When I think of indigenous food staples of Italy, grapes, olives, tomatoes and flour top the list. I could eat this delicious combination all day, every day.

Pizza dressed with fresh tomatoes and olive oil, and chased with an earthy red wine. It’s the meal of dreams in my universe.

Along with expanding my Italian horizons in Sicily, my love has grown for a lesser appreciated agricultural staple. The almond. For me, it was easy to mistake this nutty tree for an olive tree. Unmistakable are the sweet treats found throughout this island that accentuate the mighty almond. Add to that the equally beloved pistachio and all is right in the world.

Sicilians are equally nutty about pistachios. It’s a standard flavor option whether eating scoops of decadent gelato or delicate granita (more on that later). On the way out of town at the Catania Airport, we even saw mega ad displays promoting pistachio butter. If only I had seen that before our departure, a jar would have made it home in my bag.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, is approximately the size of the state of Massachusetts. It is home to Europe’s highest active volcano, Mount Etna.

It’s warm climate and volcanic soil make it ideal for growing all types of agricultural products. In addition to almonds, pistachios, olives and wine, Sicily is known for its production of blood oranges, capers, cherries, lemons and tomatoes. As the climate gets warmer, the country is branching out to grow other more exotic produce including avocados, bananas, kiwis, mangos, papayas, passion fruit, pineapples and coffee beans, according to Agriculture in Sicily.

 

 

Market-fresh tomatoes

Autumn is olive-harvesting time

Being commonly referenced as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, it’s no surprise Sicily knows how to spoil visitors with its culinary offerings.

These are the treats not to miss sinking your teeth into during a trip to Sicily – at least the ones I remembered to photograph before digging in with abandon.

My mantra passed on to me by my fellow foodie daughter, “phone eats first.” Unless the food is really good and you’ve lost yourself in the moment. In that case, celebrate.

Granita

Granita was an unexpected surprise. I thought it would be good, but better than gelato? Well, that is up for debate, but it is an equally tempting treat.

This semi-frozen dessert is made from sugar, water and a range of flavorings including pistachio, almond, coffee, chocolate, lemon, orange, mint, strawberry and even fig (if you’re lucky). While I read its ice chunkiness can vary across Sicily, every version I tried was velvety smooth. It was much different that its creamy cousins, ice cream and gelato. Without the creaminess, ganita differentiates itself with full-on, pure flavor.

Granita often is served with a yeasty brioche roll and is commonly eaten for breakfast in Sicily, but the combination can be enjoyed all day long. Some also pair the granita and brioche with a side of whipped cream – a match made in heaven.

Cannoli

Forget all of the stale and soggy versions of cannoli you may have tried in the past. Eating this fried pastry tube stuffed with fresh and sweet ricotta will reset your expectation of this Sicilian king of desserts.

During Arab rule of Sicily, cannoli were introduced in celebration of Carnivale and served as a fertility symbol of the festivities.

Cannoli here ranges in sizes and toppings. Candied orange zest, chopped pistachios and chocolate chips are a few options packed on the ends of cannoli. For such a simple treat, there is no end to the creativity of its presentation and flavor combinations.

We learned that the best cannoli are stuffed upon order to keep the pastry at its crispest.

Terminology tip: cannoli is the plural version for cannolo. So by all means, eat cannoli (more than one)!

Cassata

Sicilian cassata has got to be the prettiest of all desserts. I watched a video of this treat being made and it is a laborious feat not for the faint-of-heart bakers.

A typical cassata is made of sponge cake soaked in fruit juices or liqueur, and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruit. It has a shell of marzipan decorated to the hilt with colored icing and candied fruits.

This is another delicacy brought to Sicily from the Arabs.

Cassatella di sant’Agata (virgin breasts)

Cassatella di sant’Agata is the single-serving version of a cassata. The size and cherry topping give it its breast resemblance.

The story behind its namesake is far from sweet. The dessert honors Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania, a Catholic martyr who was tortured by having her breasts cut off with pinchers. Saint Agatha had taken a vow of virginity and refused to marry the Roman prefect Quintianus, who reported her to the authorities for being a Christian during the Decian persecution.

Don’t let the story ruin it for you. You will find this Sicilian dessert everywhere. In the words of a Jerry Seinfeld episode, “They’re real and they’re spectacular.”

Iris palermitana

Just when you think, maybe they’re laying it on a little thick with all of this sugar- and honey-sweetened ricotta, you try yet another variation.

Palermo’s iris dessert takes balls of yeasty dough, stuffs them with sweetened ricotta and chocolate, dips them in whisked eggs, rolls them in breadcrumbs and fries them in hot oil. Sometimes they are stuffed with cream or Nutella.

Iris was invented in the early 1900s by a pastry chef who named the fried dessert in honor of Pietro Mascagni’s opera.

Almond cookies

Just as tempting as the almond cookies are the gorgeous faux fruits called frutta martorana. They are made of marzipan, a moldable confection comprised of sugar, honey and almond meal.

Sicilian almond cookies are crisp on the outside and chewy inside. What this wheat flourless cookie lacks in gluten, it makes up for in pure almond taste.

The ingredients are simple: typically almond flour, sugar (granulated and/or powdered), egg whites, lemon zest and honey.

There are so many beautiful adornments and interesting flavor accents of the mighty almond cookie, making it almost impossible to choose just one.

My recommendation: make it your goal to try them all. They are the perfect slightly sweet treat to go with an espresso, cappuccino, tea or glass of Marsala wine.

Ricotta cheese

Fresh ricotta cheese stands alone. As an added bonus, top it with some pistachio nuts and drizzle it with honey.

I had no idea how good it could be. It’s no wonder they stuff it in and top it on so many savory and sweet breads.

I also never knew ricotta cheese had a season.

They say the best is made between November and May, when the ewes are feeding on new grass and produce the most milk. Because of its high demand, it also is produced during the warmer months, usually using a mixture of sheep’s and cow’s milk.

We were there in September, so it must be off-the-charts divine when it’s in season.

Caponata

Either as a side dish or appetizer, caponata represents Sicily’s agricultural range in a single dish. Fried eggplant, roasted onions, tomatoes, olives and capers are a few combinations that make this medley sing.

You’ll find this staple on many menus and this dish’s range is impressive. I love caponata’s acidity and saltiness, with the eggplant soaking it all in. It packs a flavorful punch to complement many dishes from meats to fish.

Arancina/Arancino

Like hamburgers in the United States, there are many variations of the Sicilian classic street food, the hearty arancina/arancino. The vowel at the end varies depending on where in Sicily you are eating them. Or call them arancini if you are eating more than one, which you inevitably will and should when visiting this island.

In east Sicily, the fried rice balls are round and called arancina (named after arancia, the Italian word for orange). Head west and the shape turns conical like a volcano and are called arancino. We have been warned not to confuse the two.

Most typically, these rice balls are stuffed with ragu and cheese, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. Other fillings include a creamy béchamel sauce, mushrooms, pistachios, peas and eggplant.

Originating during Arab rule in the 10th century, arancini are a served for the feast of Santa Lucia on December 13, when bread and pasta are not eaten, according to Wikipedia. This commemorates the arrival of a grain supply ship on Santa Lucia’s day in 1646 that relieved a time of severe famine.

Busiate pasta

Pasta lovers have new shapes to explore in Sicily. A favorite is busiate, which we tried in a hearty ragu dish. Busiate’s twisted, hollow pasta tubes encapsulates any sauce expertly, providing flavor-packed and perfectly balanced bites.

Originating in Trapani in western Sicily, busiate is named after the word “busa,” a very thin rod of grass originally believed to be the stick used to make this pasta. That’s seems to be the dominating theory. Another derives the name from the term “buso,” a thin knitting needle used to work wool and cotton in Trapani. Regardless of its name’s origins, it’s delicious.

Seltz lemone e sale

You won’t find Sicilians reaching for Gatorade to quench their thirst. Hot, active days call for something better, a seltz lemone e sal.

What seems nonsensical at first, makes total sense at first taste.

This drink is a staple in Catania and is sold in kiosks around town and at the beach. Dating back to the late 1800s, it now includes various mixes including black cherry, strawberry, mandarin, coffee and tamarind. Of course, Aperol is another adult-version mixer option.

The recipe is simple. Squeeze the juice of one whole lemon directly into the glass. Add a cup of very cold sparkling water and mix with a half teaspoon of sea salt. Top with ice and presto, you have a glass of sunny refreshment.

Wine

The topic of wine in Sicily deserves a separate post. There are so many new grapes to explore here, thanks to its ideal climate with regular sunshine, moderate rainfall and coastal breezes. As we learned from our Planeta wine tour, the soil is rich and varied, creating a range of delicious wines.

Wine production has been a mainstay in Sicily since 4000 B.C., according the Wine Enthusiast. The Greeks brought their more advanced wine-making skills to the island.

Sicily is home to Marsala, a place and fortified wine made famous as the additive in some wonderful Italian dishes like chicken Marsala.

Outside of the name recognition of Marsala, the three key red grapes of Sicily are Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese.

Common white grapes are Catarratto, which is the most planted grape in Sicily. Grillo and Inzolia are some other popular white grapes used as the base blend for Marsala. As we learned firsthand at lunch one day, Grillo stands alone as a medium-bodied dry wine with peachy notes. Carricante is the white grape used in an Etna Bianco.

This bottle of grillo was love at first taste.

The more you explore Sicily’s wine catalog, the more you realize there is to learn. During this trip, I became a big fan of Nero d’Avola. It has a lot going on in terms of fruit and spice, but enough acidity to keep its flavor profile in check.

Taste more

This list of Sicilian delicacies is by no means exhaustive. There is so much more to taste.

To get a crash course in local foods, I highly recommend joining a food tour to taste some of the best examples of classic dishes. Hotel breakfast buffets are another great way to explore a place’s culinary staples.

Just part of the breakfast offerings at Villa Igiea

Buon appetito!