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10 must-try dishes when you’re in Sicily

10 must-try dishes when you’re in Sicily

by Great Italian Chefs 29 September 2017

Influences from Arabia, Africa, Spain (and, of course, Italy) make Sicilian cuisine a veritable melting pot of flavour. Here are ten of the island’s most famous dishes that simply must be tasted if you’re visiting the crossroads of the Mediterranean.


There’s a lot to like about Sicily. Pristine beaches with turquoise waters perfect for swimming in; ancient architecture steeped in some of the Mediterranean’s richest history; towering volcanoes rising out of beautiful countryside and a relaxed way of life that makes you want to turn any visit to the island into a permanent holiday. But of course, as with most of Italy, the main attraction is the local food scene.

Sicilian cuisine is incredibly unique – while much of it is clearly Italian (there’s plenty of pastas, olive oils, wines and seafood) there are some commonly used ingredients that clearly stand out. Raisins and saffron crop up in the island’s most famous dishes, and cooking techniques differ from those found on the mainland. Sicily has been conquered by a whole host of different nations over the years, including the Phoenicians of North Africa, the Islamic Moors, Greeks, Romans, Normans and Spanish, among others. By the time the island joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the local culture (and food) was so heavily influenced by its past that it was always going to stand out.

Today, Sicily is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s the food that keeps people coming back year after year. Staying in one of the island's many stunning villas, soaking up the scenery and eating some of the best food in Europe – what's not to like? If you’re wondering which dishes you should try to get a true taste of the local cuisine while you’re there (beyond the ubiquitous and very delicious arancini, of course), make a note of the ones listed below and get ready to enjoy a sun-drenched, flavour-filled, history-steeped holiday.

1. Fritella

Italian food is all about the best ingredients served simply, and that idea is integral to fritella, a Sicilian vegetable dish of artichokes, broad beans and peas. Served during spring – when everything is in season at the same time – the three star ingredients are fried with sliced onions and dressed in olive oil, sugar and white wine vinegar, which gives it that classic sweet and sour Sicilian flavour. The dish must be made with fresh ingredients – no frozen peas or tinned artichokes in sight – for it to really capture the taste of Sicilian springtime.

2. Caponata

Arguably Sicily’s most famous culinary export, caponata is now seen on menus across Europe. But it’s the perfect example of external influences over the island’s cuisine. The recipe can change from household to household, but it must always contain aubergines, pine nuts, raisins and plenty of vinegar. Served at room temperature, usually as an antipasto, the fried aubergine is turned into a stew with celery, onion and tomatoes, before being flavoured with capers, olives, pine nuts and raisins. The sweetened vinegar finishes it off with a lovely tang.

3. Raw red prawns

Being an island means fish and seafood is obviously integral to the Sicilian diet, and Italy’s famous gambero rosso (red prawns) are caught by the local fishermen. Those from Mazara del Vallo on the western coast of the island are regarded as the best in the world, being sent to the very best Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Italy. When they’re at their freshest, however, there’s no need to do anything to them at all – locals know they taste best when simply dressed in a little local lemon juice and olive oil and eaten raw, a real treat for any foodie visiting Sicily.

4. Busiate al pesto Trapanese

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Pasta al pesto Genovese is a dish from Liguria (in northern Italy) that puts one the most famous pasta sauces – pesto – centre stage, but there’s actually a Sicilian variation too (probably thanks to historic trade routes between Sicily and the Ligurian city of Genoa). It’s most commonly seen in Trapani, where cooks will bash together almonds, tomatoes, basil, garlic and Pecorino cheese in a pestle and mortar to create a pesto-like sauce. It is traditionally served with busiate, a local pasta shape which is similar to fusilli and looks a little like a telephone cord.

5. Pasta alla Norma

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Head to Catania on the east coast of Sicily and you’ll find one of the island’s most famous pasta dishes served with gusto. Pasta alla Norma is arguably the best representation of Sicilian cuisine out there, making the most of local tomatoes, aubergines, garlic, basil and ricotta salata, salted ricotta. It’s called Norma after the nineteenth century opera of the same name – both the dish and the music are regarded as true masterpieces.

6. Pasta con le sarde

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If pasta alla Norma is the perfect vegetarian Siclian dish, then pasta con le sarde is the fishy equivalent. Fresh sardines, salted anchovy fillets and wild fennel are made into a sauce with distinct North African flair thanks to the addition of pine nuts, raisins and saffron, before being stirred through bucatini, a type of spaghetti with a hole running through the centre. Many restaurants in Palermo will sprinkle crisp breadcrumbs on top for extra texture, and you’ll sometimes see white wine or almonds added as well.

7. Couscous di pesce

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Don’t be fooled by the simple name or appearance of this dish – this is one of the best ways to taste some of the fish caught by the fishermen on the island. Couscous di pesce tends to be associated the most with San Vito Lo Capo (it's the speciality of nearly every restaurant there), and is a humble dish due to its affordable ingredients – mixed fish and semolina. All the fish (left whole, including heads) are simmered in a broth of onions, garlic, tomato and herbs. Depending on the species and size of fish used, they are then removed and discarded or flaked and served at the end. The couscous is made by hand from semolina, giving it a unique texture that absorbs all the wonderful broth.

8. Fritto misto

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Sicilians pride themselves on their simple approach to cooking, but these swordfish rolls are a little more involved than the island’s more famous fare. Thin slices of swordfish are topped with capers, pine nuts, raisins, olives and lemon, before being rolled up into a spiral and secured with a skewer. They’re then baked, fried or grilled, sometimes with extra breadcrumbs around the outside, too. The perfect little taste of Sicilian cuisine.

10. Cannoli (and other sweet dishes)

Of course, Sicily has its fair share of famous sweet dishes and desserts, too. One of the island’s greatest exports has to be cannoli, little deep-fried pastry tubes piped full of creamy ricotta that are now sold in bakeries all over Italy. There’s also cassata, a Sicilian sponge cake flavoured with chocolate, citrus fruits, marzipan and a sweetened ricotta cream. Semifreddo alle mandorle is an almond parfait served in place of gelato in many a Sicilian restaurant, and if it’s your birthday you may be lucky enough to receive a torta Setteveli, a seven-layer chocolate and hazelnut cake.

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