Sicily may be close to Italy, but it’s more than just a neighboring island. In fact, it’s an independent country—a land that at some point in time was occupied by Phonecians, Greeks, Arabs and Normans. Each of these groups helped create the unique Sicilian culture that shows up in its cuisine.
If you’re vacationing on one of our European cruises you might just find yourself on a cruise to Palermo, you’re in for a treat. It’s a fascinating city, filled with lots of tradition and a touch of modern flair. When the cruise ship docks, get ready to explore the city, but save some room for a few local treats that top the list of what to eat in Palermo.
1. Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma might be the best known example of Sicilian cuisine outside of the country. This hearty pasta dish features an assortment of locally grown vegetables and herbs, including tomatoes, eggplant and basil. Salted ricotta rounds out the flavors and gives the pasta a creamy texture.
Arancine is one of the country’s most easily recognized dishes. These savory rice balls have a creamy, risotto-like texture and are stuffed with any number of meat, sauce and cheese combinations. You’ll find them baked or fried and stacked high in most bakeries across town.
3. Busiate al pesto Trapanese
Green pesto may be better known than its golden Sicilian counterpart, but pesto Trapanese packs its own punch of flavor. The combination of garlic, almonds, tomatoes, basil and cheese is traditionally broken down in a mortar and pestle until it reaches the right consistency. Try it with corkscrew-shaped pasta.
If you’re going to Sicily, you have to stop for a cannoli because here is where the legendary pastry was born. Stick with the traditional sweetened ricotta or opt for a more adventurous flavor like pistachio or blood orange. You’ll be impressed with any of the cannoli you choose from local bakers.
5. Orange Salad
Don’t fall for the brightly colored rings of assorted oranges fool you. As soon as you take your first bite of orange salad, you know you’ve discovered something special that’s not your typical fruit salad. Parsley, black olives and olive oil add a savory and salty flavor to the sweetness of the citrus.
This Sicilian cake has roots in Palermo, where legend has it that a pastry chef needed to use up an excessive number of candied fruits. It’s a richly flavored dessert that starts with a sponge cake soaked in liquor and loosely mixed with ricotta cheese. Green marzipan and candied fruits form the outermost layer, often arranged in an Arabian-inspired pattern.
Granita is Sicily’s answer to sorbet and cremolata. Flavored with sugar and fruit juice, this iced water is the perfect way to cool off on a hot day and take a break from your adventures exploring Palermo’s historic streets and beaches. Although the most traditional flavor is lemon, you will also find almond, coffee, mulberry, pistachio and more flavorings available.
8. Frutta Martorana
Frutta Martorana is more than a delicious confection. It’s a work of art. Made from marzipan, these sweet treats are crafted by hand into shapes like fruits, vegetables and sandwiches. Their vivid, glistening colors will catch your attention as you walk by. Don’t be surprised if you can’t tell the difference between the candy and the real thing.
9. Carne di Cavallo
Horsemeat may not be popular in some parts of the world, but it’s a delicacy in Sicily. Instead of opting for the same old boring burger or sausages, seek out a vendor selling carne di cavallo. You may not even miss the beef once you try this type of traditional local fare.
10. Pani Ca Meusa
Sicilian street food includes more than slices of pizza. One of the most popular street foods is a sandwich made from lamb spleen and lungs. A few squeezes of lemon and topping of mozzarella cheese rounds out this dish. Pick one up to nibble on as you enjoy touring Palermo.
11. Pasta con le Sarde
The combination of pine nuts, raisins and saffron used to flavor pasta con le Sarde reflects the African influences on Sicily’s cuisine. Salted anchovies, fresh sardines and wild fennel balance the sauce coating the pasta. Restaurants in Palermo add their own twist to this popular dish, with a dusting of breadcrumbs on top.
12. Sarde a Beccafico
Sardines are a popular ingredient in Sicilian dishes, but they take center stage in this dish. In beccafico-style, the sardine gets stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins that combine beautifully as the fish cooks. If your idea of a perfect day at the beach includes fresh seafood, check out this dish.
Sicilian pizza doesn’t look or taste like the pies you find on the mainland. You won’t find a foldable thin and crispy crust. In its place is a fluffy crust capable of supporting plenty of cheese, herbs and sardines. Nor will you see slices cut into symmetrical wedges. Instead, the pie gets sliced into thick rectangular squares and perhaps a side of sauce.
Although most people think of Sicily as an extension of Italy, the country’s cuisine has Arab influences as well. One of the best known is caponata, a dish that starts with a base of eggplant, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. Each cook then customizes the simple stew with other available ingredients.
Like with other Sicilian foods, the origin of timballo is steeped in tradition and legend. No matter who brought this layered dish to the island, it’s an excellent way to use leftover rice or pasta. A traditional Timballo Siciliano contains a generous serving of eggplant in each wedge.
Hopefully, you return from your day in Palermo with a heart full of memories, a belly full of amazing food and a souvenir (or two). Eating in Palermo is a sought after experience, so you’ll know that you tasted some of the most interesting food the Mediterranean has to offer.