Each region of Italy has its own distinctive cuisine and Sicily in particular has plenty of surprises. Bread is topped with sesame seeds, couscous is found next to pasta on menus, raisins turn up in spaghetti, and gelato is eaten stuffed in a brioche bun—for breakfast.
It’s no wonder that Sicilian food feels different from what you find further north. The island is closer to Tunis than to Rome and has absorbed influences from its many invaders including the Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spanish.
Unsurprisingly for an island fish features heavily on menus in Sicily and we didn’t find it as vegetarian friendly as Puglia, our favourite Italian region for eating. We always managed to find something on menus though, often involving melanzana (aubergine/eggplant).
If you have a sweet tooth you’ll be spoilt in Sicily. Sicilians pride themselves on their sweet decadent pastries, then there are refreshing granite from local lemons and mulberry fruits, and creamy gelato from pistachios grown on the island.
This isn’t a comprehensive guide to Sicilian cuisine but a snapshot of some of the best things we ate during our seven weeks in Sicily.
Pane con Panelle
Street food is popular in Palermo but most of it is not vegetarian friendly (think spleen and sheep’s intestines) but one thing we could indulge in was panelle or chickpea fritters. We often ate these delicious melt in the mouth fried snacks as an antipasto (starter) in restaurants or as pane con panelle on the street stuffed in a sesame seed roll. We found good versions in the Ballaro market and at Franco u’ Vastiddaro near Piazza Marina where we enjoyed the Triplo with panelle, potato croquettes and aubergine.
We ate pane cunzato at the legendary Da Alfredo’s cafe in Lingua village on Salina island. These open top sandwiches are huge (more than enough for two to share) and we opted for the misto without tuna. The bread base was overflowing with cherry and sun dried tomatoes, marinated aubergine, capers, olives, mozzarella, and lots of olive oil.
Arancini are probably the most famous Sicilian snack. These deep fried rice balls are often filled with meat but you can also find them with vegetarian fillings. We enjoyed them stuffed with mozzarella and caper pesto, and norma (aubergine, tomato and ricotta) on Salina.
Antipasti Buffet at Zia Pina
Eating at Zia Pina is a classic Palermo experience. It’s a simple restaurant without a menu near Vucciria market with paper table cloths and the “bread basket” consists of a whole sesame baguette plonked on the table. The huge antipasti buffet is the highlight. Even skipping all the seafood we had a variety of vegetables, cheeses and salads to choose from, especially aubergine which was grilled, stuffed, cooked in tomatoes, and topped with breadcrumbs.
Parmigiana di Melanzane
My favourite Italian dish parmigiana di melanzane, layers of baked aubergine, tomato sauce and cheese, is popular all over Italy, but apparently originates in Sicily (although Naples also claims it as their own).
Pasta alla Norma
Busiate alla Trapanese
Another wonderful vegetarian pasta dish is with pesto Trapanese from the city of Trapani. It’s made with fresh tomatoes, almonds, garlic and basil, and is usually served with busiate a long twisty fresh pasta from the area.
This version at Caupona Taverna di Sicilia in Trapani was topped with breadcrumbs and grilled aubergine.
Pasta cu Maccu
Pasta cu Maccu is Sicilian dialect for fava bean puree with pasta. It’s a hearty dish that we ate at our favourite restaurant in Palermo, Trattoria Altri Tempi. You are automatically signed up for a tasting menu (we didn’t realise this on our first visit) so wine and water is unlimited, an array of starters, dessert and digestivi are brought out and you choose you own main courses from the menu. At 20-25 euros a person it’s a bargain.
Pasta chi Vruoccoli Arriminata
Spaghetti with Capers
Capers are grown on the island of Salina so of course they feature heavily on the menu there. We ate them made into a pesto with mint, parsley and pecorino cheese, and with a simple tomato sauce at A’Lumeredda in Malfa.
We didn’t try cassata until one of our last days in Sicily as frankly the bright green mounds didn’t look very appetising, but they are surprisingly tasty. The super sweet dessert consists of sponge cake moistened with liquer, ricotta and candied fruit covered in green marzipan and icing.
Gelato in Brioche
Gelato in Sicily is served in cones or stuffed in large sweet brioche buns and often eaten for breakfast in the hot summer months. My favourite gelato flavour in Sicily was pistachio and our most frequent gelato stop was at Cafe Spinnato in Palermo.
A refreshing sorbet like mix of ice, fruit and sugar that in Sicily is thicker so eaten with a spoon rather than drunk through a straw. I liked the lemon and black mulberry (gelsi) flavours.
Sicilians like to end a meal with a digestivo liqueur to help aid digestion. We were surprised at Trattoria Altri Tempi in Palermo when at the end of the meal they placed bottles of their homemade fennel, bay leaf, and lemon digestivi on the table for us to help ourselves. The perfect way to end the meal.
- Trattoria Altri Tempi, Via Sammartino 65, Palermo – Go hungry as you’ll be served lots of food and drinks with their fixed menu.
- Franco u’ Vastiddaro, Via Vittorio Emanuele 102 (near Piazza Marina), Palermo – Variety of panelle sandwiches.
- Zia Pina, Via Cassari 69, Palermo – Go for the extensive antipasti buffet.
- Antico Caffe Spinnato, Via Principe di Belmonte 111, Palermo – Delicious pastries and gelato.
- Caupona Taverna di Sicilia, Via San Francesco D’Assisi (Piazza Purgatorio), Trapani – Excellent slightly upmarket food on a quiet street across from a church.
- Agriturismo Tarantola, near Alcamo – You can stay the night at this farm or book in advance for wine tasting and a delicious meal.
- Da Alfredo’s, Lingua, Salina – The place to go for pane cunzato and granite.
- A’Lumeredda, Via San Lorenzo 11, Malfa – Our favourite restaurant in this little village.
For a primer on eating etiquette in Italy you might want to check out our dos and don’ts guide to eating in Italy.
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