If there’s one thing everyone knows about Italian culture, it’s the food. No matter where you go around the world, no matter the continent or country, you will inevitably find some version of pizza, pasta and espresso.
Of course, being an ancient country with a diverse population, there is no one true source of authentic Italian cuisine. In fact, each of the country’s regions are known simply by their specialties, such as risotto from Lombard, pasta carbonara from Rome, or traditional pizza from Naples.
And then, dominating southern Italy’s food for over 2,000 years, there’s Sicilian cuisine. As a major trading port for ancient Italy, the island boasts a unique blend of mainland Italian cooking with influences from Arabia, Spain and ancient Greece.
It’s here that seafood dominates, that the cannoli was born, that breakfast is a frozen coffee topped with whipped cream, that you’ll find the best eggplant pastas the country has to offer.
These are the essentials for any visit to Italy’s south.
1. Granita, plus brioche
For a Sicilian, breakfast is served ice cold.
Granita is a mixture of ice, sugar and fresh fruit or nuts — think sorbet, only coarse and served in a glass with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. The typical flavours include lemon, coffee, pistachio, almond, strawberry and black mulberries.
The Sicilian breakfast special is a granita al caffe served with a brioche bun. Tear the bun apart, dip its pieces in the creamy, icy mixture, and try not to think about your boring breakfasts back home.
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
As the famous scene from The Godfather suggests, cannoli is an irresistible treat, for the locals and hardened Sicilian mobsters alike.
Traditional Sicilian cannoli consists of crunchy fried pastry dough curled into a tube, injected with a creamy ricotta filling and sprinkled with crushed pistachios or chocolate chips.
Avoid any pasticceria serving you pre-filled cannoli — the best cannoli is filled while you wait.
Despite being one of the most widespread street foods in Sicily, the locals still haven’t agreed on the official name. Typically, if you’re in Palermo or further west, you’ll see signs for “arancina”; for Catania and the east, it’s “arancino”.
Either way, no day spent exploring the sun-drenched streets of Sicily’s main towns is complete without one. A crumbed and deep-fried pyramid of rice, meat, tomato sauce, peas and melty mozzarella, arancino is essential Sicilian street food.
4. Seafood with caponata
Blessed with the Mediterranean at their doorstep, Sicily is obsessed with seafood and serving it fresh. Mussels, squid, octopus, sardines, tuna, anchovies, swordfish — these are the main courses for a significant chunk of restaurants on the island, often plucked fresh from the sea that morning. Don’t miss the swordfish: whopping steaks grilled for just a couple of minutes on each side for a tender, juicy centre.
A traditional side to a Sicilian seafood meal is the caponata; a sweet and sour stew of fried eggplants, sweet vinegar and celery. This dish can even double as a main course, where it’s served with squid, shellfish, olives, potatoes, raisins or pine nuts.
5. Pasta alla norma
The other Sicilian obsession is the eggplant. This ingredient is unique to Sicilian cuisine, featuring heavily on the island’s menu of antipasti, pizzas and, of course, pastas.
The pinnacle of Sicilian eggplant cooking is the pasta alla norma, a simple dish of fried eggplants cooked in tomato sauce and served with grated ricotta salata, a firm and salty cheese. As with most Italian dishes, the traditional pasta for this one is up for debate, although you’ll most likely find some version of penne or bucatini (hollowed-out spaghetti).
6. Pane cunzato
Naples has the market locked for traditional, deliciously authentic, incomparable Italian pizza. However, Sicily’s variation on the pizza, the pane cunzato, has long been a strong competitor.
The name roughly translates to “seasoned bread” and the recipe sits somewhere between pizza and bruschetta: a baked dough base topped with some combination of fresh tuna (or anchovies), tomatoes, basil, olives, capers, red onions, olive oil and oregano.
In the past, it has also been known as the “bread of misery”, as poorer Sicilians only had access to more miserable seasonings than those listed above. Now, the pane cunzato overflows with fresh, rich ingredients and has become a staple in most restaurants, cafes and bars — the perfect companion to your mid-afternoon cocktail.
7. Limoncello di Sicilia
Where do you turn once you’ve overdone it on all of this swordfish, pasta alla norma and cannoli? Limoncello, that’s where. Second only to Campari on Italy’s list of favourite liqueurs, limoncello is a lemon-based digestivo (after dinner drink) that’s sweet and strong in equal measure.
While Sicily can’t make a definitive claim as the birthplace of limoncello, its particular version of the drink — made with lemons from the volcanic grounds of the nearby Mount Etna — has been enjoyed since at least the 1870s.
Enjoy a glass (or two or three) chilled or over ice.
Tummy rumbling? Satisfy your hunger on a small group adventure in Southern Italy now.
Feature image by giuseppelombardo.