Understanding Palermo without trying a few Sicilian traditional foods would be akin to coming to Belgium and not eating french fries. The cuisine varies wildly from anything else found in Italy and truly represents the spirit of the island. This guide will run you through the must-tries!
Traditionally, Sicilian cuisine is a poorman’s and a fisherman’s cuisine, taking what the land and the sea have to offer. However, this basis has for centuries been enriched by the different traditions and tastes of the many cultures which came living, traveling, and more often, conquering the Island.
Today, Sicily is home to a culinary renaissance, with many great restaurants and star chefs bringing innovation and the world’s flavors in this piece of Mediterranean. However, Sicilian traditional cuisine remains as strong as ever. This food guide takes you along a journey through the wonders of Sicilian cooking.
Intro to the Sicilian Food
You might mistakenly think that Sicilian cuisine is the same as Italian cuisine, Sicily is a part of Italy after all. While the traditional starlets such as pasta, tenderly cooked ragu (meat stew), and mouthwatering gelato all play an important part, Sicilian meals tend to have their own take on how to incorporate these ingredients.
The best way to get a feel for the raw ingredients used in traditional Sicilian cuisine it to peruse one of the many local markets. In large cities markets are held daily, while smaller villages in Siciliy have markets on a fixed day, once a week.
You might also like: A local’s guide to things to do in Palermo
Main ingredients used in Sicilian Cuisine
The history of this little island is reflected in the wide variety of ingredients used in traditional Sicilian foods. The use of rice, saffron, pine nuts, and cinnamon is testimony to the Arabs who ruled the island during the 10th century.
The Spanish conquerors introduced the tomato to both Sicily and the rest of Europe and the Greeks were avid consumers of pistachios, fish, and beans. I was slightly surprised to see couscous being consumed avidly – albeit less than pasta – the roots of which can be traced back to North Africa.
A popular ingredient found in a lot of dishes around Sicily is eggplant, usually coated in a healthy layer of olive oil and fried to perfection! If you are traveling to Sicily as a vegetarian, I suggest you become fast friends with both eggplant and zucchini as you will be eating them in copious amounts.
How to try many of these traditional foods of Sicily at once?
If there is one thing Sicily is famous for, aside from its many churches, it is the ability to provide hungry tourists a bite to eat. Regardless of the hour (day or night), there is always a little place open ready to serve you some delicious Sicilian food. That being said, perhaps – like me – you are curious to learn more about the cuisine via knowledgeable local foodies.
Sicilian Traditional Food Tours
RECOMMENDED STREET FOOD TOUR: Palermo walking tour
The number one street food walking tour in Palermo. Eat your way through Palermo as you try the best street food the city has to offer, get recommendations on where to eat local Sicilian cuisine, and try some Sicilian wine while you are at it.
BEST VALUE FOR MONEY ULTIMATE TOUR FOR WINE LOVERS: Three wineries tour
Tour three different Sicilian wineries and taste the local red, white, and rosé. Try some lovely homemade regional dishes to accompany your wine tasting. Pick-up and drop off at hotels in Eastern Sicily (Catania, Taormina, Messina)
Cooking classes to learn how to make delicious Sicilian Food
TRADITIONAL SICILIAN COOKING CLASS – Palermo
Head into the oldest market in Palermo to pick up the fresh ingredients for your cooking class. Your local guide/chef will teach you to make four typical Sicilian dishes, to be paired with a glass of Sicilian wine and a homemade liqueur.
SICILIAN CUISINE COOKING CLASS: Catania
Learn all about Sicilian cooking in this three-hour traditional Sicilian foods cooking class. Run by locals who share a passion for food and cooking, ready to show you what true Sicilian hospitality looks like.
16 Traditional Sicilian dishes you will want to try
Sicilian Pasta Dishes
Sicilian pasta dishes are a little different from those traditionally found in Italy. With a variety of different ingredients that oftentimes feel like they were haphazardly thrown together yet somehow produce the most wondrous flavors.
Sicilian Pasta alla norma
We couldn’t start this list with any other pasta. Although Pasta alla Norma originated in Eastern Sicily, this dish has become one if not the most common and beloved traditional pasta dish of Sicily, so much so that it also has its own very dedicated day, the “National day of Pasta alla Norma” on September 23rd.
Its name refers to the lyric opera “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini, a master lyric composer from Catania: Allegedly when another Sicilian composer was served for the first time this dish, he exclaimed “this is a veritable Norma”, comparing the amazing taste to the grandeur of Bellini’s opera.
The ingredients of this traditional Sicilian pasta are a celebration of some of the best tastes the island has to offer: Tomato sauce, fried aubergines, basil and Ricotta Salata, hardened ricotta which is commonly used to substitute Parmesan cheese, and of course pasta al dente.
Traditional Sicilian pasta con le sarde
We move from Catania to Palermo with this recipe, as Pasta chi sardi (Pasta with sardines) is the pasta dish most associated with Sicily’s capital. As for many dishes in this list of traditional Sicilian foods, there’s a legend around its origins: An Arab cook had to feed the army that was conducting a military campaign in Sicily and given the precarious conditions, had to make do with what the sea and the land offered.
Well, today we can say that was a success! However, more likely this is an old fisherman’s recipe, as all its ingredients are indeed very poor and indeed readily available, as the legend confirms. The recipe goes as followed: Sardines, wild fennel, onions, pine seeds, and raisins.
All of this is then topped with fried breadcrumbs, the poors’ equivalent of Parmisan. Fun fact: In the Palermitan dialect saying finire a pasta chi sarde (ending up with pasta with sardines) means ending up an activity with no real progress or results.
Pasta con i broccoli arriminati – a classical Sicilian dish
We stay in Palermo for another extremely typical recipe, in some ways a close cousin of Pasta con le sarde, as the ingredient list will show: Cauliflower, raisins, pine seeds, breadcrumbs, Pecorino cheese, onions, and saffron.
The reason the ingredients are so similar is because this is the Autumn and Winter version of Pasta con le Sarde, which requires fresh sardines, only traditionally found in Spring and Summer.
Although the name seems a mixture of Italian and Sicilian, it is actually fully dialect: Broccoli in Sicilian dialect is actually the name used for Cauliflower and Arriminati means “stirred” as the cauliflower, which is boiled, is then almost destroyed by a lot of stirring, which makes it look almost like a cream.
Pasta con i tenerumi
This dish is a real paradox: Tenerumi are the large, tender leaves of a specific variety of courgettes, which only grow in summer, and must be boiled before eating. Sicilian have decided it was a great idea to eat pasta with this vegetable broth in summer, despite the scorching temperatures reached on the island!
This pasta is normally served with broken-down spaghetti (otherwise a heresy in Italy, as breaking pasta is something most Italians would scorn at) which are cooked in the Tenerumi’s broth and the Picchi Pacchi sauce, a mixture of tomatoes, garlic, and oil. Then the dish is normally topped with a generous amount of Ricotta Salata.
Pasta al forno
The best for last right? The Pasta al Forno, or as they say in Palermo Pasta cu fuinnu (pasta with the oven, yes “with”) is the symbol of festivities, as it is utterly unthinkable for any Palermitan family to have a Christmas/Easter/Birthday/Summer family lunch without a tray of Pasta al forno.
Indeed a tray, as this is a baked pasta and – the running joke goes – a real Palermitan knows only two sizes for a portion of this dish: a full tray or half a tray. This beloved dish has also its own shape of pasta: The Sicilian ring, which closely resembles a wedding ring.
So what ingredients make up this classical Sicilian dish? Everything and more: Meat ragout (with green peas, as per the Sicilian traditional way of preparing ragout), fried aubergines, cheese, eggs (though admittedly this is optional), ham, parmesan, and bread crumbs.
Every bite is a trip to heaven as well as 200gr more on your scale, though the heaviness of this pasta has never discouraged anyone, even from bringing it to the beach for a “light” snack between a swim in the sea and the next.
Typical Sicilian foods served as a main: Fish & Meat dishes
As is the case for any traditional Italian meal, a plate of paste is usually followed by a main consisting of fish or meat with a side of vegetables. The Sicilian cuisine does not disappoint in this department either!
Involtini di Pesce Spada (Swordfish skewers)
Swordfish and skewers, it could hardly get more Sicilian. These two are the hallmark of Sicily’s cuisine, as you’ll also see from other recipes in this list. This ever-present dish – which can be commonly found both in restaurants and already prepared in the local fish shop – is so composed: Rolled slices of swordfish filled with raisin, pine seeds, onion, tomatoes, parsley, and pecorino cheese.
The slices are then covered with breadcrumbs and either grilled or seared in the pan. Then each single filled slice is separated from the next in the skewers by a leaf of laurel and a piece of orange peel, greatly contributing to both the flavor and the look of this famous Sicilian dish!
Pescespada alla Siciliana
This recipe – found throughout Sicily but originating in Messina – is in a way the fish alternative to the Schnitzel (or in Italian, cotoletta) most commonly found in the north of Italy.
From the schnitzel it borrows both size and shape, but the veal is substituted by the Sicilian swordfish and the typical breading by a lighter combination of fresh tomatoes, olive, parsley, capers, and olives. As is customary for a lot of quintessential Sicilian recipes the fish is subsequently fried. A veritable fish schnitzel!
Braciole alla messinese
Sicilians like to think of themselves as different from the rest of Italy, a difference that starts from the language: While Braciole in Italian would normally refer to (pork) chops of meat, Sicilians use it to refer to skewers cooked on the grill (Brace in Italian).
This simple but incredibly delicious dish is prepared with thick slices of meat, normally veal, filled with breadcrumbs mixed with oil, parsley, garlic, parmesan, and cheese. These slices are then rolled, breaded, and placed into skewers. At least, that is the traditional recipe.
Skewers are extremely typical in Sicily and therefore you can find multiple variations of this recipe, ranging from pistachio to bacon and sun-dried tomatoes or caponata (see below).
Bonus fact: In several parts of the island the Braciole are cooked in tomato sauce, which then is used as ragu (meat sauce) for the pasta.
Sarde a beccafico
If Palermitans had to choose which ingredients they couldn’t live without, they would definitely say sardines. They are on every table, a true testament to the Sicilians’ story of poverty and ingenuity.
Sarde a beccafico more than any other plate: Beccafico are in fact some small birds that noblemen used to hunt and then cook (stuffed with a variety of ingredients most notably the entrails of the birds.
Meat, and especially, game was a luxury inaccessible to the poor people, who simply replaced meat with the ubiquitous (and affordable) sardines and swopped the lavish traditional stuffing for more readily available, ingredients. And so the most famous and beloved Sicilian traditional food was born.
Order this dish at a fancy restaurant or off a food stall in the Vucceria market, you will always be presented with rolled sardines stuffed with wet breadcrumb, garlic, parsley, raisins, and pine seeds. Long gone is the game meat!
Tip: You can often swallow one whole, but remember to remove the tail first, purposefully left in the dish to make the resemblance to the little birds from which the dish originates even more striking!
Vegetarian-friendly Sicilian traditional food
Traditionally Sicilian foods are relatively meat and fish heavy. However, as a vegetarian myself I have had no problems during my extensive travels on the island. These are my three favorite vegetarian dishes to eat in Sicily.
Caponata di melanzane
Caponata has a thousand-old tradition, first starting as a poor dish eaten in Roman-time taverns (called caupona) then becoming during the Spanish rule over Sicily a nobleman’s favorite in which fish was the main ingredients, mainly shellfish and octopus.
The modern version first appeared in the writings of the early 19th century, but no one really knows precisely its full story. However a long story it does have and this continues today. In fact, there is no Sicilian household without a family’s recipe of caponata (normally Nonna’s), therefore is hard to come up with an official recipe for this delicious starter.
This said, there are some ingredients that are part and parcel of every recipe: Aubergines, Olives, Tomato sauces, capers, onions, vinegar, and sugar. Aside from these, free reign is given although most versions of this famous Sicilian dish also contain celery and fish (either octopus, tuna, or swordfish). Be sure to ask in advance!
Insalata arance e finocchio (orange and fennel salad)
This recipe shows how Sicilian cuisine reflects its position at the center of the Mediterranean and how its many conquerors brought along the traditional food of their place of origin, which ended up enriching the island’s culinary culture.
Oranges in fact arrived in Europe with the Arabs around the XV century and spread throughout the south of Italy and Spain, two countries that both proudly serve this recipe today.
In its basic form, this dish is quite simple: Orange slices, fennel, onions, oil, salt, and pepper. Variations abound including mint, rosemary, olives, and even fish (but admittedly, this is more typical in Spain than in Italy). My recommendation? Try it out and see for yourself what you like best! This is a super simple recipe that will make your summer meals so much better!
Sicilian street food
Fried, crunchy, and the perfect hangover cure, Sicilian street food deserves a category of its own. Every city in Sicily has its very own typical street food, tastes carefully crafted over generations, and much beloved by young and old. Kids flock to street food stands after school for a snack, while partygoers satisfy those cravings after a night of dancing.
More on street food: Read all about what and where to eat street food in Palermo.
The number one Sicilian street food you have to try, skip the rest if need be! This little ball of fried rice (with ragu for meat-eaters and a la norma – yep like the pasta! – for vegetarians) is the source of a heated debate.
Palermitans call this delicacy Arancine (with an -e) and like them round in shape, while the inhabitants of Catania call them Arancini and serve this traditional Sicilian food in a conical shape. Whatever the shape or name, these little fried balls are the island’s favorite snack and can be purchased in every bar.
Pane câ Meusa (spleen sandwich)
The silver medal for favorite Sicilian street food is awarded to the traditional Pane câ Meusa or spleen sandwich. One does not get more typical than this! Wrapped in grease-free paper to take home as a snack, or to be eaten hot off the grill preferably with a nice cold Messina beer.
Tip: The best Pane câ Meusa in Palermo is from a little place called Porta Carbone, right in front of the little harbor of Palermo.
Typical Sicilian dishes to eat for dessert
A great meal is topped only by a traditional Sicilian dessert. A deliciously fresh granita with pistachio or an indulgent Sicilian pastry (or two, three) are but a few of the delicious sweets the island has to offer.
Brioche with Gelato
Gelato is widely heralded as the dessert (or snack for that matter) all over Italy. This sweet and creamy delicacy comes in just about every flavor under the sun and is the nation’s favorite.
For the Sicilians however, a simple gelato just doesn’t cut it. In Sicily, gelato is oftentimes eaten with a brioche (a sweet bun). The gelato is scooped up generously and placed in between the bun to form a gelato sandwich.
Good to know: While in the rest of Europe the standard question is “how many scoops would you like” in Sicily, you simply state the flavors you would like to eat. The cone, brioche, little pot is filled up to the point of bursting (regardless of how many scoops this means). Prices are per flavor, not per scoop.
The queen of all Sicilian desserts is without a doubt the Cannolo. A flaky pastry in the shape of a flute stuffed with delicious creamy ricotta and sprinkled with a healthy dose of pistachio crumble.
One bite will send you straight to dessert heaven! There are few things that scream Sicily as much as cannoli (perhaps the Arancine). Cannoli tend to come in a variety of different sizes and are eaten for breakfast (with an espresso), snack, or as a dessert.
WHERE TO STAY IN SICILY
The island of Sicily is the largest in the Mediterranean, do you know which part of Sicily is best suited for you during your stay? These are the best areas I would recommend for all types of travelers.
To conclude on Sicilian traditional food
We led you through a journey of land and sea, presenting century-old recipes whose origins are lost in the dust of time and newer, albeit as traditional, ones. Of course, this cannot be but a selection of what this land blessed with ever-shining sun and embraced by quiet seas has to offer. Start from here but we beg, do not stop. There is so much more to discover. You’ll just have to see for yourself.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR ITALY
Italy: General info for traveling to Italy
Italy: Vegetarian food in Italy
Sicily: Charming Sicilian Villages
Sicily: Where to stay in Sicily
Sicily: Breathtaking churches in Palermo
Sicily: 20 things to do in Palermo
Umbria: Traditional Umbrian Food
Northern Italy: Lake in the Dolomites
Northern Italy: Where to stay in the Dolomites
Northern Italy: Northern Italy Itinerary for 1 to 2 weeks