As Americans, much of the food we know as “Italian” has its origins in Sicily. Old school, red sauce trattorias with checkered tablecloths pull heavily from the Sicilian repertoire—think tomatoes, olive oil, and ricotta. The refined, tortellini-en-brodo cuisine of Northern Italy this is not. Sicilian food is rustic, bold, and it wants you to eat because you’re looking a little thin.
Arancini: You’ve probably come across American versions of these rice balls, perhaps as part of a passed hors d’oeuvres situation. In Sicily, they’re better (usually stuffed with cheese and ragu) and bigger—softball-sized.
Granita: Most specifically at Café Sicilia in Noto, a pastry and people-watching institution. The lemon is perfectly and predictably refreshing, the almond is round and memorable, and the espresso, in a large enough quantity, might stop your heart. And when they ask if you want to add brioche to your granita order, you add brioche.
Eggplant: “You have to order the eggplant, it’s the best thing,” said no one ever. Except in Sicily (and okay, select parts of Asia), where through some ancient cooking wizardry eggplant is uniformly extraordinary. Eat it in the aforementioned arancini, on pizza, and especially in pasta alla norma—which does not, as I thought, mean “pasta like Norma used to make,” but instead “normal pasta.” We loved the version at Crocifisso in Noto.
Ricotta: Sicilian ricotta, both cow and sheep’s milk varieties, is delicious, which is a lucky thing since it’s seemingly impossible to have a meal without a ricotta encounter. It’s in pasta, it’s on pizza, it’s garnishing your soup, and most importantly, it’s in your cannoli. But when it’s this good, just a spoon, a dot of olive oil, and a salt flake or two is tops.
Cannoli and most other pastries: Of particular note are Minne di Sant’Agata, small, round cakes that…they’re breasts. They look like breasts.
They’re a pastry homage (the best kind of homage) to the patron saint of Catania, Saint Agatha, also the patron saint of “breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, bakers, fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.” After she turned down a suitor because she was already wedded to the big JC, he had her sent to a brothel and then cut off her breasts. Because Medieval art is weird, she’s often depicted holding her breasts on a festive platter.
Anything that grows on trees: But special call outs to nuts and citrus. The pistachios from Bronte are among the best in the world, and you would do well to eat them often and in large quantities. Maybe bring an empty travel-size bottle with you to fill with pistachio paste, and then maybe serve it with cheese, over ice cream, on an index finger.
Almonds: Also not to be underestimated. For all you almond-milk-in-my-cold-brew types, Sicily was doing almond milk since you were in short pants. And it’s damn delicious.
Chocolate: Sicily was under Spanish rule under the time of the conquistadors, which I’m sure has all sorts of interesting historical implications but for our purposes boils down to this: Aztec chocolate. The charming hillside town of Modica has been producing chocolate the same way for centuries—cacao, sugar, maybe some spices or other flavoring, and that’s it. The texture is gritty and grainy, and there’s no dairy to round out the intense flavor of chocolate. Antica Dolceria Bonajuta, the oldest of the Modica chocolaterias, is worth a pop-in.