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Sicilian Cooking: The history and development of Sicilian Cooking


by ©Diana Viola

"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily, is not to have seen Italy at all." Goethe

They came, they saw, they conquered: the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Hapsburgs, Bourbons.  Yes, all of them.

When the Greeks saw the island of Sicily, they fell in love, sent their fleets, and set up colonies.  The Romans saw what the Greeks had, fought them for it, and became the new conquerors.  The Arabs saw what the Romans had, fought them for it, and put the island under their dominion.  From he north came the Normans, the Angevins, Hapsburgs and Bourbons, and when they saw Sicily, they too, went to war, and conquered.

Who would not fall in love with a country where even at night vegetables are "gleaming forth on the dark air, under the lamps." (D. H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia)? But what effect did such varied conquest have on Sicilian cooking? On the habits of the people? On the language?

Sicily is a large island of varied climate. There are subtropical areas growing prickly pears in abundance; every form of citrus is grown in Sicily - lemons, oranges, blood oranges. And there is the great Mount Etna, a highly active volcano that both destroys whatever is in the path of its lava eruptions and fertilizes the soil to incomparable richness. The crops that grow in this soil have no parallel. That observant traveler, Goethe, commented that "the vegetables are delicious, especially the lettuce which is very tender and tastes like milk," that the fish was "excellent and of a most delicate flavor." The quality of the vegetables gives a clue to the dishes of Sicily. Since their vegetables are of superior taste and quality, no Sicilian would defile them by creating complex dishes that mask the fresh flavor of their ingredients. Simplicity allows the pure taste of the vegetables to emerge. This is a key attitude to cooking, prevalent all over Sicily.


The Greeks and Romans in Sicily

Though the Carthaginians were the first to land on Sicily, it was the Greeks who explored the forests and the fertile soil Sicily offered. When they arrived the island was occupied by the descendants from prehistoric days - the Sicani, the Siculi, and the Elymi. These groups were absorbed into the culture as the Greeks settled on the eastern coast of Sicily. Here they established the cities of Naxos, (near Taormina), Catania, Agrigento and Siracusa.

The Greeks were colonizers, not conquerors, and they brought with them their more developed agricultural methods, their culture, and a mythology that would tangle with and incorporate Sicily. The legend of Persephone, for example, originated with the Siculi. By the fifth century, the Greek city of Siracusa on the eastern shores of Sicily, and central to the trade routes, was the richest, and most powerful of all Greek cities, including those in Greece itself. The Greek influence was so strong that the Greeks found their way up the Adriatic coastline, as far as Ancona, and we see in the recipes of the Italian region of Apulia that the cuisine has many similarities to the cooking of Sicily. Centuries later, when the Arabs invaded, many people in Sicily spoke Greek. Traces of that language have influenced the Sicilian Italian dialect as spoken today.

In the Odyssey, Homer describes what the Greek traveler might have seen in Sicily. He talks of the abundance of foods, naming pears, pomegranates, apples, figs, olives, currants and grapes. We know that wild fennel grew in the hills, as well as low-growing bushes whose unopened flower buds give us that delicacy called capers. Lavendar-hued wild thyme grew on the hills and the bees that drank of its nectar rendered the best honey. Cooking with honey was important to the Greeks and even in their mythology, Zeus himself was raised with honey. click for quote from the Odyssey

We can be fairly sure that the Greeks would have found the wild thistles that we have cultivated and know today as artichokes and cardoon, though even today Sicily has artichoke varieties that are not grown elsewhere. The fava bean was a favorite among the Greeks and later the Romans. The possibilities inherent in Sicilian cooking surrounded the invading Greeks, not only in the abundance of produce, but in the taste - deeper and more intense as a result of growing in the hot Sicilian sun and the rich lava-fed soil.

Sicily, as an island, had seas filled with an abundance of fish: sardines, tuna, swordfish, many varieties of smaller fish. Tuna was of the utmost importance, so much so that a festival celebrating the unique way of netting and killing tuna evolved. (click for the mattanza dl tonno). One classic dish is pasta with bottarga - tuna roe. Meat was less prevalent, though we surmise that goats and sheep were in abundance, and some forms of crude cheeses were made, possibly an early form of ricotta. In time these developed into Pecorino and Caciocavallo

After three centuries of Greek dominance, the Romans wanted to annex Sicily as a province. Roman power was felt in North Africa and the entire Mediterranean, and after the Punic Wars they succeeded in dominating the island. Sicily was but a province, though, and the Romans plundered the island, destroying forests and planting durum wheat, a crop that prospered in Sicilian climatic conditions.

The island became known as the granary of Rome; the soil was depleted from overuse. Despite their abuse, however, the Romans admired the foods of their provincial cousins and there was a Roman proverb that said "siculus coquus et sicula mensa," which translates as 'A Sicilian cook and a Sicilian table.' The Romans did not influence Sicilian cooking; their cooking was influenced by Sicily. Although Pliny called the artichoke one of the "earth's monstrosities" Sicilian food found a happy home on the Roman mainland. During Roman rule a strong Christian population began to emerge, mostly through conversion. The church was beginning to establish its power base in Europe. As the Christian population grew, they established the feast days beloved by Sicilians as days of special dishes. One example is cuccia, a wheat dish that honors St. Lucy, the patroness of light and eyesight. click here to read more about St. Lucy.


The Arabs (Saracens) in Sicily

After the Romans came the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Byzantines. Following them came the Arabs --also called Saracens in the early centuries-- and it was the Arab influence on Sicilian cooking that became the most important, and that has endured to this day. The Greeks colonized and taught methods of farming, the Romans used Sicily as their breadbasket, but it was the Arabs, conquering in 831, who brought food traditions that affected Sicilian cooking. They introduced sophisticated methods of irrigation that made vegetable farming possible; they brought the omnipresent eggplant, oranges and lemons. Today the enduring scent of orange in the air is associated with Sicily. So strong was their imprint that even the language absorbed Arab words. For example, Marsala wine, justly famous, takes its name from the Arab - Marsah el Allah or 'the port of God.' They also brought mathematics, primarily that area known as al gebra.

The capitol of the Arab world was Palermo, and the importance of cities shifted from Siracusa to Palermo. The splendor of Palermo was said to rival that of ancient Baghdad. Sicily and Spain were at this time main areas of communication between east and west. Because the Jewish peoples were able to move freely between eastern and western languages and thinking, the Jewish population flourished in Sicily, side by side with the increasingly large Christian population. Christian, Arab and Jew lived in harmony.

The most important Arab import was pasta. Scholars now agree that it probably was the Arabs who invented pasta (click to read read our history of pasta). The Arab use of spices and dried fruit, in particular raisins, left an indelible mark on Sicilian cooking. They also brought cous-cous, known in Sicily as 'cuscusu'. Couscous is made of tiny balls of flour and water which are left to dry in the sun, then steamed over a boiling pan of water. The Arabs would use lamb, possibly chicken, to accompany the couscous. With the abundance of fish, this changed, and a classic Sicilian dish in the province of Trapani, is couscous cooked with the broth of the local fish to give it a seafood flavor. The Arabs also brought rice dishes, though rice was considered the food of the sick. Despite this disregard, Sicily has its one classic rice dish - arancini, little round balls of rice with meat in its center, or of rice with cheese at its center.

The Arabs also brought a sweet tooth that would lead to the development of Sicilian baked goods - cookies of every type, cakes and sherbets. During Greek and Roman reign, honey had been the sweetener, but the Arabs brought sugar cane and the first rudimentary sugar refinery was established in Trappeto. The Sicilians took to this sweet marvel, and their pastries are today famous throughout Italy.

The classic cassata comes from the Arabic qas'ah which word refers to the terra-cotta bowl that is used to shape the cake. The sweet tooth may also be responsible for the taste of agrodolce -sweet/ and tart- that flavors such dishes as zucchini al agrodolce. Marzipan also comes from the Arabic martabãn.

There is also torrone, another sweet of Arab origin. The Arab, Ibn Jubair, described Palermo in glowing terms:  "The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor."

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The Normans in Sicily

The Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries. In that time, the church had developed into the greatest political force in Europe, wielding more power than any government. The pope in Rome, not liking the rule of infidels, encouraged French Normands under the leadership of Roger of Altaville to attack. Several hundred knights from Normandy, Lombardy, and southern Italy set on the Arabs in Sicily. Once again, the fortunes of the island changed, and Roger was pronounced "Count of Sicily." Christianity was restored; the Norman court gave birth to the Italian language; commerce flourished. Roger's son became King of Sicily. The Golden Age of Sicily had begun. The Normands added little to cooking methods, however, and their major food imprint was salt cod, called stoccafisso by the Sicilians. Not a profound legacy.

The city fell to the hands of Frederick von Hohenstaufen, called Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick ruled Swabia, a poor area, and attempted to centralize what he called the 'Holy Roman Empire' in Sicily. The most enlightened of the Hohenstaufen rulers was Frederick II. Calling Siracusa a 'blessed' city, he restored it to its former splendor. Born in Sicily, Frederick was the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily, and eventually, King of Jerusalem. He was one of the more brilliant, enlightened monarchs in Europe, given the name stupor mundi or Wonder of the World. In his brilliance, Frederick was familiar with philosophy, medicine, mathematics, architecture and natural history. His court was home to Arabs, Jews and Christians. Attired in Arab robes, he lived as luxuriously as the emirs had lived. An era in Sicily ended with his death.

Frederick's heirs were not so enlightened, and were unable to deal with the political threat of the papacy. The Holy See usurped their rights assigning them to Charles, Duke of Anjou, and the Hohenstaufen dynasty was defeated at the Battle of Benevento. The Angevins ruled until the bloody uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers drove them from Sicilys. (click for Sicilian Vespers)

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Centuries of Conquerors

In the following centuries Sicily would be a pawn, as well as a provincial prize, and would be commanded by the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish Hapsburgs, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, even the British Administration who sent troops to occupy Sicily in the Napoleonic wars. Spain would occupy the island, and in 1492 when Columbus was sent on a voyage of discovery, Spain expelled the Jews from both Spain and Sicily, ending the harmonious coexistence of religion on the island. Spain shifted her attention away from the Mediterranean with the discovery of the New World, leaving Sicily to her own meager devices. The Inquisition brought an end to religious tolerance. Through these centuries, Sicily would also endure earthquakes and the Black Plague, debilitating the island and its population even more.

In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi landed with his troops, speaking for Italian unity, and drove the Spanish out of Sicily. Sicily's fortunes declined even further, and there was great unrest. After two decades of poverty, the Sicilians began to emigrate in large numbers, hoping to better their lives in America. During World War I an unfair conscription policy was set in place: more young men were drafted from Sicily than from northern Italy. The New World offered hope.


We have seen that the Arab influence on Sicilian cooking was the most profound. That legacy continues today in ways that make Sicilian cooking inimitable. Encouraged by the nomadic Arabs, as well as by the demands of the natural terrain, Sicilians raised primarily sheep and goats. The flocks provide the milk for caciocavallo, provolo and pecorino cheeses. The whey left over is used to make ricotta, and Sicilians swear that only sheep's milk ricotta gives the right flavor to their desserts.

The Saracen sweet tooth was a legacy to the cloistered nuns who became famous for their cakes and sweet meats, for marzipan fruits, for cannoli and cassata. Inexplicably, some of their creations have names such as fedde del cancelliere or chancellor's buttocks, minni di virgini or virgin's breasts, and St. Agatha's breasts, named after Agatha, a Christian martyr whose breasts were cut off. We do not ask questions, but enjoy the sweets.

Ice Cream

Perhaps the most famous gift from the Arabs was sarbat which became sorbetto to the Italians and sherbet to the English. This is fruit syrup diluted with water. Mt. Etna provided ice, a boon in so hot a country and the sarbat became granita a version made by partially freezing the flavored water, then mixing the liquid and frozen part to a slush. In 1670, this was carried to Paris by Francesco Procopio. By the 18th century, Sicilian ices and sorbets were everywhere. In turn this led to gelato which is not really ice cream, for there is no cream, but a base made of crema rinforzata, a mixture of milk, cornstarch and sugar flavored by ground nuts, chocolate, or vanilla.


Sicilians in America

What happened to Sicilian cuisine when the impoverished Sicilians came through Ellis Island to feast on American shores? Much of the cooking was lost, subsumed by Neapolitan cooking. The Neapolitans were the first great wave of Italians who reached American shores, arriving in great numbers in the years from 1880 to 1900. The first thing they did was to establish food markets which would provide for the foods they loved.

When the Sicilians began to arrive in large numbers, in the years after 1900, they found some of their foodstuffs in these Neapolitan stores, and their cuisine adapted to the Neapolitan. Some of the more exotic Arab influences were lost. Saffron was prohibitively expensive in America and fell away from Sicilian cooking. Inexplicably, raisins and pignolia nuts were omitted from a rich caponata. Pasta con le sarde fell to the side, as well. Fresh tuna was not as abundant as in Sicily, and certainly was more costly. Though a strong canning industry sprang up around the use of tuna, the fish was not always packed in oil, and when packed in oil, it was not the fine olive oil of Sicily.

Many of the sweets were made in home kitchens, but only on special holidays. It was the grandmothers who knew this art which was not necessarily passed on to the next generation. Their children were discovering American sweets, many of them manufactured.

Today there is renewed interest in all things Sicilian. Those grandchildren with memories of their 'nonnas' want to find the authentic recipes and get back into the kitchen to prepare them on special occasions. This is frequently a difficult task. Sicilian cooking was localized, changing from village to village. The desserts made by Sicilian-American grandmothers may have had their names twisted by time and the English language.But cooking is fun, not burdensome to this generation. They may continue the mingled traditions of their mothers, while looking for the original.

Please check our new page creole-Italian cooking for the adaptations  that happened in the south. creole-Italian cooking

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If you are interested in more information as well as a large number of authentic Sicilian recipes, may we recommend the book Pomp and Circumstance. click here to read our review



Homer and The Odyssey

Homer's grasp on geography is highly uncertain. Many scholars believe that his description of Scylla and Charybdis is a description of the waters between Sicily and the tip of Italy's boot, and that "Book 7: Phaeacia's Halls and Gardens" may be a description of Sicily.

"Here luxuriant trees are always in their prime,
pomegranates, and pears, and apples glowing red,
succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark.
And the yield of all these trees will never flag or die
neither in winter nor in summer, a harvest all year round..."

"And here is a teeming vineyard planted for the kings,
beyond it an open level bank where the vintage grapes
lie baking to raisins in the sun while pickers gather others:
some they trample down in vats, and here in the front rows
bunches of unripe grapes have hardly shed their blooms
while others under the sunlight slowly darkened purple.
And there by the last rows are beds of greens,
bordered and plotted, greens of every kind,
glistening fresh, year in, year out."

The mattanza del tonno

The hunt for tuna is one of the most important in Sicily and the festival called the mattanza del tonno is a ritual that probably dates back to the Phoenicians. Aristotle recorded it in the 4th century. The ritual occurs in the spring when schools of bluefin tuna swim through the Strait of Gibraltar to spawn in the Mediterranean. Under the leadership of the rais (Arabic for 'chief') fishermen gather at dawn, chanting "aja mole! aja mole". The rais determines the positioning of a series of nets which are anchored parallel to the coast and may be as long as three miles. The tuna enter and are trapped in the series of nets until they enter the last net, called the Chamber of Death. . When the rais declares that enough are trapped, the fishermen harpoon them. It used to be that the fish would simply be clobbered to death.

Sicilian Vespers

March 30, 1282 was a day of such importance that the composer Giuseppe Verdi turned this event into an opera. The legend holds that a French soldier made advances to a young girl of Palermo as the vespers were ringing. The men of the city were so enraged that they murdered every Frenchmen they could find. The revolt spread across the island, and was a turning point in the European politics of the day.


Abulafia, David, Ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge University Press. London.

Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries. Cambridge University Press. London.

Goethe, J.W. Italian Journey <1786 - 1788>

Lerner, Meacham and Burns. Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture. W.W. Norton. New York.

Prose, Francine. Sicilian Odyssey. National Geographic Society. Washington, DC.

Root, Waverly. The Food of Italy. Random House. New York.

Sébilleau, Pierre. Sicily. B. Arthaud. Paris.

Simeti, Mary Taylor. Pomp and Sustenance. Henry Holt and Company. New York.

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Diana Viola is the editor of In Mamas Kitchen. Click to meet her on the about us page.


Other articles of interest:

the essence of Italian cooking (from The Silver Spoon)
book review of the translation of Italy's culinary bible, The Silver Spoon   
what is artisanal pasta
history of pasta
macaroni and cheese
about lasagna
St. Lucy's Day
history of pizza 
creole-italian cooking

the food and cooking of Rome and Lazio (with recipes)  
Roman foods and ingredients  
classic Roman dishes  
the satyricon - ancient roman indulgences  
"the blessing of the house" - easter in rome  

main pasta recipe page


Pizza and Mein Papa
a Sicilian Nana
sicilian mama and papa
Sicilian Comfort Food
Antoinette DeRobertis
Helen Viola
The Beat goes on (the new generation Violas)

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