By far the most populated of the two Italian island regions, Sicily’s history spans thousands of years with almost an equal amount of conquests. The region’s strategic location in the Mediterranean (as the “soccer ball” that the Italian “boot” is kicking) made it easily access for any civilization passing through the heavily trafficked Mediterranean Sea. And many of these civilizations did not only pass, but also stopped to make their mark: Sicily was ruled by the Greeks, Arabs, Moors, Normans, Romans, Spanish, and Byzantine empires, to name a few, before officially becoming a part of Italy with the Italian unification in the mid-19th century.
Today, Sicily and its culture are a colorful mix of these blended influences and the island has become a prime destination for Italian and international travelers alike. Any why wouldn’t it be, with its a diverse geography boasting Europe’s most active volcano, Mt. Etna, miles upon miles of fertile farmland, gorgeous beaches stretched along the strikingly blue sea, and most arguably the most welcoming hospitality in Italy? Oh, and did we mention the food and wine are to die for?
What You Should See There
Sicily’s expanse could more or less be divided into four areas: Eastern Sicily, Palermo and vicinity, Western Sicily, and the Aeolian Islands. Each offers large cities from which travelers take day excursions to explore the hidden treasures of the surrounding countryside.
The eastern part of Sicily is dominated by the volcano Mt. Etna, at whose roots lie under the smaller cliff city of Taormina to the north, with its Ancient Greek ruins and five-star hotels (try the Timeo if you are looking for ultimate luxury), and the larger seaside city of Catania (bustling with present-day Sicilian culture, plus the outdoor fish market is not to miss), to the south. Both cities overlook a powerfully deep blue sea, whose stunning color comes from the volcano rock at the base. Just a few of our suggested day trips from either city include: visiting wineries or trekking up Etna, a day discovering the archeological wonders of Siracusa, or browsing the shops of Caltagirone, famous for its ceramics, most notably large heads carved and painted in the shapes of famous rulers.
The northern part of the island is dominated by the presence of Palermo, Sicily’s capital city that is more than 2500 years old. Palermo is known for its widely diverse and interesting collection of architectural styles and vibrant people. A day getting to know the city is definitely a must, and for the foodies out there, the city offers many tours introducing visitors its unique street foods. Located not to far from Palermo is a span of farmland and vineyards available for lodging, cooking classes, or to visit – Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali estate has all three.
The Western part of Sicily holds the historically intriguing Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, whose Greek ruins are said to rival those of the Parthenon (and are better preserved!). The arid land is also perfect for indigenous Sicilian grapes such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Inzolia, where wineries such as Planeta and Donnafugata are based.
In addition to the main island of Sicily itself, the region has several smaller islands. The most notable cluster is the Aeolian Islands, known, for their crystal clear sea and resorts, such as Salina’s Capofaro (click here for a great introductory video on the islands and how to visit them). Pantelleria, in the province of Trapani, is also a popular destination and especially recognized for its dessert passito-style wines.
What You Should Eat There
More like, what NOT to eat there?! The main thread running through all Sicilian dishes is fresh, seasonal and local. As a result of its history of culinary conquests and immensely fertile earth, Sicily has one of the most diverse, complex, and delicious cuisines in Italy. The sweet and sour of the Arabs is present in pasta con le sarde and caponata. Fresh fish is a must, served in pasta, crudo, or as a main dish: pasta ai ricci (pasta with sea urchins), crudo of tonno (rare tuna) and pesce spada (sword fish) are but to name a few. The island is also littered with fried goodies, such as bombe, cippolini, arancini (large rice balls, fried and stuffed with cheese/sauce), and even a special pizza that resembles a fried calzone.
Sicily is also very well know for it sweets, from cakes such as cassata to every variety of cookie imaginable, especially those made in the famed pistachio Mecca of Bronte. Frozen treats also widespread and much appreciated in the hot summers. Palermo’s residents swear by their gelato, especially when it is served in a brioche, and the eastern part of Sicily boasts a very unique phenomenon: granita. This delicacy is similar to shaved ice, but is actually shaved purée of fruit or nut paste mixed with water and sugar. The lactose-free, refreshing treat is served with a warm brioche made in a distinctly Sicilian shape and for those finding themselves in and around Catania. My favorite is the mandorla/pistacchio (almond/pistachio) combo at Caffè Cipriani in Acireale; it is unbelievable.
Bring Sicily to Your Kitchen Table
I was excited about this blog; I recently married a man from Catania and have spent a significant amount of time on the island in the past 5 years. Eataly carries Scyavuru Black Fig Jam and La Nicchia Capers in Sea Salt, two products that are distinctly Sicilian and also distinctly different. I went a different way for each.
I was originally thinking of serving the fig jam on an aged cheese, but Antonio Palmieri of Tenuta Vannulo once told me that serving his product with anything else was offensive to the integrity of the artisan cheese, so I chose to go with the never offensive method of making cookies. For the past few Christmases, I’ve made cucidati, which is a typical cookie filled with a dried fig filling. Instead of mixing the usual 10 ingredients for the filling, I channeled my Italian grandmother, who is infamous for her improvising recipe techniques, and doctored the jam up by adding blended raisins and nuts, and it was good to go as a substitute. The taste of the warm jam filling enclosed in the tasty cookie crust after just being taken out of the oven was heavenly.
For the capers, I thought long and hard. I wanted to do them justice, as they remind me of our family and house in Sicily, the latter which is surrounding by caper plants. My first thought was to make something like pane all’eoliana which is a piece of fresh bread topped with local products such tomatoes, capers, olives, and olive oil, but since that type of dish is found throughout southern Italy (think frisella in Campania), I went for a very uniquely Sicilian treasure: caponata. This dish is a Sicilian staple, whose recipe differs based on city and family. In essence, the dish is fried vegetables in an agrodolce, or sweet and sour sauce, a flavor combination that traces its roots back to the Arab domination of the island. The principal ingredients are: eggplant, celery, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, vinegar, and sugar. After making the caponata, it is almost completely necessary to let the flavors marry by letting it rests in your refrigerator for about a 24-hour period. Although it didn’t quite stand up to my husband’s nonna, my caponata was delicious. We ate it with fresh bread, and the sweet and sour taste combined with the briny olives and capers brought us right back to the seaside in Catania.
@ItalyFoodies: Join Our Discussion-What’s Your Take
1. How does the cuisine differ from one end of Sicily to the other?
2. What are various ways that Sicilians prepare their fish?
3. What is the most interesting and unique wine of Sicily?