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I Thought Sicilian Food was Italian – I was So Wrong!

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Sicilian food, much like the island itself, is rustic and beautiful. The common misconception is that Italian food is the island’s cuisine. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

I was fortunate enough to spend a summer in Sicily and fell in love with many of its foods. This curated list of recommended dishes draws from my personal experience, and the expertise of a local Sicilian street food tour guide.

Only Have Time for 3 Foods? Try These

Arancini, no matter what the filling, is a must. This street food is sold by vendors all over the island. With your coffee, make sure you try cannoli. And, at a bar in the evening, make sure you order aperitivo, and embrace the local culture.

Why is Sicilian Cuisine Different from Italian?

While Italy no doubt has influence, the foods of Sicily are an eclectic, breathtaking fusion of Arabic, Mediterranean, and African flavors.

This is partly because Sicily is an island. Like Malta, through the centuries Sicily was conquered by different empires from different parts of the continent.

Today, you have a big mix of various influences from different eras. This is true in the architecture, culture, and food.

See How Many Dishes You Can Try

Below, we take a look at the foods to try, and you can get my food bucket list printable for free at the end of the guide. You can print it off, fill it out, and try these dishes during your trip to Sicily. Rate them, share them, and try as many as you can!

Arancini

Arancini on a plate
Arancini © Nomad Paradise

We start with one of Sicily’s most culturally and historically important foods: arancini.

Arancini are rich bite-sized snacks, consisting of rice balls packed with various ingredients. The balls are deep-fried in a breadcrumb coating.

The fried breadcrumb coating gives arancini its recognizable gold-orange color. Hence the name ‘arancini,’ which loosely translates to ‘little orange.’

When it comes to your chosen filling, the choices are endless. Some of the most popular arancini fillings include ragu sauce, melted caciocavallo cheese and peas, and mozzarella and ham.

These ball-shaped snacks are packed with flavor. They were first introduced to Sicily under Arab rule in the 10th century. They were the perfect food for hunters, away for days at a time, to carry with them.

And it’s easy to understand why after trying them. Despite being small, arancini are incredibly rich and filling.

So many times in Palermo, walking home from work, I would pick up a couple of arancini for dinner. One was more than enough to fill me up!

Capunata

Capunata
Capunata © Nomad Paradise

Mediterranean cuisines are renowned for their use of eggplant. In Sicily, eggplant takes center stage in this sweet and savory appetizer.

Caponata (or ‘Capunata’ in Sicilian) is a spread of fried eggplant and other vegetables like celery, mixed with olive oil and capers, in a sweet and savory agrodolce sauce.

Agrodolce sauce is native to Italian cuisine. It’s made by reducing sweet and savory pairings, such as vinegar and sugar, to create an acidic sauce for various dishes.

Caponata can be eaten on its own. However, you should try it spread on focaccia or flatbread.

Parmigiana di Melanzane

Parmigiana di Melanzane
Parmigiana di Melanzane © Nomad Paradise

Eggplant is once again the main ingredient in parmigiana di melanzane, a delicious baked Sicilian dish.

Parmigiana di melanzane consists of layers of pan-fried, thinly cut eggplant slices, with layers of tomato sauce and various cheeses, baked in a dish or tray.

Many different kinds of cheeses are used. Some Sicilians like harder, grated cheeses between layers. Others prefer the softer, thicker texture of cheeses like mozzarella.

The origin of parmigiana di melanzane is a fiercely debated topic. Sicilians believe it originates from the south of the island, in Campania.

Italians, however, believe the dish is from Naples. While its true origin may always remain unclear, we can all agree on one thing: this is one tasty dish!

So much so, many variations have become popular internationally. These include versions with zucchini, and meat versions using breaded veal or chicken cutlets.

Pasta alla Norma

Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma © Nomad Paradise

Traditionally, macaroni pasta is used in this dish. Macaroni is thinner and shorter than other kinds of pasta.

Pasta alla Norma also doesn’t use a base sauce. Instead, the juices from fried eggplant, tomato, and olive oil, coat the macaroni.

It’s topped with grated ricotta and basil and pairs well with a crisp, Italian wine. It may be simple, but the dish is rich and satisfying.

Why ‘Norma’? It’s believed the dish is named after Italian writer Nino Martogolio’s glowing review, which described it as ‘the real Norma,’ a type of Italian opera.

Pasta con le Sarde

Pasta con le sarde (sardine pasta)
Pasta con le Sarde © Nomad Paradise

Pasta con le Sarde is a rich sardine and anchovy pasta dish. Sardines are popular throughout Mediterranean cuisine, with the Mediterranean Sea home to millions of shoals of these rich, oily fish.

Bucatini, macaroni, and spaghetti are popularly used in the dish. The anchovies and sardines are cooked with olive oil and chopped onions, in an intense, flavorful mixture.

Pasta con le Sarde typically mixes sardines and anchovies with olive oil, chopped onions, and additional ingredients like fennel, raisins, and saffron.

It is served with bucatini, macaroni, or spaghetti. Once plated, the dish is topped with breadcrumbs.

Pasta with sardines originates from Palermo, the capital city. During my stay there, I walked past so many restaurants serving this dish.

Sfincione

Sfincione

No visit to a heavily Italian-influenced cuisine would be complete without pizza. However, Sicily has a unique take on one of the world’s most beloved foods.

Sfincione, while many variations exist, commonly consists of a focaccia bread base, loaded with many toppings.

While traditional Italian pizzas are circular, sfincione is usually rectangular and cut into squares, rather than triangular slices.

When it comes to toppings, as with Italian pizza, there’s so much to try. Cheese and tomato and anchovy and onion are two popular choices to look out for.

Sfincione is more of a grab-and-go food, rather than a sit-in restaurant meal. In Palermo’s food markets, you’ll find many vendors selling it.

The use of focaccia bread gives it a softer, heartier bite, rather than the crispiness of an Italian stonebaked pizza.

Pane con Panelle

 Pane con Panelle

Street food is hugely popular on the streets of Palermo and Catania, with pane con panelle being one of the must-try foods.

Panelle are fried Sicilian chickpea fritters. The fritters are made from chickpea flour, mixed with water, herbs, and seasonings, fried in canola oil.

Panelle is often fried as a big sheet, and then cut into rectangular strips before serving.

You can eat panelle on their own, but it’s popular to order it in a crusty bread bun or roll to-go.

Wander the streets of Palermo on the weekend, and you’ll see hundreds of people, beers, and drinks in hand, queuing up to get pane con panelle.

I feel Sicilians feel the same way about panelle as Brits do a big, greasy bag of heavily salted chips!

Pani ca’ Meusa

Pani ca' Meusa (Spleen Sandwich)

Originating from times when no part of the animal could be wasted, fried beef spleen sandwiches are a popular stop on many of Sicily’s street food tours.

The spleen is cooked in a large vat in plenty of juices. When it’s ready, you can watch the food vendor or chef strain the meat, before serving it in a crusty bread roll.

Beef spleen has texture similar to that of liver. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re an adventurous foodie this is a local delicacy that’s definitely worth trying.

Note: In Palermo, I’d highly recommend Streaty’s food tours. The guides are passionate and so knowledgeable about Sicilian cuisine and culture. Their insight was great in helping me write this article.

Brioche con Gelato

Brioche con Gelato

Yes, you read that correctly. Sicilian gelato brioche buns are a thing, and they are so delicious!

In Sicilian towns and cities, you will never be too far from a gelato shop. Head to the counter, order a brioche con gelato, and watch the magic happen.

This is a very popular Sicilian breakfast. Who’d have thought a sweet brioche bun, stuffed with a big dollop of gelato, could taste so good?

Gelato in Sicily comes in so many flavors. If you want to stick to the classics, nut-flavored ice creams, like hazelnut or pistachio, are a great choice.

Cannoli

Cannoli

Cannoli are one of Sicily’s most beloved desserts. You can’t miss bakeries and markets selling this sweet and savory pastry at all hours of the day.

A Sicilian cannolo is a sheet of fried pastry dough, twisted into a hollowed tube shape, and filled with creamy ricotta.

Once the dough has set and filled with ricotta, cannoli are decorated with candied fruits or nuts, and coated in powdered sugar.

Historically, cannoli are believed to have been served during the Christian season of Carnival in Sicily, as a symbol of fertility.

Today, they are an absolutely must-try dessert in Sicily. Find them at coffee shops or in the windows of bakeries.

Granita Siciliana

Granita Siciliana and Brioche

Especially during the summer months, Sicily can get really hot! Those hot north African winds can be unforgiving at times.

I honestly don’t believe there’s a better way to cool down in Sicily than with a glass of sweet, ice-cold granita, accompanied by an ocean view.

Granita falls somewhere between a sorbet, snow cone, and Italian ice. It’s essentially a glass of sweetened, flavored ice shavings.

It originates from Sicily, and its texture varies depending on where you buy it. In Palermo, for example, granita is thicker and chunkier.

In the south, however, they use the gelato machines to make granita, creating a smoother texture.

In whatever form, this is always a Sicilian dessert drink that you have to try. It’s breathtakingly refreshing and available in a range of different flavors, from berries to coffee.

Cassata Siciliana

Cassata Siciliana

Cassata is another decadent Sicilian dessert that’s filled with creamy ricotta cheese.

It consists of a sponge cake base soaked in fruit juice or sweet-flavored liqueur. The inside of the cake is packed with creamy ricotta.

Once set, the cassata is covered in marzipan and (typically) green icing, and decorated with fruit and nuts.

Aperitivo

Aperitivo
Aperitivo

Ordering aperitivo is one of the must-try culinary experiences in Sicily. At most bars and restaurants across Sicily, you can order aperitivo.

Apéritifs are (nearly always) alcoholic drinks you order before eating a main meal.

These drinks are commonly dry alcoholic drinks, to help you develop an appetite for a big meal.

In Sicily, aperitivo is often only available during happy hour, or a short period of time in the late afternoon, or early evening.

Sit down at a restaurant, ask for aperitivo, and you’ll be given a selection of drinks. Common drinks include Aperol Spritz, Prosecco, and dry white wines.

Very often, for a set price, your drinks will be served with a range of nibbles and sides, somewhat tapas-style.

The beauty of aperitivo is that, in many places, not only will they have discount deals on aperitivo, but the plates of food they bring out are substantial.

Platters of cured meats, cheeses, breads, and olives are common, along with nuts, crackers, and other yummy treats.

Mondello is a beautiful beach town, around twenty minutes out of Palermo. Many of the restaurants that line the beach serve aperitivo, and it’s a wonderful place to enjoy it during sunset.

Aperol Spritz

Aperol Spritz
Aperol Spritz © Nomad Paradise

Lastly, whether it be with aperitivo or as a cocktail, you definitely need to try a refreshing glass of Aperol Spritz.

Aperol itself is a classic apéritif. Made with rhubarb and gentian, it has a warm orange color and crisp taste.

Aperol Spritz is made with 3 parts Prosecco and 2 parts Aperol, with a dash of soda water, an orange wedge, and plenty of ice.

It is sweet, crisp, fizzy, and fruity, and the perfect companion for a warm evening with a view of the sunset.


Sicily is famous for many things, but its unique cuisine is largely unknown outside of the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean climate, combined with Italian and African influence, make Sicilian food some of the most fascinating, and truly tasty, in the region.

When you visit, enjoy the foods. Feel free to download my bucket list below to take with you. And let me know in the comments what your favorites were.

Did you enjoy this article? Here’s more you might like to read:

Want some of these delicious Sicilian foods in your life? Save this article to one of your Pinterest boards, ready for when you visit Sicily or decide to cook some recipes at home.

Sicilian Foods (featuring sardine pasta, capunata, arancini, and eggplant parmigiana)

Author: Dale Johnson is a content designer, writer, strategist, and full-time digital nomad as of 2016. He has spent several months living in Palermo, Sicily, and fully immersed himself in the island’s unique cuisine.

Contributor: Streaty Food Tours Sicily

Some Images licensed via Shutterstock

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