Before visiting Sicily, I had no idea that Sicilian street food was such a thing. Well, my friends, let me enlighten you – it is, very much a thing.
A huge thing in fact.
If you’ve read my Palermo blogpost, you will know that markets are an integral part of life in Sicily. Stalls are overflowing with abundant vegetables and wooden crates are stacked high with fresh, vibrantly coloured fruit. However, fresh produce is not the only thing you’ll find in these markets. Every few meters, vendors sell a huge array of local Sicilian street food specialties. From olive oil-drenched, pizza-like bread to delicate ricotta filled pastries. From refreshing flavoured ice to soft bread rolls filled with the indescribable insides of who-knows-what-type of animal (I promise it’s a thing!). And, away from the markets, on almost every street of every town, you’ll find dimly lit bars and small kiosks selling a variety of take-away snacks. All sold at unbelievably low prices. Sicilian street food is everywhere.
Over the five days we were there, we did our best to try as much of the Sicilian street food as we could. Below is a short summary of what we tried (and what we didn’t) and what you should look out for. I’ve also covered a few non-street food specialties, because when in Sicily, one must eat, on the street or not!
I must warn you though, not all their delicacies are delectable. Some are not for the faint hearted.
Sicilian street food and specialities
I’m sure you’ve come across an arrancina before…. (you may call it arrancini?) But Sicily is where it originates from. So it goes without saying, it’s a must try while there. For those that don’t know, arrancina is a scrumptious ball of saffron-scented rice, filled with something delicious, coated in breadcrumbs and then fried. In Sicily they were much bigger in size than anywhere else I’ve seen (I’m talking the size of a fist and slightly pear shaped). Fillings vary depending on the region you are in, but can be anything from ragu (meat sauce) to cheese and mushrooms, spinach or even chicken liver! Arrancine are available from almost every bar/tabacchi, and are eaten at any time of the day – breakfast through to late night snack.
Brioche con Gelato
Ever dreamed of having gelato for breakfast? Well in Sicily they do, so you can too! Brioche con gelato translates to brioche (a light, sweet, Italian bread) with gelato. Basically cut a brioche roll in half and stuff it full with gelato. Typically it’s around two different flavours, however on countless occasions we saw Sicilians getting four or even five flavours scooped up and jammed into their brioche rolls. You can often get whipped cream, chocolate sauce or sprinkles on top too. Most indulgent breaky ever.
If you’ve been to Italy before, you may well have seen them elsewhere, however Cannoli originate from Sicily. They are tube-shaped shells of pastry dough that have been fried and then filled with a creamy filling (usually a sweetened ricotta). They vary in size, and often vary in flavour/toppings – some are sprinkled with pistachio pieces, while others have candied orange peel or chocolate bits through them. They’re one of my favourite Italian sweet treats and you can find them all over Sicily. Perfect with an espresso at all times of the day.
A delicious type of vegetable stew traditionally made with aubergine, tomatoes, and vinegar. A simple dish but so rich and flavoursome, and common on restaurant menus all over! It is served both cold and warm, as a starter or side. We had a delicious artichoke version at Bisso Bistrot – the best little restaurant in Palermo.
Granita con Brioche
Granita is flavoured ice – a lot like sorbet. Back in the day ice was taken down to the villages from the mountainous areas in Sicily (Mt Etna). It was crushed, flavoured and eaten. Today it is made from frozen fruit juice or frozen flavoured water. It’s now crushed and served in a bowl, typically with a brioche on the side to mop it up. Flavours vary from region to region but include lemon, almond, strawberry, peach, pistachio or chocolate. We tried Granita con Brioche at a cute place in Taormina called Bam Bar. We had a lemon and strawberry one, and an almond and chocolate one. All delicious but almond was definitely a winner in my eyes. Keep an eye out for another refreshing, lemon flavoured item – Selz. There are kiosks all over Sicily that sell drinks and refreshments – one being Selz which is freshly squeezed lemon juice, with sparkling water (seltzer) and a pinch of salt. Drunken since ancient times and superbly refreshing!
These little pockets of hot deliciousness without a doubt originate from Sicily’s North African roots. ‘Panelle’ are chickpea fritters deep-fried in olive oil. Sometimes served as is with a squeeze of lemon, or often sandwiched between a soft sesame bun and called ‘pane e panelle’. I tried this one evening at La Vucciria, a fun night market in Palermo. It goes down well with a cold Sicilian beer – Birra Messina.
Often sold from portable food carts or from the back of a motorbike, this speciality is a cross between pizza and bread, a little like focaccia. It’s thick and spongey and oily and is often topped with tomato sauce, onion, a bit of cheese, sometimes anchovies, and finally some extra olive oil. It’s sold by the slice and you can find it all over Sicily.
Sarde a Beccafico
As an island surround by ocean, seafood is of course a big thing in Sicily. Traditionally a poor mans food, ‘sarde a beccafico’ are sardine fillets stuffed, rolled and baked. Traditionally with raisins, herbs, lemon, pine nuts and bread crumbs. We tried this from a little deli in Palermo on the way to the airport and it was outstanding. Another flavoursome sardine dish to look out for (and a trademark of Palermo) is ‘pasta con le sarde‘. Pasta with sardines, anchovies, pine nuts, raisins, breadcrumbs, wild fennel and white wine.
Alrighty, remember I said that some Sicilian street food is not for the faint hearted? Here goes…
Stigghiola is sheep or goats intestines that are brined in salt water and parsley. The intestines are twisted round a green spring onion (like a skewer) and put on an open grill to roast. There were literally throngs of locals in Vucciria feasting on this so-called ‘delicacy’. Hugo joined them, however I could not bring myself to. Do if you dare!
Another item that is not for the faint hearted – frittola. But first, a little story:
Hugo and I were wondering through the chaotic avenues of Palermo’s Ballaro market when we passed a street food vendor and his cart with a small gathering of people round him. Intrigued we hung round to see what he was selling. An old Italian grandpa (who spoke no English) quickly spotted us looking interested and instantly came over. Grabbing Hugo’s hand he forced Hugo excitedly to the front of the queue. Clearly the old man really wanted us to try whatever it was! Not wanting to be rude, always a little peckish, and ever adventurous Hugo ordered whatever it was the man was selling. On the cart sat a big wicker basket with a cloth over it and a pile of soft fresh buns. The vendor grabbed a bun and reached his hand under the cloth into the basket, spooning out a steaming mass of greasy looking meat bits on to the bun. With a shake of salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, he wrapped it in paper and handed it over with a large smile. The surrounding locals were chuffed that Hugo was getting amongst the local food. We departed and spent a moment closely investigating the handful of meat to see if anything could be identified. No luck (I was disgusted). A short google later and we discovered that it is was the famous Sicilian Frittola. Without further adieu… its the leftover bits of calf slaughter: meat, cartilage, intestines, all boiled down in lard with bay leaves and pepper and served in a bun. Um delissimo??
Pani ca meusa
Literally translates to mean ‘bread with spleen’. Yes you heard, spleen… and sometimes lungs too. Sheep spleen and sheep lungs to be exact. Cooked in its own lard, served in a bread bun with sprinkling of cheese or a squeeze of lemon. I passed on this one too.
Ok, so these last few specialities haven’t exactly been appetising. But all in all, the Sicilian Street food and specialities were amazing. It’s a wonderfully fertile island surrounded by an abundant sea, and these attributes are certainly evident in it’s culinary scene. There are a tonne of specialities and every dish differs slightly from region to region. My best advice? Be curious (and courageous!), ask questions, and do what the locals do (within reason).