The Definitive Vegan Sicily Guide
Despite being an island where fish is eaten in abundance, Sicily is actually one of the most vegan-friendly regions in all of Italy. I rate it second only to the vegan paradise of Puglia.
Let me be clear that I’m basing this vegan-friendly rating on the number of vegan options in traditional Sicilian cuisine, not on the number of vegetarian or vegan restaurants on the island.
If you’re hoping to eat in a fully vegan restaurant for every meal, you’re going to struggle. Even in Palermo, the regional capital and largest city in Sicily, there are only two vegan restaurants, and one of those is the plant-based burger chain Flower Burger.
But don’t worry about that, because there’s no need to limit your exploration of vegan food in Sicily to restaurants with a fully vegan menu. The good news is that traditional Sicilian cuisine is full of plant-based dishes! Many of which are vegan Italian dishes you’ve probably never heard of before.
An Introduction to Sicilian Cuisine
There’s so much more to Italian cuisine than just the typical pizza and pasta dishes served in Italian restaurants in London, San Francisco and elsewhere around the world. In fact, you could argue that there’s no such thing as Italian cuisine.
Rather, each of the country’s 20 regions has its own distinct culinary traditions. The first time I visited Sicily as a vegan back in 2015, I was blown away by just how many of those culinary traditions were veg-friendly.
You can read my first impressions in this old blog post about Siracusa. Since then, I’ve returned to Sicily to explore it much more thoroughly, and I keep discovering more and more vegan Sicilian dishes to try.
Sicily’s soil is generally more fertile than that of the nearby mainland, thanks largely to Mount Etna, Europe’s only continuously active volcano. This means that you’ll find even more fruits and vegetables here than in other southern regions of Italy.
Sicily produces an abundance of grain, wine, olives, almonds, pistachios, figs, artichokes, fennel, peas, eggplants, peppers, lemons, oranges and much more.
A number of different citrus fruits grow here, including some that you’ve probably never seen anywhere else. One example is the cedro, which looks like a giant lemon. Apparently its English name is “citron”, though I’ve never come across it in any English-speaking countries.
The blood oranges of Sicily are considered to be the best in the world, and they come in Tarocco, Moro and Sanguigno varieties.
Is Sicily Really Vegan-Friendly?
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be glad to hear that meat is not a big part of either the local economy or the local cuisine. While small amounts of anchovies or sardines are sometimes used to flavor otherwise vegan dishes (be sure to ask), there are relatively few traditional dishes that use meat.
Admittedly, many fish and other aquatic animals are eaten in Sicily, but it’s often the vegetables that take center stage. Their flavors are then highlighted with ingredients such as capers, raisins, caraway seeds and pine nuts.
The Arab domination of the island in centuries past has had a profound effect on the food culture in Sicily today, and there have been many other influences as well. Sicilian cuisine is full of strange and wonderful flavor combinations and contrasts and is an absolute delight to explore.
Here you’ll find an almost infinite number of naturally vegan pasta toppings, such as pesto sauces made from a variety of nuts and herbs.
But Isn’t Pesto Made with Cheese?!
Most people outside of Italy are familiar with just one type of pesto, which is made with basil, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. That one comes from Genova, a northern city in the region of Liguria, and is known in Italy as pesto alla genovese.
But a pesto can be just about any mix of ingredients that are crushed together in a mortar and pestle, and many of the Sicilian versions of pesto do not contain any cheese or other animal products.
The pesto with almonds from Agrigento is especially delicious and is made with locally grown almonds from the orchards surrounding the famous Agrigento temples. But do check for anchovies (acciughe), which are sometimes included in pestos and other sauces.
Whereas grated Parmesan is a common topping for pasta dishes in other parts of Italy, in Sicily you’ll instead often find bread crumbs sprinkled over pasta as a finishing touch.
There are dozens of plant-based local specialties to be discovered in Sicily, and this vegan Sicilian food list is definitely not exhaustive! But it does include my personal favorites, which I highly recommend you add to your own Sicily travel bucket list.
Vegan Sicilian Dishes
This popular dish is a kind of vegetable stew in a sweet and sour sauce flavored with sweetened vinegar. Fried eggplant always features prominently, and there are usually some capers thrown into the mix, but the rest of the ingredients can vary. It’s commonly served as a side dish, but also sometimes appears as an appetizer or even as a main course.
Macco di Fave
Also called maccu di fave, or simply maccu, this thick soup is made from dried and crushed fava beans and flavored with wild fennel. This very filling dish has long been a staple food in Sicily and is even thought to date back to ancient Roman times. It’s often served either with a type of small pasta called rigatoncini or with bruschetta (toasted bread).
If you like gazpacho, one of the most-loved vegan dishes in Spain, you’ll love this typical Sicilian soup, particularly on a hot summer’s day. Like Spanish gazpacho, salamureci is served cold. It’s a very traditional dish from the coastal city of Trapani and is made with tomatoes, basil, garlic, almonds and day-old bread.
Stale bread is the surprising secret ingredient in many Italian dishes that are part of cucina povera, or “poor man’s cuisine”. You’ll also see it appear in traditional dishes from Tuscany and Puglia, for example.
Salamureci is actually very similar to salmorejo — another cold Spanish soup that originates in Andalusia and is perhaps not quite as well known as gazpacho. Given the similarity between the names “salmorejo” and “salamureci”, it’s thought that the two dishes have shared origins.
As with all Italian dishes, each cook has their own way of making the dish, so ingredients and cooking methods can vary wildly. I’ve seen some versions of salamureci that are more like stale-bread salad than a soup. But the one pictured here was quite soup-like. And, since it was served in a restaurant in Trapani that’s actually called Salamureci, I’m guessing it’s pretty authentic.
In Catania it’s known as schiacciata, while in Palermo it’s called impanata. Common vegan versions include scacce (this is the plural form of “scaccia”) that are stuffed with tomato, eggplant, onions or parsley, or a combination of these. Some bakers might brush the scaccia with an egg wash, but this is not part of the traditional recipe.
As explained earlier, the green, basil-based pesto alla genovese is just one of many types of pesto found in Italy. The word can refer to anything that is made by crushing ingredients with a mortar and pestle. In fact “pestle” has the same root word as “pesto”.
A number of different pesto varieties can be found in Sicily, and most of them are vegan. These include pesto trapanese, pesto Taormina, pesto di pistacchio, and, of course, pesto siciliano.
Pasta alla Norma
This dish originated in the city of Catania and is supposedly named after the opera Norma, written by Catania-born composer Vincenzo Bellini. Nowadays, you’ll find it not just in other Sicilian cities but also throughout the mainland. It’s one of the most popular dishes to come out of Sicily.
The sauce is a simple tomato and basil affair, with the addition of chunks of eggplant. Cheese is often grated over the top, so just ask for it without by saying “senza formaggio”.
Similar to the farinata eaten in Liguria and Piedmont and the cecina eating in Tuscany, this popular Italian street food snack is made from chickpea flour. However, whereas farinata and cecina are baked into huge, round pancakes, panelle are cut into small, square or rectangular pieces. These are then fried and eaten with a toothpick.
Alternatively, they can be stuffed inside a bread roll and eaten as a sandwich, known as pane e panelle (“bread and panelle”). My favorite place to eat panelle in Palermo is Il Panellaro Matto, a food stall that sets up every evening from Wednesday to Sunday in Piazza Caracciolo.
They serve panelle and a couple of other fried snacks, including the next must-try Sicilian food on our list: crocchè.
These croquettes can often be found at the same street food stalls that serve panelle. The main ingredient is potatoes, and herbs such as parsley or mint are also sometimes added.
If you’re feeling really hungry, ask for a bread roll stuffed with both panelle and crocchè. A great place to try this is at the Focacceria Antichi Sapori San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo. For less than two euros, you’ll end up with a sandwich too big to fit in your mouth.
This typical street food resembles a take-away version of Naples’ pizza marinara, but it’s in fact a distinct local specialty found only in Palermo. Sfincione is a very thick bread similar to Ligurian focaccia, but crusty on the bottom.
The top is coated with a mixture of tomato sauce and onions. Many recipes also include non-vegan ingredients such as anchovies or cheese, but I managed to find a vendor at the Ballarò market in Palermo who sells a vegan version.
This dish is part of Sicily’s cucina povera and was invented as a way to use up the leftover pasta from the previous day by frying it in a pan with sauce. Pasta fritta al sugo, for example, is basically a fried version of pasta alla norma, made with tomatoes, eggplant and breadcrumbs.
The ideal pasta shape for making pasta fritta is spaghetti or rigatoni, but it’s also possible to use other shapes. It’s usually eaten at home rather than in restaurants, but Osteria Mangia e Bevi in Palermo is one restaurant that does offer this traditional dish.
The word “pastella” just means “batter” in Italian, so pastellati can be pretty much anything that’s battered and deep fried. It’s the Sicilian version of tempura from Japan, but with a thicker coating of semolina flour.
And while it’s best to ask about egg in the batter just to be sure, the traditional recipe doesn’t call for any. You’ll find a wide variety of vegetables made into pastellati, including green beans, mushrooms, eggplant and zucchini. My favorite, though are broccoli and artichoke pastellati.
This traditional type of sandwich is popular both in Sicily and in the nearby Aeolian islands. The word “pane” means “bread”, and “cunzato” is the Sicilian dialect equivalent of “condito” in standard Italian. It means seasoned, flavored, or “dressed” with some kind of condiment, if you will.
Because you see, the bread is the start of the show here, while everything else is just for seasoning. Unlike other cucina povera dishes that use stale bread, this dish requires fresh bread that’s straight out of the oven.
The filling is fairly minimal and is there mostly to bring out the flavor of the bread. It’s sure to include olive and tomatoes, and the sandwiches are sometimes made ahead of time so that the bread has time to soak up the oil and tomato juices.
These rice balls are one of the most popular street foods in Sicily. The name “arancini” literally means “little oranges,” and it refers to the typically orange tint of the breadcrumb coating on the outside of the balls.
Actually, not all arancini are balls. Sometimes they come in a perfectly round shape, but they can also be more oval like the coxinhas eaten in São Paulo and other parts of Brazil. The filling is a mix of rice and various other ingredients, which usually aren’t vegan.
However, I’ve found a couple of places in Sicily that do offer vegan arancini, the best of which is Ke Palle in Palermo. Order the arancino filled with porcini mushrooms; you won’t regret it.
Latte di Mandorle
Don’t be confused by the word “latte”. This is not a coffee drink, although it is a drink that you are likely to be very familiar with already.
Here’s a hint: “latte” in Italian means “milk.” And by the way, the proper name for coffee mixed with lots of milk is “caffè latte”. If you leave off the “caffè” and just order a “latte”, you will be served a tall glass of milk!
So what kind of milk are we talking about in this case? Almond milk. The Phoenicians began cultivating almonds in Sicily thousands of years ago, and this highly-prized nut has been an important part of Sicilian cuisine ever since.
You may think of almond milk as something trendy and modern, but in Sicily it’s quite the opposite. Before the days of electricity and refrigerators, the locals preferred almond milk over cow’s milk because it would last longer without going bad.
It’s especially popular in the summer as a refreshing drink to cool yourself off in the heat. Be aware, though, that homemade almond milk in Sicily usually has quite a bit of sugar added to it, so it may be much sweeter than what you’re expecting.
And here’s another treat that may be much sweeter than what you’re expecting if you don’t look closely before biting into it. What appears at first glance to be a juice piece of fresh fruit is actually marzipan!
They’re named after the Martorana convent in Palermo, where they were first invented in the Middle Ages. According to the legend, the nuns were preparing to receive a visit from the archbishop.
Except that, because it was November, the fruit trees in their normally lush garden were all but bare. So the nuns made some very realistic looking fruit out of almond paste and hung the fruit on the trees to impress their guest.
The marzipan fruits were a bit hit, and they soon became one of the most popular “conventual sweets”, which are pastries made by nuns. Nowadays, you can also find them sold in regular bakeries and sweet shops, especially in Palermo and Messina.
This cool and refreshing dessert is basically shaved ice topped with a flavored syrup. Lemon is a popular flavor, but there are many others.
One thing that’s a bit disappointing about Sicily is that vegan ice cream flavors are not as abundant here as they are in other parts of Italy. And by ice cream, I mean gelato, which is of course far superior to ice cream in every way.
In most Italian gelaterie, it’s a safe bet that at the very least the fruit flavors of gelato will be made without cow’s milk, and often the dark chocolate flavor as well.
And more and more gelaterie are veganizing some of their other flavors by using rice milk or other plant-based milks. In Sicily, though, for some reason even the fruit sorbets are not true sorbets and do contain some cow’s milk. It’s not uncommon for lemon sorbet to be the only vegan flavor available.
But thankfully, we have granita to come to our rescue! This semi-frozen dessert is always guaranteed to be plant-based, as it’s made with just sugar, water and your flavoring of choice.
Lemon granita is probably the most popular type. Even if you don’t normally like lemon-flavored foods, I suggest you give it a try. The lemons grown in Sicily are less acidic and more floral than the varieties you’re probably used to.
The town of Modica is famous for its chocolate, which is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. It’s the only place in the world that still produces chocolate bars using the ancient method invented by the Aztecs in Mexico.
This method is called “cold-working”, and it preserves more nutrients and more flavor than modern chocolate-making methods. It’s also incredibly simple and calls for only two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. No milk!
The resulting product has a distinctive, almost grainy texture, and you can actually see the sugar crystals sparkling inside the bar when you bite into it. In addition to the cacao and sugar, various flavorings are added, such as orange and mint.