I heard a group of Italians at the train station saying, "This isn't Italy, this is Sicily. It's worse." They were upset because the train door closed on their friend. When they complained to the train conductor, he told them, "Well, don't stand in the doorway." Not the same as the mainland, it's Italy more intensified. The people gesticulate more, are very direct, talk louder, are stronger personalities (both good and bad), and are fiery like their volcanoes. Here while walking through a food market in Palermo, a vender yelled, "straniera" (foreigner) after I asked a question. "Yes, I am," was my answer, but "why make the announcement?" I thought. Stranieri, like me, might think the natives are brusque, in your face, maybe even a bit rude, and you either love 'em or hate 'em. Some things are worse than the mainland, but some things are much much better.
Sicilian food has its own personality, too. The pasta dishes are richer, saltier, more varied, and more intense in flavor, like its people. The desserts are sweeter and denser than all of Italy. Wild vegetables are used in everyday dishes. The fruits are brighter and deeper in flavor, like the sun that beats down on the island. You can find some of these foods in other parts of Italy, but their origin is Sicily, and in some cases, cannot be replicated well or at all.
As I finish my journey through Sicily, I wanted to share with you my favorite flavors of the island.
Here are my top 10 foods in Sicily:
Three seas wash the shores of Sicily; the Ionian, Tyrrhenian, and the Mediterranean, providing the island with an abundance of fish. Swordfish (spada), tuna (tonno), sardines (sarde), anchovies (acciughe), squid (calamari and totani), sea urchin (ricci), bottarga (dried and salted fish roe), all are among the many fish of the island. Fish is in all parts of the meal, as antipasti in sweet and sour sauce (agrodolce), in a myriad of pasta dishes, and as the second course.
Whether you order arancina (balls from Palermo) or arancino (pyramids from Catania), try one of these fried balls of goodness. Rice, ragu, peas and melted cheese come together to make a satisfying hand-held meal. And, in one bite you have your protein, carbohydrates, dairy and vegetables.
Marzipan is molded and painted to look like anything, from fruits, to fish, to spaghetti. These quaint little candies are called frutti di Martorana after the nuns of Martorana in Palermo who were famous for forming the paste into fruits. They hung these "fruits" in the trees that filled their cloister once to honor a visiting bishop. The treats are gifts on All Souls Day, are molded into lambs for Easter, and adorn the windows of pastry shops througout the island.
The first dish (prmi piatto) in Sicily should not be missed. The dishes use the various flavors of the island in creative combinations to create pasta dishes that pack salty, sweet, savory and crunchy into one forkful. Don't miss pasta alla norma, pasta siracusana, pasta con le sarde, pasta with tenerumi soup (soup with the leaves from zucchini plants), pasta fritta (fried pasta), and pasta with sea urchins. Try one or share two (or three) with each meal.
The best pistachios come from the Sicilian city of Bronte. These pistacchi (In Italy pronounced pee-stah-kee, with a "K" sound NOT a "SH" one) grow on lava rocks from nearby Mount Etna (the island's active volcano). The unique growing climate is responsible for the bright green color and intense flavor. There is pistachio gelato, pistachio granita, pistachio pastry cream, pistachio candies and cookies, and even pistachio pesto. You can buy them vacuum packed and bring them home to recreate your Sicilian food adventure.
Everything is better in sugo di agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce). It's in classic caponata, used with pumpkin, and even fish. Sicilians soak many foods in this simple sauce (made from vinegar and sugar) that expresses the sweet and sour of life in Sicily.
Italian flavored ice is best in Sicily. Granita flavors quintessentially Sicilian are pistachio, almond milk, lemon, mulberry (gelsi) and no breakfast is complete without coffee granita with whipped cream.
My first experience with a Sicilian market vendor was in Castellamare (a small resort town an hour from Palermo). A white van drove into the driveway, honked the horn loudly, then a man came out yelling at the top of his lungs, "Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaneeee" that echoed high above our three story condo. My cousin sent me downstairs to buy bread for the day. Every morning, it became a ritual. When I'd hear the horn, I'd start my descent to the roar of his bread call.
The street markets of Sicily, and especially Palermo, are just more intensified versions of this experience. Vendors yell out their special prices as you walk by. One vendor after another yells out the specials and the disconts (lo sconto) of the day with voices hard, loud and fast like bombs, which are both confusing and amusing. Palermo street markets, Vucciria, Ballaro and Capo in its historic center, are the most colorful.
Besides the personalities of the vendors, the unique flavors of Sicily will be plentiful at each market--pachini tomatoes (from Pachino in the southeast), blood oranges, bright Sicilian lemons, all the fish from the three seas of Sicily, wild fennel, tenerumi, capers from the islands of Pantelleria or Salina, prickly pears (fichi d'India), and eggplant in all shapes (round, long and thin, fat and even mini-sized)
Popular as a birthday and celebration cake in Palermo, it is inspired by the dance of the seven veils. From the biblical story, Salome danced sensually while removing seven veils to elicit lust and want in Herod, so he would do as she commanded. The torta setteveli is well-named. It's gooey, silky, sugary, and intense, and seven lustful layers of chocolate and hazelnut that will surely evoke a yearning for another slice of this cake. Do not miss it. Pastry shops in Palermo that serve them by the slice (why would you buy only a slice?) or by the entire cake are Oscars and Ciros (on Via Notarbartolo, 25 in Palermo). A recipe with step-by-step instructions is coming soon!
Many Sicilians told me that their sheep's milk ricotta could NOT be replicated. I believe them and for this reason it's my number one food of Sicily. The milky flavor with the most subtle tang and its creamy texture make it a filling favorite. Sweetened with a little powdered sugar and chocolate chips, ricotta cream fills many Sicilian sweets. It's also used on crostini and in pasta dishes. If you only have one taste of the ricotta, make sure it's in a cannolo Siciliano ripieni al momento (Cannolo filled right at the moment.)