Sicily's sweets pull from the area's varied history
Click through to see the 9 sweets you can't miss!
Better known to Americans by its plural form, cannoli, just one cannolo is enough to convert even the strictest of sweets critics. Some say cannoli came to Sicily via the Saracens, while others think their origins are even older. And today? They’re the most famous Sicilian pastry in the world.
But forget the super-cloying imitations you know from home: While there’s a fair amount of sugar or honey mixed into the ricotta filling, the sweetness doesn’t overpower the ricotta’s fresh, delicate flavor. And when I say fresh, I mean fresh. No self-respecting Sicilian bakery will serve you a cannolo already filled; instead, the ricotta is made daily and piped into the fried cannolo tube when you order, along with your choice of candied fruit, chopped pistachios, or chocolate bits. So take a bite, feel the crunch of the shell against the creaminess of the filling, and just try not to love the people who invented this, whoever they were.
Paste di Mandorle
Almonds are big in Sicily—so big that even almond paste comes in many forms. (See: marzipan, bacione di Taormina, cassata siciliana...).While the best-known version outside of Sicily might be marzipan, I fell in love with Paste di Mandorle: The almond paste is mixed with candied citrus fruit and whole almonds, then wrapped in a layer of white chocolate. The delicate orange flavor balances the almond, making this a delectable entry into the world of Sicilian mandorle sweets.
Arancia Candita ("Candied Orange")
Nobody candies fruit like the Sicilians. When I first saw these sugary balls, I thought that, surely, they couldn’t be entirely made of orange— there must be a filling inside.
Wrong. Bite through the chewy, sugar-coated skin and, inside, you’ve got the pulp and all, just with a sticky, glutinous texture. And since all the sugar in the world can’t take the bitterness out of an orange skin, it’s much less sweet than you’d expect. In fact, the taste was so overpowering, I couldn’t manage much more than a bite or two— part of the reason why Sicilians generally slice the candied fruit up into tiny pieces and mix them into other desserts, like torrone or ice cream.
Few foods could be more colorful, more Sicilian, or more work. Every cassata is a labor of love: Soak a sponge cake in liqueur, layer the slices with sweetened ricotta (perhaps mixed with candied fruit and chocolate bits), cover the cake with green-colored almond paste, cover the entire creation in a sugar-and-egg-white icing, and then go to town with the decorations, studding the frosting with candied cherries, oranges, and other fruits. The whole effort makes for an airy-yet-moist cake (alone a tough food to find in Italy, home of drier, crumblier cakes like panettone). Cassata combines the flavors of other Sicilian specialties, from cannoli to marzipan to candied fruit, with seeming effortlessness. An unabashed celebration of Sicilian sweetness? You bet.
Bacione di Taormina ("Taormina Kiss")
It’s not surprising that it only takes a bite to fall in love with this treat— the name, bacione, literally means “kiss.” The coating (I opted for pistachio, but the chocolate was tempting) hides a soft, cocoa-and-almond filling, with a texture just a shade firmer than peanut butter. Mixed in are sugar-covered almonds, nuts, and pieces of chocolate. If all that sounds cloyingly sweet, it’s not: Like most of the other dolci I tried in Sicily, the sugar is balanced with something else (here, the slight bitterness of the cocoa) that makes it easy to keep eating. Dangerously easy.
Mattonella di Cioccolato con Fichi ("Little Brick of Chocolate with Figs")
The name "little brick" couldn’t be more appropriate. When I first held this white-chocolate-layered chunk, I couldn’t believe how heavy it was! After all, there’s a lot packed in here: the white chocolate, crumbled with some of the ubiquitous Sicilian pistachios, covers a thick layer of dark chocolate that's mixed with dried, sweetened figs. The flavors mesh well— though I couldn't help being reminded of the Raisinets of my childhood.
Marzipan, or "Frutte Martorane"
At its basic level, marzipan seems ingeniously simple: Almonds are pureed, mixed with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar, then melted into a paste. But a love of surprise seems built into the DNA of Sicilian bakers, who revel in sleight-of-hand with their sweets (think: a cake that’s more layered than it looks, and fillings you can’t see until you take a bite). Enter the frutte marturane, or “fruits of Martorana.” That same old almond paste that's used as a component of many desserts is reshaped into miniature fruits and vegetables, from eggplants to peaches. Every detail is attended to (spun-sugar peach fuzz, impeccable dyes, paper stems), making you feel guilty for even taking a bite. Until you do—the super-sweet, soft paste is delicious enough to make you forget your guilt at ruining these mini-masterpieces.
While you can now find torrone, or nougat made from a sugar-and-honey syrup, all across Italy, it probably got its start in Sicily. The top of a piece of torrone has a glass-hard gloss of royal icing, but the rest of the bar is just on the soft side of chewy, almost like a hardened bar of taffy. In Sicily, it’s most common to see torrone mixed with almonds, giving it a delicate, sweet flavor. You'll also find torrone that's been jazzed up with candied fruit—like these slices of candied orange, which added a little bitterness and zest to each bite.
Biscotti con Mandorla ("Almond Cookies")
This classic Sicilian cookie represents Italian baking at its best. The cookies are baked until the edges of the swirls have only barely crisped, while the rest remains moist and chewy. Each bite packs a powerful pistachio punch— a taste all the more potent because these are, of course, Sicilian pistachios, which are known for their especially strong flavor. If all that pistachio weren’t enough, an almond tops it off, leaving a cookie that’s nutty, sweet, and, well, perfect.