One of the many misconceptions about Sicily is that it is full of sweets, fattening, fried and unhealthy foods. Living in Tampa, Florida, which has a lot of Sicilian immigrants that arrived in the late 1800s, their descendants have that inaccurate view of the island’s cuisine. Most of my fellow Americans in general believe that the food is fattening. They think Sicilian cuisine consists of a deep-dish, thick-crusted pizza and spaghetti with meatballs. They are sadly mistaken!
True, you can find many of these non-healthy foods in Sicily. The island is especially known for its famous desserts such as cannoli and cassata. There is no other region of Italy as famous for its sweets. And there are some fried street foods such as the arancini (rice balls) and panelle (chickpea fritter) that abound, especially in the capital city of Palermo.
However, it is very possible to enjoy healthy eating habits in Sicily. The expected longevity of Sicilians and southern Italians in general tend to be the highest in all of Italy. What is their secret?
The secret lies in the use of the natural foods and ingredients that are part of the island’s ecosystem. The rich volcanic soil and temperate climate makes it ideal for growing and cultivating many of the so-called super foods such as (extra virgin) olive oil, fruits, legumes, vegetables, berries, tomatoes, artichokes, eggplant, garlic, figs, basil, etc.
There is also an abundance of citrus such as oranges (blood oranges and other types), lemons and limes. It’s impossible to go through any part of Sicily without noticing the cactus and the accompanying fruit known as cactus pear. It’s also known as a prickly pear or Indian fig. It is a fruit that is juicy and edible and known to aid in digestion. You just have to take special care in peeling and eating this one!
Sicilians also have an abundance of organic fruits, vegetables and foods to choose from. About a third of the organic farms in Italy are located in Sicily.
We all know the benefits of drinking a glass of red wine every day, especially with your meal. Sicily has some great reds including Nero D’Avola, Corvo and of course the famous dessert wine Marsala. The wines from Tuscany get most of the glory for Italian wines but the Sicilian ones are just as good but underappreciated. Aided by the rich volcanic soil of Mt. Etna, I would say there are some Sicilian wines that are even better.
Fish is also a very important part of the Sicilian cuisine as the waters off the island produce a great amount of high-grade seafood. Much of the tuna is exported to Japan for sushi making. There are many fish markets in Sicily where you can have many options of seafood available during that particular season. And it is also a very important part of the Sicilian cuisine, more significant than pasta. In Palermo swordfish is used at a meal to signify a special event.
Another reason for Sicilian longevity is that they are not afraid to walk and use public forms of transportation. The old Italian custom of la passeggiata, or taking a stroll before dinner is alive and well in many Sicilian towns.
So don’t put off that visit to Sicily for fear of gaining weight. You can actually have a healthy vacation by eating and enjoying Sicilian cuisine. You can come back a bit lighter if you are active and follow the Sicilian ways of walking everywhere and eating healthy. Just try to limit the sweets… especially the cannoli!
Larry Aiello is an Italian-American living in Florida who loves to share his knowledge and passion for all things Italian. You can find out more by visiting his website at Addicted2Italy.com. He has also published a few books on Italy, the most recent called: First Time to Italy and Rome Vacation Planner: 2-Book Italian Travel Bundle and is available on Amazon.