The most delectable Sicilian sweets to try on your travels
Updated Oct 2020)
Sicily is a dangerous place for a person like me.
Sicilian desserts embody every texture that make up a good sweet. You get the creaminess, the crunch and also the different varieties. I’ve friends that usually aren’t keen on desserts but can’t resist taking something sweet when in Sicily.
That said, if you’re visiting soon, this post will guide you through the most delectable Sicilian sweets.
Put the diet aside, because there’s no such thing as calorie counting when it comes to eating in Sicily.
1. Canolo Siciliano
For me, the Canolo Siciliano (Sicilian canolo) is the king of Sicilian sweets. And it’s what I most crave when I land in Sicily.
The delicious pastry comes from the commune of Caltanissetta in central Sicily and has roots in Arabic culture. It’s said that during the time of Arab rule, the emirs’ harem of women used to make canolis. When the Normans arrived, the emirs and the harems disappeared, but the culinary tradition remained.
So historic is the beloved canolo, that it’s included in the list of traditional Italian food products. This is an official document of the Ministry of Agricultural Food and Forestry Policies.
A traditional Canolo is one of the best sweets to try in Sicily
What is a canolo?
In short, a canolo is a tube-shaped pastry filled to the brim with fresh ricotta cheese.
Small chocolate chips and a piece of orange peel also complete the Sicilian classic. You may find that one ‘pasticceria‘ in Palermo makes it differently from another in Catania. Either way, it’ll still be delicious.
The canolo Siciliano is so celebrated that there are annual events to mark the mighty pastry. The Sagra del Cannolo di Sicilia is a 2-day festival with music, entertainment and plenty of canoli. In 2019, Aci Bonaccorsi — a municipality in Catania — hosted the event.
In Palermo, there are tons of great places where you can also get your canoli fix. These include Pasticceria Costa, Caffè del Corso and Extra Bar.
Best Sicilian sweets to try in Sicily – canolo with ricotta at Pasticceria Costa
“Sicily is a dangerous place for a person like me. The food culture’s one of the best in Italy, and so too are the Sicilian sweets.”
Map Sicily: where to find all of the places in this post
2. Granita Siciliana
It might sound strange to eat first thing in the morning, but most Sicilians do, and they know best.
This cold, flavored icy dessert’s the highlight of my mornings in Sicily. A sweet made from water, sugar and lemon juice may not sound like anything special, but granita is sensational.
The texture reminds me of a liquid sorbet, and it tastes heavenly on the palate. They usually serve a glass of granita with freshly cream on top and a dome-topped brioche bread roll.
The origins of granita
Like the canolo, the origins of granita also date to the time of Arab rule in Sicily.
Many sources say that granita comes from an Arab recipe called sharbat. It was an iced drink popular in the Middle East, flavored with fruit juices and flower petals. In fact, Rome also has a version of the sharbat called ‘grattachecca’, which they sell in bars and kiosks.
The process of making granita has greatly evolved since Arab times. From collecting, solidifying and grating snow, to using a wooden tub, it’s changed immensely. In the present day, many places use ice cream makers to make the different varieties of granita.
Sicilian sweets — how to eat granita
There isn’t a right or wrong way on how to eat granita. I like to break off pieces of the brioche roll and dunk it into the cream and flavored ice.
As the ice begins to melt, use the spoon to clean up the glass accordingly. Granita comes in a variety of flavors such as lemon, coffee, mulberry and also pistachio. My favorites are strawberry and chocolate — just not together.
Suggesting the best place to eat granita in Sicily is like asking what’s your favorite film. Taste is subjective, and what I find incredible, you may find mediocre. However, if pressed for an answer, I’ll always say Bar Mimmo.
Unfortunately, this superb pastry shop isn’t in the busy visitor spots of Palermo or Catania. Instead, you’ll find it in a small town on the north-east coast called Furci Siculo. It’s also popular among locals regardless of the season.
My number one choice for granita and brioche in Sicily: Bar Mimmo in Furci Siculo
3. Cassata Siciliana
It’s another Sicilian sweet that’s said to originate from the days of Arab rule, though it’s never officially been proven.
Cassata was once a sweet typically reserved for Easter, but today, it’s available whatever the season.
The origins of cassata
The story behind the cassata is a long and fascinating tale, consisting of Arabs, nuns and a pastry chef.
It goes back to the time when the Arabs brought various products to Sicily, like almonds and citrus fruits. One of the oldest versions is the baked cassata.
In fact, you can still find this baked version in many cake shops in Palermo. The pastry is filled with sweet ricotta and dark chocolate drops and placed in the oven. The main difference between the 2 versions is that it doesn’t contain candied fruit or almond paste.
The almond paste in the cassata came from the Norman period. Nuns from a convent in Palermo invented the ‘martorana’. It was a mixture of almond and sugar flour, colored green with herbal extracts, which would later be added to the cassata.
What does cassata taste like?
Personally, I find cassata to be very sweet — and that’s coming from someone with a sweet tooth. The layers of sponge are delicious, but I tend to leave the almond paste and candied fruit.
There are also different varieties depending on where you are in Sicily. The version from Messina tends to be less sweeter than other counterparts — something I much prefer. Another interesting version is the cassata from Siracusa, which also has layers of sponge cake but no icing.
Additional ingredients you can also find in a cassata include pistachio, chocolate or orange blossom water.
Above all, one characteristic that most cassata has is a colorful appearance. Candied fruits, peel and beads also makes this cake stand out from the rest.
Like the canolo, the cassata is also a traditional Italian food product.
The evolution of the cassata
In the 18th century, sponge cake replaced the shortcrust pastry. The Spanish introduced chocolate to Sicily, which was then added to the ricotta filling.
Next came the ‘martorana’ decorations made from almond paste. Candied fruit was also added during the Baroque period. In 1873, it was a pastry chef from Palermo, Salvatore Gulì, who first decorated the cassata with pumpkin. The last stage was the cover of sugar icing with candied fruits.
Cassata is as legendary as the story behind it, and one Sicilian sweet you must try when in Sicily. Pasticceria Palummo in Catania makes a mean cassata and is a delicious starting point.
Best desserts to try in Sicily — a green and traditional Sicilian Cassata
It’s time for cake. And there are several Sicilian cakes so heavenly, you’ll be dreaming about it long after you’ve put down the fork.
Setteveli translates to ‘seven veils’ which should give you an idea of the cake’s foundations.
Best Sicilian sweets — layers of a Setteveli
Dark Madagascan chocolate mousse, hazelnut and dark chocolate Bavarian cream sandwiched between a cocoa sponge cake. Add to these 7 layers some crunchy and soft chocolate and chocolate frosting and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece.
Whether for a special occasion, or with a cup of coffee, setteveli is a dessert you can enjoy at any time.
Controversy behind the cake
There’s some contention surrounding the cake’s true origins. Ask any Sicilian, especially from Palermo, and they’ll proudly claim Setteveli as one of theirs.
Three Venetian pastry chefs, on the other hand, would say otherwise. They presented the Setteveli during the Pastry World Cup in 1997, and took home the coveted cup. After the event, the chefs applied for Setteveli to be a registered trademark.
That said, Sicilians can’t claim Setteveli as their own, despite many saying they ate it before 1997.
Nonetheless, the cake’s a firm favorite in Sicily, particularly in Palermo. Though the original chefs’ recipe is secretly guarded, there are also plenty of equally delicious versions to try.
Pasticceria Cappello on via Colonna Rotta is synonymous for its Setteveli and a must for fellow chocolate cake lovers.
Not the original Setteveli, but a delicious version of the trademark cake
5. Sfincia di San Giuseppe
Sfincia di San Giuseppe is a typical dessert that was usually served on the feast of St Joseph (19 March).
Today, it’s a Sicilian sweet you can find all year round, but typically in smaller towns. Its base consists of spongy fried dough (like puff pastry) and is lathered with ricotta cream. Candied fruit and chopped pistachios also finish off this Sicilian favorite.
A proper sfincia should have cream inside, and on top of the pastry. However, this all depends on where you go, and the chef that makes it.
Sicilian sweets for winter
Originally produced in Palermo, sfincia is popular in western Sicily. Its shape kind of resembles a sponge you’d used for cleaning the dishes.
The dessert’s origins aren’t quite known, but many sources point to its Arab influence given that it existed during Medieval times.
The sfincia is also considered as a ‘winter’ food item. This is because it’s the period that produces the best sheep’s milk.
It’s an essential ingredient for making the Sicilian ricotta that goes into the sfincia. Like its counterpart Sicilian sweets, sfincia is also included in the list of traditional Italian food products.
Desserts to try in Sicily: the very yummy Sfincia of St Joseph
6. Gelato di Campagna
This Sicilian sweet translates as ‘countryside ice cream’, a name that’s pretty misleading, as ice cream, it’s not.
Gelato di Campagna has the consistency of nougat, and usually comes in 3 colors. Sicilians usually eat this delicious sweet during the period of the Feast of Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo.
The main ingredients are sugar, pistachio, and also almonds and candied fruit. Its texture melts in the mouth, similar to ice cream, and leaves you yearning for more.
Sicilian desserts with Arab origins
A running theme in this post has been the clear Arab influence in these desserts, and this one’s no different.
Monasteries adapted the version of the sweet. It would later become widespread in 1860 to celebrate the arrival of Garibaldi and the annexation to Italy. The dessert matches the colors of the Italian flag: red, white and green. These colors come from the pistachio (green), and white and red vegetable dyes.
Nowadays, you’ll find Gelato di Campagna in many festivals, also during religious events. While there have been several versions of the dessert, containing different colors and ingredients, nothing beats the original version.
Candied fruits are one of the main ingredients in the Sicilian sweet, Gelato di Campagna
When I’m back in Sicily and craving a small sweet fix, there’s one thing I look for.
Biscotto di pasta di mandorle is a small, soft, chewy cookie with a texture similar to macaroons. It’s made with sweet almonds and is also typically garnished with candied cherries.
As with the cassata, ground almonds are also one of the main ingredients used in this Sicilian cookie. Sugar, egg whites and lemon zest complete the mixture. Varieties of the biscotto differ depending on where you are on the island. In Messina, they’re small and white, while in the area surrounding Etna they use hazelnuts.
Biscotti di pasta di mandorle originates from Palermo and was first invented by nuns from the Martorana convent. What’s more impressive, is that these almond biscuits have also been around since the 12th century.
A taste of heaven in an almond cookie — biscotto di pasta di mandorle
8. Cassatelle Siciliane
How does crispy, crunchy crescent-shaped pastries filled with ricotta cheese sound? Sicilian ricotta cassatelle is up there with the best of pastries on the island. Cassatelle are typical of the area of Trapani and also in Castellamare.
Deep fried in hot oil and served with a sprinkling of icing sugar, cassatelle isn’t for the diet conscious. However, one bite of this sweet cheese-filled pastry, will make you forget you ever started one.
While the name ‘cassatelle’ may differ around Sicily, the recipe remains the same. In Sicilian, it’s ‘cassateddi’, while in Marsala they call it ‘cappidduzzi’.
Many tend to mistake cassatelle with cassata given the similarities in the name. However, aside from the ricotta cheese used in both Sicilian sweets, they’re very different.
Sicilian sweets — tantalizing crescents of Cassatelle
The thing I’m immediately reminded of when eating biancomangiare (when cold) is panna cotta.
Biancomangiare is a milk pudding, made without eggs, with a soft, melt-in-the-mouth consistency. It loosely means ‘white food’ given the color of the majority of the ingredients used to make the dessert.
This super simple Sicilian sweet consists of few ingredients, namely milk, corn starch and sugar. Orange zest is added to the mixture, and an optional sprinkling of cinnamon gives it the finishing touch. You can also add almond flakes to give some crunch to the dessert.
You won’t be surprised to read that Biancomangiare dates to the Arab domination of Sicily, and comes from humble roots. Some variations of Biancomangiare also swap cow’s milk for almond milk, giving the dessert a nuttier aroma.
You can eat Biancomangiare hot or cold, and also in any season.
Biancomangiare is one of the simplest, though tastiest, desserts to try in Sicily
10. Minne di Sant’Agata
What would you say to trying a Sicilian dessert that resembles the shape of small breasts?
The Minne di Sant’Agata — a small Sicilian cassata — is exactly this. The cakes are a tribute to the patron saint of Catania, Saint Agatha. She became a martyr around the year 251 after being tortured and having both her breasts amputated.
These round-shaped sponge cakes are soaked in rose petal liquor and filled with ricotta, chocolate drops and candied fruit.
The dessert of a martyr — Sicilian sweets
They’re finished off with a coating of white icing and a candied cherry is also put on top. While its invention comes from a story of tragedy, the round-shaped dessert’s a way of marking her courage.
Unsurprisingly, this Sicilian dessert, is popular on the feast day of the patroness of Catania, and is sold everywhere.
This take places from 3 to 5 February and again on 12 February. Fast forward a few months to August 17, and another occasion also takes place. This time to mark the day that her body was brought back to Catania after having been stolen from Constantinople.
You can find Minne di Sant’Agata in pastry shops in Catania all year round.
It’s all green: Minne di Sant’Agata on display in a pastry shop in Palermo
11. Torta Savoia
If you’ve ever tried the blissful Sachertorte in Vienna, you’re going to love the Sicilian Savoia Cake.
Thin layers of sponge cake are sandwiched between a cream made from 3 types of chocolate and hazelnut. A glossy icing also finishes off this Sicilian classic cake.
The Savoia cake has a special place in Sicilian history. It was made in honor of the annexation of Sicily to the Kingdom of Italy. The story goes that it was the Benedictine nuns of Catania that first made the cake. To honor the House of Savoy — after whom the cake is named — they added hazelnuts from Piedmont to the ingredients.
Many proud Palermitani, however, dispute this version of events. They say that it was a pastry chef from Palermo who created the cake for the Savoys visit.
Whatever the true story, there’s no doubting the deliciousness of this cake. Serve it with a dollop of fresh cream and leave no trace behind.
Indulge in a slice of history with the Savoia cake ©Pasticceria Costa
12. Pignolata Messinese
Pignolata Messinese are pieces of baked, or fried, dough which is then covered with a lemon and chocolate icing. The pieces of dough are arranged in a pile to make two pine cones on the serving dish.
Though it’s popular at certain times of the year, you still can find pastry shops that sell Pignolata Messinese.
The origins of Pignolata Messinese
The origins of the pignolata can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Sources show that people used to eat sweets that resembled a cone covered with honey. While it was delicious, the upper classes regarded the honey pignolata as too simple for their tastes.
It was only during the time of the Spanish rule that the recipe evolved into what it is today. The pastry chefs of Messina re-invented the humble pignolata by adding more refined ingredients like cocoa and lemons. It made the dessert richer and also more appealing to the palates of nobility.
Like many of the Sicilian sweets in this post, the Pignolata Messinese is also on the list of traditional Italian food products.
A petite tray of doughy goodness — Pignolata Messinese ©Pasticceria Freni
13. Genovese Ericine (Genovese cakes)
Behind every Sicilian sweet is a fascinating tale to tell, and the story behind Genovese Ericine doesn’t disappoint. In the hilltop town of Erice lives a lady called Maria Grammatico, who runs a shop selling these delicious cakes.
Genovese Ericine are sweet pastry cakes filled with a delicate ricotta cream. To be honest, I consider them more as a cookie than a cake, but it’s irrelevant to the taste.
The story of Maria Grammatico — best Sicilian sweets
Maria’s story is one tinged with sadness. Her father died from a heart attack, leaving her mother pregnant with their 6th child. Unable to cope, she sent Maria and her sister to learn the art of pastry at a convent. It is here where she learned the recipe of how to make Genovese Ericine from the nuns.
Maria would often watch them make these shortcrust pastry and cream cakes. She eventually left the convent at the age of 22, and later opened a small family-run shop. Maria still makes the cakes to this day.
Why is there Genoa in the name?
You can try a freshly baked Genovese Ericine for yourself when you visit Erice. It’s called La Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico, and is at Via Vittorio Emmanuele 14.
Best Sicilian desserts to try in Sicily — Genoa cookies from Erice
Other Sicilian desserts to try
I could easily continue listing more Sicilian sweets, but I think you’ve a good list with which to start.
Other desserts to look out for in Sicily include the Africano. This is rolled sponge cake, filled with chocolate and covered with crunchy chocolate. It’s also finished off with some crushed pistachios.
One more to try, if you’ve the space, is Riso Nero alla Messinese. Rice, milk and chocolate are the main ingredients of this Sicilian dessert that originates from Messina. It’s simple, sweet, and is also a favorite at Christmas. The sweet’s also of the first rice recipes that date back to the time of Arab rule.
Have I made you drool over the Sicilian sweets in this post? Which one would you most like to try? Let me know in the comments below!
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience, a demographic (late 20s onward) that enjoys glamping over camping and staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels. Flashpackers also like to indulge in the local food and wine, cultural activities, as well as a spot of wellness on their travels. Want to know more? Read on....