There is probably something very, very wrong with you, if you can go to Italy and not get excited about the food.
I’m sure that for most of us a holiday in Italy revolves around food. My first, in Venice a few years ago, was hampered by a shoestring budget and lucrative prices, so I subsisted on plain pizza and doughy snacks from the bakery. This time, with a little more money in my pocket, I was off to Sicily, where a mountain of exquisite, affordable food awaited me. There was an actual mountain too: Mount Etna, Europe’s largest volcano, and various other wonders, including Taormina’s ancient Greek-Roman amphitheatre, but the food was definitely its main draw for me (definitely not the roads…)
Everyone from the Arabs to the Normans have governed Sicilia throughout the years, and all have left their mark on the menu in one way or another. Moreover, the island itself is incredibly fertile, given the Mediterranean climate it enjoys. Most of the ingredients in any dish you eat in Sicily will most probably have been grown, picked or caught just a few miles down the road. This is Italian food at its absolute best.
Here are five of the tastiest treats I got my teeth into in Sicily:
Let’s get this one out the way first, since it is just about the epitome of Sicilian cuisine, and deservedly so. I’d never tried Cannoli before this trip and frankly it was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. If you have a sweet tooth, then I’ve no doubt that you’ll agree. Its staple features are the sweetened ricotta cheese and the tube shaped fried pastry dough in which it is stuffed into. Toppings vary from chopped pistachios (pictured), semi-sweet chocolate pieces, and candied citrus peel or cherries.
Fried, breadcrumbed rice balls stuffed with anything from mozzarella, meat ragú, tomatoes and peas, this hot delicious street-food snack is a firm favourite among locals and tourists alike. We couldn’t get enough on our trip, devouring at least one a day from budget cafés, where they were freshly prepared.
I, for one, love marzipan. And you’ve got to really, if you’re going to enjoy this traditional Sicilian treat. They come in the form of various fruits, often looking strikingly similar to the fruit they depict before they are bitten into. After that its 100% marzipan madness. The tradition is said to have originated in Palermo, where nuns once used them to fill bare fruit trees in order to impress a visiting bishop. They are incredibly rich but I just about managed one to myself.
Ficudinnia (Cactus Fruit)
Strictly speaking, this prickly pear-shaped fruit is not only native to Sicily; it is grown abundantly in North Africa, South America and other parts of the Mediterranean too. It was, however, the first time I’d ever seen and subsequently tried it. It tastes like watermelon but has thicker flesh like a pear, and contains seeds that are okay to swallow (unless you have bad indigestion), although I elected to spit mine out. Took me a while to get through it so one was enough for me.
Pasta alla Norma
Plain, simple and loved by all (particularly in Catania where it is from), Pasta alla Norma is the least pretentious and most delicious pasta dish you’re likely to try in Sicily. Its made with fresh aubergine, tomatoes, basil and grated ricotta cheese sprinkled on top. Perfect for a quick lunch.
This one turns the idea of pizza on its head. Literally, as one pizza is squashed topping-side down onto another, forming a sandwich-like pizza. It is not like the calzone style of pizza which we are used to in UK restaurants; this one has less dough, or at least the one we shared in Syracuse (where the style originates) did.
Have you been to Sicily? What was your favourite snack?