocolate. The delicate orange flavor balances the almond, making this a delectable entry into the world of Sicilian mandorle sweets.
A traditional carnival sweet, deep-fried dough balls coated with honey in the shape of small pine cones.
The Sicilian take on ice-cream, made from ice and local fresh fruit, nuts and chocolate, of the outmost quality. The best granitas are made fresh daily, with a substantial fruit content. The locals eat granitas for breakfast and lunch in the summer, together with a brioche… a plain sweetened bun, and sometimes with the addition of sweetened whipped cream. The most common flavours are limone, mandorla, café, pistacchio and cioccolato, but depending on the season you will also find anguria (watermelon), gelsi (Sicilian mulberries), pesca (peach) fichi (fresh figs) and many other flavours.
Of course Sicily also has great ice-cream, but it’s not originally from here.
Circular Christmas cake with nuts and figs.
A semifreddo is a molded frozen dessert that remains fairly soft, and is similar to an ice cream though is made without an ice cream maker. It’s made in a variety of flavours but the most but popular kinds of semifreddo in Sicily is made with local almonds or pistachios.
The cake of the seven veils, named after the dance of the same name, the dance of Salome to make Herod confused with want and lust isa traditional Sicilian birthday cake made up of 7 layers:
7th layer (top layer): Chocolate Mirror Glaze
6th layer: Chocolate Mousse
5th layer: Hazelnut Bavarian Cream
4th layer: Chocolate Sponge Cake
3rd layer: Hazelnut Bavarian Cream
2nd layer: Praline Crunch
1st layer (bottom layer): Chocolate Sponge Cake
I cartocci siciliani / macallè
Small ricotta filled, deep-fried fluffy “cannoli” usually eaten for breakfast.
Sfinci di San Giuseppe
I sfinci are basically deep-fried spoonfuls of cream puff batter stuffed with sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips. It’s said that the word derives from an Arabic word for light, or airy San Giuseppe is not only the patron saint of Sicily, he is also the patron saint of pastry cooks. The Feast of San Giuseppe (March 19th) is fathers day in Sicily and is celebrated all throughout the island. (as well as in New Orleans, Louisiana.)
Gelo di anguria/ gelo di melone
Melon frost, or watermelon jelly, is a typical Sicilian dessert that is as good to eat as it is simple in its preparation and composition. Sweet and refreshing, the melon frost has the appearance of a shiny jelly and a beautiful deep red, but with a soft consistency that melts in your mouth. Sometimes with a hint of cinnamon or jasmin added, its served ice-cold and often decorated with pieces of dark chocolate and pistachios or chopped almonds.
Le minni di vergini
The virgins titts are baked cakes in the form of a breast with a nipple like candid cherry or hazlenut on top.Stuffed with blancmange, chocolate chips and zuccata, the minni di virgini are the pride of the pastry shop of Sambuca di Sicilia, a village in the hilly countryside of Agrigento, where they were invented in 1725. It was Sister Virginia Casale di Rocca Menna who commissioned the Marchesa di Sambuca, who wished to make her son’s wedding special by crowning it with a cake that was different from the usual ones at that time.
As the nun wrote, it was inspired by the Sambucan hills that were visible from the windows of her convent, but, you know, the malice is in the eye of the beholder and the equivocal form and perhaps even the easy irony that the name of their creator is they made sure that these firm and tanned hills would earn the irreverent current name within a mere bite.
A 2500 year old lovestory with wine making
One of the most exciting aspects of a gastronomic trip to Sicily is a chance to witness the revolution that is taking place in the island’s wine industry. Once Sicily was known for quantity rather than quality, but now Sicily’s natural advantages for wine making have been matched by progressive methods and put Sicily on the forefront of high quality wines.
Traditional white Sicilian grapes (grillo, inzolia, grecanico) have been combined with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and the occasional viognier. Much the same has happened with the reds, the island’s traditional red grape, the syrah-like Nero d’Avola, having been combined with merlot, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
For more than 2500 years Sicily (Sicilia in Italian) has been a significant center of Mediterranean viniculture, although the reputation and style of its wines has changed significantly over that time. Although once famous for sweet Muscats like Pantelleria), and later fortified Marsala, the island’s best known wines are now its dry table wines produced under the regional IGT title, Terre Siciliane.
Blessed with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of wine grapes The warm, dry climate means that mildews and rots are kept to a minimum, particularly in well-ventilated areas which benefit from coastal breezes. This low disease pressure means that chemical sprays are hardly needed, so much of Sicilian wine is produced from organic grapes.
Thanks to its varied geographical characteristics, mineral content and terrain, Sicily produces a large variety of grapes with different characteristics. The vines are grown in territories very different from each other in terms of altitude, climate and conformation. These range from the coastal areas of Agrigento to the hills of Trapani and Marsala, to the higher areas of the Etna Volcano. There are many internal areas of the island that produce excellent wines, including Palermo, Ragusa and Syracuse.
Here is a small selection of some of the most well-known producers:
Florio, Duca di Salaparuta, Donnafugata, Planeta, Pellegrino, Cusumano, Tasca D’Almerita, Terre Nere, Barone di Villagrande, Alessandro di Camporeale, Spadafora, Cottanera, Baglio Pianetto, Benanti, De Bartoli, Rapitalà.
The main native grape varieties:
Red wines: Nero d’Avola, Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese, Carricante, Nocera, Perricone, Frappato
White wines: Catarratto, Grecanico, Carriccante, Grillo, Inzolia. Sweet white wines: Malvasia delle Lipari and Zibibbo or Moscato
The main imported grape varieties:
Red wines: Cabernet-Sauvignon, Sirah, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Merlot
White wines: Chardonnay, Viognier, Müller Thurgau and Sauvignon blanc
We can warmly recommend a vineyard tasting tour, a vineyard stay or why not a vineyard for meetings, events, team buildings or productions. Sicily also has some great wine cellars, cosy wine bars and local wine festivals. Ask and we will point you in the right direction or totally tailor-make your wine experience…it’s up to you. But one thing is for sure, it needs to be experienced.