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Like the different regions of neighbouring Italy, the balmy Mediterranean island of Sicily has a distinct cuisine that’s steeped in history. Take a trip to a market and alongside staples like capers, tomatoes, olives and aubergines, all the ingredients will be home-grown, as although Sicilians export their delicious produce, they shun imports, so diet is a true representation of the terrain. The poor infrastructure means food doesn’t travel far either, so people really do eat locally.
Thanks to influxes of different nationalities over many centuries, Sicilian food is a real mixed bag – a fusion cuisine that’s influenced by French, Arabic and North African settlers. The island also has a varied landscape. The city of Catania is on the volcanic side, where it’s difficult to grow as many fresh ingredients and food is heavily influenced by neighbouring Greece. On the side of Palermo, there’s a big Arab influence and couscous is served in lots of restaurants.
We spoke to Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli who wrote a book about Sicilian food. He gave us his favourite, must-try dishes to seek out, wherever you may be on the island…
Don’t leave Sicily without trying…
Giorgio says: If you find risotto on the menu in Sicily, it’ll always be a seafood risotto. However, the main use of rice is in arancini – rice balls that are a staple across the island. In Catania, arancini will be filled with ragu, peas and mozzarella, but if you go to the centre of the island, the arancini will be filled with chicken liver. In the south east of the island, in Syracuse, the rice isn’t cooked with saffron but with tomato and mozzarella. So the recipe for arancini changes according to the fresh ingredients that are available.
Try making your own… Margherita risotto balls
Pane con la milza
Giorgio says: This dish is typical of Palermo. It’s a sandwich of pork spleen, which is boiled then cooked in lard for hours and served in brioche-style bread rolls. You can find it outside train stations or on markets and you eat it out of paper, standing up. It’s funny, people go on about Borough Market, but that kind of thing has been happening in Sicily for thousands of years. There’s a big food scene on the street – ‘street food’ is now a fashionable thing, but it’s been part of Sicilian culture for a long time.
Giorgio says: This is a dish where the jaw of an animal is cooked in broth for hours. At the end you’re left with very tender meat and also all the nerves and everything else. It’s served with just lemon and salt.
Giorgio says: Another dish that’s eaten on the street is pizza, but what makes it different from Italian pizza is that it’s more like an American pizza pie – the base is very thick. I visited Bagheria, a small town outside Palermo, and after I left the museum this smell of pizza from a bakery filled the air – I said “we’ve got to go in there” and we had a delicious sfincione. It’s usually white, so topped with anchovies, onions and cheese.
Try making your own… Sfincione
Pasta alla Norma
Giorgio says: This dish is typical of the Catania side of the island. It’s a combination of aubergine, tomato sauce and salted ricotta, served with short pasta. Its name comes from Norma, an opera written by Bellini. If I could eat it every day for the rest of my life I’d be a happy guy!
Try making your own… Sicilian-style aubergine pasta
Pasta con le sarde
Giorgio says: This is a typical dish of the Palermo side of the island. This is pasta cooked with sardines, which are the local catch, white fennel, pine kernels and sultanas, served with long pasta like spaghetti or bucatini. It’s delicious.
Try making your own… Bucatini with sardines & fennel
Busiate alla Siciliana
Giorgio says: When people talk about pesto, they often refer to the northern Italian version, pesto alla Genovese, which is made with basil. In Sicily, the pesto is made with almonds and tomatoes. It’s usually served with busiati pasta, little corkscrew-shaped rolls.
Try making your own… Pasta con il pesto alla Trapanese (tomato & almond pesto)
Giorgio says: I’ll never forget the first time I tried caponata. I was in my twenties in the army and a Sicilian guy came back from leave with a jar of caponata his mum had made. It was this beautiful aubergine, cooked so it’s sweet and sour and served in a tomato sauce – the dish is all about balance. It was incredible. There are about 10 different kinds of caponata and every one has a different recipe using the vegetables that are availble, but cooked aubergines are always at the base. It’s essentially a kind of warm salad.
Try making your own… Caponata
Giorgio says: The island has got very high mountains in places, so in the past ice was cut from the top and brought down into towns and villages to be made into crushed, flavoured granita. Flavours include almond, coffee and watermelon. It’s not slush – you have to eat it with a spoon. It’s always made with fresh ingredients.
Try making your own… Granita
Giorgio says: If there’s a celebration, cassata will be served. It’s quite an Arab dish containing pistachios, candied fruits and ricotta. It’s absolutely excellent.
Check out more of our top Italian food guides…
Have you visited Sicily? Do you agree with Giorgio’s selection? We’d love to hear your experiences of dining on the island.