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While Sicilian cuisine might be vaguely defined as "Italian," it is really an eclectic reflection of the foods introduced on our island over the centuries by the peoples who settled in Sicily, with a particularly strong medieval Arab element. Here's a sampling of some Sicilian (and Palermitan) specialties:
A number of popular foods are typically served as snacks or, in any event, as side dishes or "starters." Arancine are rice balls stuffed with meat or cheese encrusted in a crispy skin. Caponata is a tasty salad made with eggplant (aubergines), olives, capers and celery, served cold as an appetizer. There is also an artichoke-based version of this traditional dish. Sfincione is a thick form of pizza made with tomatoes, onions and (sometimes) anchovies, usually served in bakeries rather than pizzerias. Panella is a thin paste made of crushed or powdered ceci (garbanzo) beans and served fried. Maccu is a creamy soup made from the same bean, usually served in winter. Crocché (croquet) are fried potato dumplings made with cheese, parsley and eggs. Fritedda (or fritella) is a springtime vegetable dish or pasta sauce made with fresh green fava beans, peas, and artichoke hearts.
Two foods are particularly Palermitan. Pane con milza (veal spleen sandwiches) may be a bit "native" for some tastes, and loaded with cholesterol, but delicious anyway. Stigghiola is made of seasoned and barbecued lamb or kid intestines served on a skewer, usually sold at street stands.
Ricotta is cottage cheese made from sheep's milk; Ricotta Salata is an aged, salty version. Caciocavallo is an aged cow's cheese used for grating. Canestrato is similar but made from sheep's or goat's milk. Tuma and Primo Sale are sweeter and softer, aged only briefly. Gattò (from the French gateau) is a food in the form of a soft cake similar to quiche made with a cream of potatoes, filled with ham and cheese.
Sicily is renowned for its seafood. Grilled swordfish (pesce spada) is popular. Smaller fish, especially triglie (red snapper), is sometimes prepared cipollata in a vinegar and sugar sauce. Seppia (cuttlefish) is served in its own black sauce with pasta. Another Sicilian seafood dish made with pasta is finnochio con sarde (fennel with herring). Ricci (urchins) are popular in Spring. Beccafico are fresh roasted sardines (small herring) stuffed with a delicious mixture of traditional ingredients.
Meat dishes are always popular. Many are traditionally made with lamb or goat. Best known outside Sicily is vitello alla marsala (veal marsala), one of many regional meat specialties. Chicken "alla marsala" can be prepared using a similar recipe and method, though it is rarely served in Sicily. Chicken is usually served on a skewer as an informal take-away rather than a formal restaurant dish. Spiedini are small meat rolls (involtini) on a skewer similar to shish kebab. Salsiccia alla pizzaiola is a port sausage filled with onions, tomatoes and other vegetables.Couscous is served either with meat or seafood; this dish is especially popular in Erice and San Vito lo Capo.
Sicilian desserts are superlative. Cannoli are tubular crusts with creamy ricotta and sugar filling. If they taste a little different from the ones you've had outside Italy, that's because the ricotta here is made from sheep's milk. Cassata is a rich, sugary cake filled with the same delicious filling. Frutta di Martorana (also called pasta reale), popular in Spring, are almond marzipan pastries colored and shaped to resemble real fruit. Sicilian gelato (ice cream) is excellent. In fact, it is possible that ice cream was invented in Sicily during Roman times, when a relay of runners would bring snow down from Mount Etna to be flavored and served to wealthy patricians. You'll find flavors ranging from pistachio and hazelnut (nocciola) to jasmine (gelsomino) to mulberry (gelsi) to strawberry (fragala) and rum (zuppa inglese). Granita is sweetened crushed ice made in Summer and flavored with lemons or strawberries. Gelo di melone is a sweet watermelon gelatin. Cuccìa is a traditional winter pudding made from hard wheat, somewhat similar to rice pudding, served on Saint Lucy's Day (13 December).
Sicilian wine is described on another page.
© 2008 Best of Sicily Travel Guide. Used by permission.