Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and has been a global crossroads of international trade routes for millennia. At times it has been controlled by Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Vandal, Ostrogoth, Byzantine Greek, Islamic, Norman, Aragonese and Spanish governments, each of whom left a mark on Sicilian cuisine.
Although Sicilian food shares many things in common with mainland Italian food, it has Greek, Spanish, French and Arab influences as well.
“The culinary influences come from the sea, the mountains, the history of the land, religious tradition, and from the evolution of both aristocratic and peasant cuisines over the centuries,” says Melissa Muller, author of Sicily: The Cookbook, Recipes Rooted in Traditions (Rizzoli, 2017). Muller, who ran several successful Sicilian restaurants in New York City and spent summers on Sicily in her grandmother’s hometown, has now relocated permanently to Sicily, where she runs culinary tours and cooking classes.
“Sicilian recipes are multilayered and are combinations of traditions of each time period,” she describes. “The tastes are bold and rich, and full of unique flavors, such as the typical agrodolce [Sicilian sweet and sour], that are only present in Sicilian cuisine.”
Recipes are accented with exotic Mediterranean touches: pesto punched up with capers, gelato made with pistachios, pasta laced with saffron and numerous dishes laden with strong flavors like wild fennel and oregano.
The typical dishes of Sicily go far beyond the “red sauce” that most Americans think of as traditional Sicilian dishes.
“Much of the conception of so-called Italian food comes from literature, film, press and the so-called ‘Italian’ restaurants, which came to life after the mass wave of immigration from Italy,” Muller explains. “When I opened my Sicilian restaurant in Manhattan, I experienced that the cuisine of Sicily was imagined through films like The Godfather, and guests were immediately perplexed when they didn’t find Spaghetti with Meatballs on the menu. Instead they found, Spaghetti with Tuna Bottarga (fermented tuna roe) or with sea urchin.”
There are common foods (such as arancini, caponata, granita, cannoli, cassata) that can be found throughout the island, but for the most part, the recipes change from city to city, from village to village, Muller says. “Take something as simple as tomato sauce, for example. So many variations exist, and there is no one recipe. Which is the most authentic? As my dear elderly aunt (and culinary mentor) Zia Franca puts it: ‘Ogni ricetta ha l’impronta della famiglia,’ or ‘Every recipe contains the imprint of
“Sicilian food needs to be felt with all the senses,” Muller says. “It’s not a science but an act of pure love, transmitted from the cook to the family.”