With so many amazing meals just begging to be eaten in Sicily, I narrowed the field down to the 15 best foods you need to eat in Palermo before you die.
Ciao, it is your friend Nico – the full-blooded Sicilian – here.
You will find that Sicily is known for its food. The food here is considered the very best tasting, not to mention the best looking as well.
Spices and herbs (rosemary, mint, oregano and more) are able to thrive year-round here due to the generally mild climate.
These fresh ingredients are used in many of the local delicacies. Fertile soils produce an abundance of lemons and oranges every year, giving Sicily the moniker Land of Oranges (or sometimes Land of Lemons).
Other culinary staples of the island include pistachios, olives, almonds and prickly pears. You can always find some fresh fish and delicious meats from markets.
I cannot realistically list even the common Sicilian dishes here, as there would be hundreds of entries on the list.
From the greasy street eats to delectable confectionary, there are many options to choose from.
While I won’t list them all, I will attempt to do my best.
Top 15 Must-Have Dishes in Sicily
Below you will find a list of the must-eat foods when you are visiting Sicily.
While it might not be everything that you can find throughout the Island, these options are the most classic choices.
1. Torta Setteveli
Also known as Seven Veils Cake, this is truly a work of culinary art.
Combining layers of dark chocolate and hazelnut, completed with a crispy layer merging both together, this is a rich and delicious Palermo pastry.
Ingredients: Flour, Sugar, Eggs, Yield, Unsweetened Cocoa Powder, Chocolate, Baking Powder, Corn Flakes, Almond Praline, Corn Starch, Butter, Vanilla, Milk, Whipped Cream, Bavarian Cream and Hazelnut Paste.
Theoretically, a famous pastry shop in Palermo named Cappello invented this cake over 50 years ago. But for some reason, three unknown pastry chefs from northern Italy presented the same cake to the World Dessert Championship in 1997. Cappello people claim to have invented it themselves, the three pastry chefs too. Only they know the truth.
2. Cannolo of Sicily
Perhaps the most famous of all Sicilian pastries, the Cannolo (the plural form being Cannoli) is a party for your taste bud.
Foodies from all over the world are drawn the shores of Sicily to taste the authenticity of this amazing pastry.
The composition of the confectionary treat is a crisp outer pastry shell combined with sweetened ricotta cheese inside of it.
One of the oldest recipes for this Sicilian specialty originally came from a convent in Palermo.
Oo some occasions, more is added into the ricotta, such as chocolate chips or bits of candied fruits.
You will want to avoid the tourist-heavy locations, as they are rarely using fresh ricotta. Even worse than this, they leave Cannoli sitting in a refrigerator for hours on end to get soggy.
Ingredients: Flour, Eggs, Butter, Vermouth, Sugar, Lemon, Cinnamon, Ricotta, Chocolate, Essence of Orange, Candied Fruit.
The cannoli was born in the Middle Ages, and it is an invention of the Arabs of Sicily. The story has it, the king’s idle concubines one day decided to give a phallic shape to a famous Arab dessert, to honor the king’s “royal jewels”. The king liked the tribute very much (especially for the size), and from that day the dish spread throughout Sicily.
This amazing sweet, the Cassata Siciliana, is a famous delicacy here. Combining ricotta cheese, marzipan and candied fruit, this confectionary option will leave you speechless.
In fact, it is somewhat of a tradition to locals here, as it was started by Sicilian nuns and was only ever available around the Easter holiday.
Back in 1575, the Sicilian bishops of Mazara del Vallo comprised a document that spoke of cassata being “indispensable during the holidays.”
As if that weren’t enough, we also have a proverb. “Tintu e cu nun mancia a cassata a matina ri Pasqua” which means “Pity who does not eat cassata in Easter”.
Ingredients: Ricotta, Whipped Cream, Sugar, Chocolate Chips, Glucose, Sponge Cake, Icing Sugar, Vanilla, Almond Flour, Almond Essence, Royal Icing and Food Coloring.
There is another simpler variant of this cake, and we call it “baked cassata”. It is still filled with ricotta and chocolate, but has no icing on top. It is thought that this variant was born later, than the one with icing, but in reality it is this simpler version that was born first.
These traditional street food items are essentially fritters that are made from chickpea flour.
You will find that they are often served in sandwiches that have been covered with sesame seeds. When served like this, it is known as Mafalda.
Ingredients: Salt, Bread with Sesame Seeds, Chopped Parsley, Pepper, Chickpea Flour.
There is also a little known sweet version of this recipe. Basically, sugar replaces salt, and then the panelle are filled with pastry cream. This sweet version is popular too in Palermo, but, unlike the savory one, it is prepared only for the Feast of Saint Lucy on December 13th, together with Arancine (rice balls) and Cuccìa (a dessert with sweet ricotta).
Another popular street food item (also known as cazzilli), these are round shaped fried potato croquettes.
Often times they are paired along with the aforementioned Panelle in the Mafalda sandwich.
The two together are a union of deliciousness for your taste buds.
Ingredients: Potato, Olive Oil, Salt, Chopped Parsley, Bread with Sesame Seed, Pepper
Potato croquettes is a typical Neapolitan street food recipe which was born over 300 years ago. This dish arrived in Palermo during the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies time, that is when Naples and Palermo were part of the same kingdom under the Bourbons leadership.
Stigghiola is a great afternoon snack on this “best of” list. These are skewered innards (usually of lamb) that are seasoned with parsley and then grilled.
After they have cooked, they are cut into pieces and seasoned further with lemon and salt.
This is a timeless classic of Sicilian cuisine, pairing the melted fat and the crunch of the roasted meat.
Ingredients: Entrails of Lamb, Parsley, Lemon, Onions, Salt, Pepper
You won’t need a Google Map to find the stigghiola vendor. One is to be found on every corner in Palermo. A Stigghiola stall is easily recognized by the smell-tempting cloud of smoke the hangs over them like a pall, while a group of local loafers hangs about with little, or nothing to do.
7. Pane con la Milza
Its full name to those living in Palermo is Pane con la Milza or “Pani ca Meusa“. This is a sandwich that has been stuffed with the lung, trachea and spleen of veal.
Cooked over low heat in copper pans, this might sound very different to what you are accustomed to eating, but it is a tasty dish.
It is believed that this food is linked to old traditions of gastronomy here on the Island.
Ingredients: Trachea, Spleen, Lard, Ricotta Cheese, Caciocavallo Cheese, Bread
Pane con la milza “spleen sandwich” can’t really be eaten without the bread. Sicilians squeeze a ton of lemons over the sandwich to ease the punishment that their stomach may encounter. It comes in two versions: the Maritata (married), with flakes of ricotta cheese on top, and “Schietta,” which means single and only includes the veal spleen and lemon.
The Arancina (also known by Arancino) is a rice ball that is stuffed with tomato sauce, peas and meat (Arancina con Carne) or stuffed with ham, béchamel and cheese (Arancina al burro) and then fried.
This is something that you can find about any time of the day or night around Palermo.
This is a reworked tradition derived from the Arab presence on the Island centuries ago.
They used to grab boiled rice and work in bits of mutton by creating small balls and then eat it that way. Sicilians decided that they would prefer different ingredients and to have their rice balls fried.
Arancina al burro – Saffron, Salt, Rice, Flour, Butter, Breadcrumbs, Pepper, Oil, Mozzarella Cheese, Ham, Bechamel
Arancina con Carne – Saffron, Salt, Rice, Flour, Butter, Breadcrumbs, Pepper, Oil, Minced Meat, Tomato Sauce, Caciocavallo Cheese, Peas.
Around Palermo, you can find our fried rice balls in different types and styles beyond the traditional ones, with meat sauce or ham and cheese. There is one version in particular I’m sure you will want to try — the “Arancina Bomba,” which has become famous for reaching nearly twice the size of the regular Arancina.
9. Pezzo di Rosticceria
These are brioche doughs that are baked or fried after being stuffed with various toppings.
Below you will find the most traditional (and famous) pezzi di rosticceria in all of Sicily.
- Calzone (baked brioche with ham and mozzarella)
- Rollo con Wurstel (baked brioche with wurstel)
- Rollo con Prosciutto e Mozzarella (baked brioche with ham, béchamel and mozzarella)
- Pizzotto (baked brioche with mozzarella and ham with tomato sauce on the top)
- Spiedino (fried brioche with minced meat, tomato sauce and peas)
- Ravazzata (baked brioche with minced meat, pepper, peas and tomato sauce)
- Pizzetta (Small pizza with soft and thick dough, usually consists of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.
Ingredients of Dough: Flour, Salt, Sugar, Yeast, Lard
***Other Ingredients Vary Based on Pezzo Chosen***
Many bakers all over Italy try to replicate “pezzo di rosticceria” but with very little success. For some reason, while the ingredients are cheap and easy to find, the preparation seems to be too complex for anyone who wasn’t born and raised right here in Palermo.
10. Pasta con le Sarde
Directly translated this means “pasta with sardines”. This is a traditional Sicilian dish. This is an elaborate combination of flavors, with the base being wild fennel and sardines.
In addition to this, most recipes feature: pine nuts, raisins, toasted almonds, saffron and other strong flavors.
Ingredients: White Onions, Anchovy, Saffron, Pine Nuts, Breadcrumbs, Fresh Sardines, Olive Oil, Almonds, Pepper, Raisins, Salt, Wild Fennel, Raisins
A famous place to eat “Pasta con le sarde” is Trattoria Da Pino. Everybody in town knows this place by the name of Piscia e Trema, which means “Pees and Trembles.” The nickname was actually given to the owner (Pino Pipitone) by his close friends after a mishap that occurred in a bathroom after a few cheerful drinks with them.
This word is actually derived from the combination of the Latin “spongia” (sponge) and the Arabic “sfang” (pancake).
This is meant to describe the consistency of the dough, as it is porous and spongy.
Somewhere in between a pizza crust and bread, this soft creation is then seasoned with tomato sauce, onions, caciocavallo cheese, anchovies and oil.
The origins of this dish come as a traditional meal from Bagheria, a small village only 8 km from Palermo.
You will find that most often you will find Sfincione being sold by mobile street vendors moving from place to place on 3-wheeled vehicles (Ape Piaggio).
They might seem like they are shouting at you (and sometimes actually shouting) but don’t be alarmed.
The phrase you keep hearing “Scairsu r’uagghiu (and) chin’i pruvulazzu” means “little oil and full of dust”. Sounds appealing right?
This is actually telling you about the quality of the dish, as too much oil will make the bread less soft. The dust refers to the texture of the dressing that is used.
Ingredients: Flour, Sugar, Yeast, Olive Oil, Salt, Anchovies, Tomato Sauce, Oregano, Caciocavallo Cheese, Onions
A sfincione is a Sicilian street food that is equally good for lunch or dinner. Many local inhabitants eat sfincione as a mid-morning snack. I hear lots of tourists say sfincione looks like a heavy brick and impossible to eat, but after they try it, they pig out on it from morning till night.
A frittola is only available through the process of slaughtering a calf.
While the bones are typically used for industrial purposes, the pieces of meat, lard and cartilage are boiled down at a high temperature and then browned in lard.
After this, it is seasoned with a slew of spices like bay leaf, pepper and saffron.
You will usually find this food being stored in a “Panaru” (wicker basket covered with a cloth), which helps to keep the temperature high.
Ingredients: Meat, Saffron, Bay Leaf, Lemon, Pepper, Salt
This is one of the easiest things to find (and one of the most delicious things to find) across the entire Island.
There are all kinds of options: tuna, sea urchin, swordfish, grouper, clams, mussels, sea bream, scorpion fish, octopus, snapper and amberjack are just a few of the many options the Island provides you.
The Trattoria (folksy eateries found in the old markets) and some small street restaurants by the sea are the best stops to get the best fish dishes.
Here are some of the creations that you just have to try while you are here:
- PastA Coi Ricci (Spaghetti Sea Urchin) – This is a taste that you will only get in Palermo. While the dish might be simple, it has something to offer every seafood fan.
- Spaghetti Cozze e Vongole (Mussels and Clams Spaghetti) – This is an excellent dish to bring the flavors of the sea to your taste buds. Select ingredients amplify the flavor of the clams and mussels in this seafood favorite.
- Polpo Bollito (Boiled Octopus) – This is a dish that everyone needs to try. Typically an appetizer, this traditional Sicilian offering is one of the many things we do with octopus (as the nearby sea is teeming with them).
- Impepata di Cozze (Peppered Mussels) – This is an inexpensive dish that is very rich with deep flavors that is a favorite throughout the entirety of southern Italy. These mussels are boiled and then simply seasoned with lemon and pepper for a flavor that really pops.
- Sword fish Rolls – This is prepared by cutting swordfish thinly and stuffing it full of different ingredients, such as: breadcrumbs, tomatoes, olives and capers. This is another traditional dish of the Palermo (and Catania) area.
- Sword fish with Breadcrumbs – This is a great way to break away from the traditional grilling of a swordfish, and appreciate some great breading while you are at it. The breading used for the dish is something locals call “muddica”. Interestingly enough, this fish is not fried. So even with the breading, it remains a light entrée.
I know you think that we Italians eat pasta and pizza everyday from morning till night, but fish, along with vegetables, is actually the most eaten food in Sicily. It’s true that we combine it with pasta as well, but we eat it mainly as a second course or appetizer.
14. Ice Cream
There is something about ice cream that can make a summer in Sicily even better.
This has been a long standing tradition on the Island since a Sicilian cook named Francesco Propopio dei Coltelli first introduced it in the middle of the 16th century.
Of course, a form of ice cream was being made by Arabs here in Sicily even before this, though the recipe consisted of water, sugar and spices cooled down with ice and salt.
You might be a “classic cup” of ice cream kind of person, but if you are taking my recommendations (which you should), you would have your ice cream along with a brioscina (sweet bread). These two flavors together are indescribably amazing.
Ingredients: Milk, Cream, Sugar and Eggs (Other Ingredients Will Vary Based On Type of Ice Cream Chosen)
Ice cream is entirely a Sicilian invention of which the locals are very proud. We also have to thank the Arabs of Sicily who gave life to the real first version of the ice cream that in the Middle Ages they called frozen waters.
You might see this as a no-brainer, but if you come to Sicily, you have to eat some pizza while you are here.
While this can be said for any Italian city, Palermo (along with other southern cities like Rome and Naples) offer the best pizza you will find anywhere in the world.
Ingredients: Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. (Other Ingredients As Toppings)
I know this was a lot of information. As they say around here, dogs and pigs (meaning anyone) have passed through here. With no less than 15 cultures influencing the development of Sicily and Palermo, each leaving behind its approaches and recipes for various staples of now-Sicilian cuisine.
I listed numerous dishes that I think you should check out, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. It would have taken more than 10 years to list all the traditional recipes that we have.
I’m going to do a small recap for you, but instead of talking about the same dishes again, I’ll provide you with the five categories of food that you should not miss out on to avoid going home with regrets.
- Street Food. When you are considered the best in Europe and the fifth best in the world, your street food is worth mentioning. That’s not my personal opinion — that’s what experts in the field say. From grilled meats and seafood to an array of frighteningly named yet surprisingly delicious dishes like ‘bread with spleen,’ we have a lot of food diversity.
- Seafood. Surrounded by sea, Sicily naturally boasts of a wide variety of seafood dishes in its culinary repertoire. Traditionally, seafood is reserved for appetizers and first or second courses. Along with vegetables, seafood is a staple on the tables of most Sicilians every day.
- Vegetables. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, prepare to have some of the most diverse options compared to those from your prior vacations. Our plates are always half-full of greens — that is, if the whole plate isn’t full. Feeding with food harvested from the ground has been part of the proud Sicilian heritage since the ancient times.
- Ice Cream and Desserts. There is no mistaking that Sicilians are considered the masterful architects of the world’s finest sweets. From delicious ice cream — first invented on the island by a Sicilian named Francesco Procopio — to our use of sweet ricotta in pastries like cannolo and cassata, our sweets are known around the world. We are also perfectionists with chocolate, hazelnut, and seven veils cakes.
- Pizza. When you consider the ingredients combined in a delicious pizza, you should consider relying on the great chefs of southern Italy, led by the great minds of Naples. Now, if they are reading this, northern Italians will be offended. But the truth is, traveling south from Rome, the pizza does nothing but get better. It’s not as if I made this up or was the first person to notice it.
That’s really all for today. Before saying arrivederci (goodbye), I would like to remind you that I put together four FREE itineraries that might help you avoid missing anything important when you visit Palermo.
I also have a short video guide on Palermo featuring tips from locals that you will not find anywhere else on the net. Best of all, they are free. Check them out!
I welcome anyone to join our free group on Facebook to stay in touch with other people who might be visiting Sicily or who have already visited and want to share their stories. And if you haven’t done it already, check out the tourist information page. It contains a lot of golden tips!
That’s all I have for you. If you have any questions, drop a comment in the box below so I can get back to you.
PS – If you want to experience the city as if you were a real Sicilian, without falling into the money traps and going only to the tourist spots, you should make sure that you check out our guide, The Sicilian Way.