In the United States, we tend to think of Italian cuisine as consisting mainly of pasta, red sauce, bread, and fine wine. But there are big differences among all of the types of food under the Italian “umbrella”, most notably when it comes to Sicilian. So what’s the difference between Sicilian and Italian food?
In a broad sense, Sicilian food is heavily influenced by quite a few other cultures; primarily because the island has been conquered and controlled many times throughout its history. While there are some things Sicilian food has in common with mainland Italy, there are some unique distinctions as well.
What other cultures influenced Sicilian cuisine?
Your Guide to Italy explains that the Italy of today was not unified until 1861. Prior to that, the various regions were all autonomous areas controlled by whoever was the strongest power of the day. Think feudal England with a better climate and a more exotic accent.
Sicily itself changed hands among the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Byzantines, Spanish, and even the Germans. Throw in a little North Africa and Arabia to complete the picture. The constant changing of hands has created a culture that makes Sicily rather unique in nearly every way.
What are the typical components of Sicilian cuisine?
When you think of Italian food, you typically think of pasta, right? But perhaps you didn’t know the origins of pasta go back to 12th-century Sicily and a grain known as durum wheat. This grain is a staple product of Sicily because the island provides optimal growing conditions. Durum is a hard grain that is finely ground to produce semola (semolina), the main ingredient in fine Italian pasta and bread.
Because of the island’s history with pasta, it makes up a good portion of Sicilian cuisine. But there’s a lot more to the island menu than just spaghetti and meatballs. Sicily is also well-known for her citrus fruits and a unique eggplant recipe known as Sicilian caponata.
As far as citrus is concerned, the Sicilian Experience says that 62% of all citrus fruit produced in Italy comes from Sicily. We would expect it to be a prominent component in many Sicilian recipes, and it is. Unlike mainland Italy, Sicilian recipes heavily incorporate different varieties of lemons and oranges.
Do Sicilians use a lot of meat in their recipes?
It’s no secret that meat is a big component of Italian food from every region. Both Sicily and the mainland share a special affinity for pork, to the extent that it makes up about 30% of the total meat consumption in Italy. In Sicily, they are known for their cured pork sausage and salami, though they do roast and and grill their pork just like the mainland cooks do.
Where fish is concerned, Sicilian cuisine is much more likely to incorporate it than mainland Italy. Especially the coastal areas of the island. It’s common for Sicilian menus to be heavy on tuna, sardines, scuttle fish, octopus, mussels, clams, crabs, and a whole lot more. Sicilians even love to combine pizza and seafood for some really great recipes.
How important is wine and cheese to the Sicilian diet?
Perhaps the one thing Sicily has in common with mainland Italy and the rest of Europe is a love of wine and cheese. Fueling that love is a great emphasis on cattle ranching in Sicily, where sheep, goats, and other species find the vegetation perfectly suited to their appetites. With all that cattle, there is a lot of milk for the locals to turn into pecorino, caciocavallo, ricotta, and more.
The interesting thing about Sicilian cheese is the fact that most varieties are consumed at different stages of the maturation process. For example, you’ll find several different varieties of pecorino, each with its own unique name describing its current stage. In mainland Italy, this isn’t so common.
What are the main characteristics of Sicilian confections?
If you know anything about Sicily, you know the island has a love affair with everything and anything sweet. There is a good reason for that. Prior to the Arab influence, most Italian regions predominantly used honey as their sweetener. But once they got their hands on sugar cane, Sicilians never looked back. Viva Sicily!
Today Sicilian and dolci (confectionery) go hand in hand. The island is famous for its confections that combine fresh fruits, nuts, eastern spices, and chocolates in recipes that will blow your mind and taste buds. Between the cannolis, marzipan, cubbiata, and cassata, there is certainly no shortage of delicious Sicilian desserts.
In our attempt to describe the differences between Italian and Sicilian food, we have come up a bit short. But that’s only because the nation of Italy is so diverse there’s really no way to assign a specific style or cuisine. But we can say that Sicilian food is very distinct, thanks to its island geography and hundreds of years of multinational influence.
If you visit Sicily, be prepared to take in as much variety as you can. And also remember that, in Sicily, a meal is more of a social experience than anything else. You’ll find when you enjoy your food along with good company, smiles, and a little bit of laughter everything tastes so much better.