Sicily highlights

I have found my people and they are in Sicily. They consider a gelato and brioche sandwich to be a legitimate meal replacement. No time for a proper lunch? Have a gelato and brioche sandwich. And don’t even get me started on the marzipan, cannolis, and granitas. Sicilian sweets are to die for.

In case that’s not enough, they also have white sand beaches and gorgeous countryside landscapes filled with vineyards, villas, and green mountains. Plus, there are charming cobblestone streets and impressive historic cathedrals on nearly every corner.

What I loved

  • It’s relatively budget friendly compared to mainland Italy or other European countries
  • From street food to sweets, Sicily is full of good eats and is very vegetarian friendly
  • Sicilians are super warm and friendly. Our Airbnb hosts, cooking instructor, and everyone else we interacted with went out of their way to share their favorite places to eat and drink.
  • It’s a bit less touristy than mainland Italy

When deciding to add a second country to our Greece trip, we spontaneously picked Sicily, not knowing much about it. I couldn’t be happier that we did; it ended up being our favorite leg of the trip.

Without further ado, here are my recommendations on eating your way through Sicily:

The Sweets

Other than France, I haven’t been to another place that takes dessert so seriously. Agriculture is the main industry of the island, so you’ll see lots of and almonds, pistachios, oranges, and lemons prominently featured. Here are just a few of the sweet treats you can’t miss:

Gelato

Though this is disputed, Sicily calls itself the birthplace of gelato. Try it plain or in a brioche. My favorite flavor was a pistachio-almond hybrid with a pistachio paste swirl and impossibly crunchy roasted pistachios.

Granita

Sicily also invented the granita. But if you’re thinking of chunky ice crystals, think again. Sicilian granitas are like fresh fruit sorbets that melt in your mouth. Accompanied with brioche, they are considered a breakfast dish. We loved Bam Bar in Taormina. They offer a rotating list of flavors based on which fruit is in season. Try yours topped with whipped cream. I’m salivating just thinking about it.

Cannolo

Sicily also invented cannoli. Our Airbnb hosts told us that no self respecting bakery will ever give you a pre-filled cannolo. They add the semi-sweet ricotta filling on demand, topped with whatever you want: candied orange peel, cinnamon, chocolate chips, crushed pistachios, etc. Cannoli in Sicily are not too sweet and make the perfect snack.

Cassata

I used to love the Kwality brand cassata ice cream in India, which was sponge cake layered with 3 flavors of ice cream and topped with toasted almonds. Turns out the inspiration is Sicilian cassata: a sponge cake filled with a sweet ricotta-pistachio mixture, covered with marzipan, and decorated with candied fruit. Making one is a labor of love and can take a full day. You can buy individual slices or mini cassatas at most bakeries. There’s also an ice cream version and a pie-like variation called cassata al forno.

Pignoli cookies

Almond paste cookies covered with pine nuts

Fruta de martorana

Beautifully decorated marzipan pieces shaped and painted to look like fruit

The Street Food

Like I said, Sicily is one of the top street food destinations in the world. A lot of it is meat-based, but here are some vegetarian-friendly things you can try:

Arancini

Fried balls of risotto with stuffing in the middle. Vegetarian varieties include Norma (eggplant, ricotta, and tomato sauce), Spinachi (spinach), Funghi (mushroom).

Try Arancine ke palle in Palermo or Da Cristina in Taormina. Cristina used to run a full restuarant, but her arancine and pizza became so popular, now she just sells those.

Caponata

A tangy dip made from eggplant, olives capers, and tomato paste. Typically eaten plain or with bread. We learned how to make this in our cooking class in Palermo.

Panelle

Chickpea fritters. These are typically pretty plain tasting so sprinkle on some salt, dip them in ketchup, or use them as a base for caponata

Sfincione

Foccacia-like rounds of bread, with various toppings.

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There are plenty of street food tours you can book in Catania and Palermo, but it’s easy enough to hack your own if you know what to look for.

Food markets in Palermo

There are 3 major food markets in Palermo: La Vucciria, Capo, and Ballaro. La Vucciria is the most famous market and the most touristy. Capo is where locals go, according to our Airbnb host and our cooking class instructor. Ballaro is the ethnic market. It’s easy to check them all out since they’re close to one another. But if you only have time for one, make it Capo.

A Sicilian cooking class

Our incredible host, Patrizia, started by taking us to the best Palermo food markets to get our ingredients. After the tour, we went to a nearby home and she walked us through went the history behind each of the dishes. And then we enjoyed a leisurely half day of drinking wine, eating cheese, and learning how to cook like Sicilians.

Pasta with sweet peppers, raisins, pine nuts, and bread crumbs

Panelle with caponata and more sweet peppers

Cassata al forno – a delicious ricotta pie with chocolate chips and candied fruit

Olive oil tasting with an Italian grandmother

Another top highlight was an olive oil tasting we did at the famous Villa de Fontanasalsa in Segesta. It’s a little hard to find, but getting to hear the history of this family business and meet Colette, the family matriarch who runs it, was totally worth it. This experience, plus the one at Borderi sandwich shop, is probably the closest we’ll ever get to feeling part of a Sicilian family. And of course, the olive oils and the dishes made from them (gelato, cookies) were delicious.

Aperitivo culture

I love that between 5 and 8pm, you can always see Sicilians at outdoor cafes, enjoying an aperitivo with friends and family. And there is great value to be found. We got two glasses of solid wine for 12 or 13 euros and they always came with several free snacks: sandwiches or sfincione, nuts, olives, or chips.

The Wine

Try the Nero D’Avola (typically the house red) or other Sicilian red wines. They tend to be bold and spicy, kind of like a Zinfandel.

We also tried some sweet Marsala wines at a wine bar Marsala. But if you have time, try to visit an actual vineyard to taste some non sweet wines as well.

The Pasta

Try Pasta alla Norma: a yummy eggplant tomato and ricotta pasta invented in Eastern Sicily or Pasta alla Trapanese: pasta with a tomato and almond pesto

Meeting Borderi of Borderi sandwich shop in Siracusa

We enjoyed the cute little coastal town of Siracusa. We were looking for a place to grab lunch, when I stumbled across Borderi’s sandwich shop and its stellar Tripadvisor reviews. Watching Borderi and his family turn sandwich-making into an art form was unforgettable. Each sandwich is different. You just tell them what you like and don’t like and they do the rest. In our case, a blow torch were involved. Seriously.

How to get around

Sicily is huge and you should see both sides of the island, so you’ll need a car. It takes about 3-4 hours to drive from coast to coast. Don’t worry though; it’s a beautiful drive. Try to rent a small car, so it’s easier to park and drive through the narrow streets, especially in towns Ike Taormina.

How much time to spend

7-10 days. It’s a big island and there’s a lot to see.

Where to go

We spent 3 nights in Palermo, covering Segesta and Marsala as day trips, and 2 nights in Taormina, covering Siracusa as a day trip. I loved all these places and would highly recommend them. If we had more time, we would have checked out:

  • The beautiful beaches near Palermo and Catania
  • The island of Malta
  • Mt Erice (can be combined with Segesta)
  • Wineries in Marsala
  • Catania

It’s also worth noting that we easily could have spent an extra day each in Taormina and Palermo and seen them in more depth. Palermo in particular has a rich history and gorgeous architecture that is worth lingering over (if that’s your thing). In general, the west has more to do, so I’d spend 60% of your time there.

When researching what to do in Sicily, we came across a TripAdvisor forum where a visiting couple lamented that they cried upon leaving. Now I know why.

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