From arancini to cannoli, Sicilian food is taking over the world. Few people realise this, however, because Sicilian cuisine is often mistaken for general Italian fare. To ensure visitors know the difference between their big plates of spaghetti alle vongole and delicious dollops of bottaga (dried fish roe), we’ve compiled this guide to Sicilian cooking, which should help enthusiasts fix up a mean caponata in no time.
Sicily is certainly spoilt when it comes to fresh, authentic food. Possessing rich volcanic soils and seas that teem with fish, the island has always had a reputation for abundance. So much so, in fact, that Rome considered it one of the “breadbaskets” of its empire. But it’s Sicily’s subsequent invaders that truly stamped their culinary mark.
Occupiers ranged from Byzantines (who preserved sweet and sour Greek dishes) to Arabs, who introduced delicacies such as couscous and arancini. These fried rice balls, coated in golden breadcrumbs and crunchy nuts, hold gooey smudges of mozzarella within their spheres and rate as one of Sicily’s staple snacks. Only caponata can be considered as popular: this piquant Mediterranean vegetable stew has as many versions as grandmothers (nonnas) on the island, but no matter who the cook is, its balance of salt, sour and sweet notes is always addictive.
Across the length and breadth of the triangular isle, seafood and vegetables dominate menus. This means that whilst world-class pork can be bought from the Madonie mountains (along the north coast), Sicily’s culinary punch is reserved for raisins, oranges, capers, seeds, garlic, beans, lentils and nuts. These are cooked in myriad ways, from refreshing orange salads (like Alici alle Arance) to ricotta and mint pasta dishes such as Pasta alla Norma. Yet no matter how complex a dish may look, a philosophy of simplicity is typically adhered to.
This is because, sitting at the heart of Sicilian cooking is the refusal to overwork ingredients. Whether it’s allowing tangy Pantelleria capers to stand alone or letting ripe olives from Nocellara del Belice sing solo, no Sicilian wants to be accused of murdering the natural flavour of their ingredients. Which is perhaps why islanders are never afraid to slap one of their local cheeses (like spicy Ragusano) or salamis (such as Sant’ Angelo) on some crusty bread and call it perfection.
The sweet-toothed are also on hallowed ground in Sicily, with white, fluffy ricotta forming the mainstay of most dessert menus. Paired with almonds, pistachios, fruit or honey, the cheese often finds itself stuffed into cannoli or packed into cassata (a large sponge cake) to great effect. This sweetness is a feature of the island’s vineyards as well, where wines such as Marsala, Moscato and Pantelleria are all renowned for their rich, sweet flavours and thick, syrupy textures.
If the thought of big flavours and authentic Mediterranean ingredients has inspired you to sample Sicilian cuisine in person, why not check out the Southern Italy & Sicily trip?