To some people, Sicily conjures up images of endless citrus groves and fields of olive trees, blood oranges and golden olive oil galore. To others, it may be all about the wines (especially dessert wines and fortified ones like Marsala) and the abundance of fresh fish. To me, as you know, it’s all about the sweets. I already plan on returning one day to experience those other delicacies too – notably the wines and the island’s king of fish, swordfish… when I’m not 6 months pregnant ! (How’s that for a surprise – and total disclosure ?!) Thankfully though, gelati, granite and marzipan are not on any lists of foods to avoid.
And Sicily is truly a heavenly place for us sweet lovers. Let’s put it this way, ice cream sandwiches (literally, ice cream in a sandwich) are a way of life; and brioche dipped in sweet, icy granita is common for breakfast.
And so, without further ado, the highlights of my sweet discoveries in Sicily…
Pistachio & coffee granite, Dolceria Costanzo, Noto
As a non coffee drinker, it’s rather surprising how much caffeine I consume in Italy. But when it comes to gelati and granite, coffee shines. Dolceria Costanzo is arguably where you’ll find Sicily’s best gelato. And I went there with my heart set on discovering that for myself. But with one taste of their cold, coarse coffee granita, I was already in heaven – and forgot about the gelato. I can’t imagine any sweet being more refreshing and satisfying on a hot, sunny day in Italy. The very friendly boys at Costanzo (Davide, Daniele and Roberto, below right) gave me a taste of almost all of their granita flavors, including the seasonal gelsi (mulberry/blackberry) and pistacchio, a winner in my book. If it’s hard to imagine pistachios and ice (and a lot of sugar) being one – and being divine… all I can say is that it’s worth the trip to Noto to see – and taste – for yourself.
Almond granita, Caffè Sicilia, Noto
Granita ? in Noto ? How could I not mention Caffè Sicilia ? There are reasons it’s on every Sicily traveler’s radar. A history dating back to 1892 and boasting one of Italy’s best pastry chefs are two of them. I’d say Corrado Assenza’s brioche is the third reason. Assenza (in the photo below) has quite the reputation for his unique combinations of ingredients and using only the freshest of the local crop. If his gelati names seem ordinary, just know that the chocolate flavor has lemon rind and ginger in it, and the orange flavor has wild fennel, olive oil and onion in it ! As for his granite, they make a singular ingredient shine, no sweet or savory surprises here. Wild strawberry, blood orange or the region’s famous Noto almonds, it’s a cold burst of flavor in every spoonful.
As much as I enjoyed the granite, I’d go back for the brioche alone. Key word, “alone” (the brioche, not me). The locals at the tables around us chatted away in sing-song Italian, while dipping their airy brioches in granita, but I personally preferred them eaten separately. Below the tray of brioches at the entrance to the shop is an equally tempting selection of cannoli, individual tarts and desserts. I spent more time deciding between the different varieties of torrone, which have all miraculously traveled back to Zürich with me… unopened. Oh, and be sure to look up at the ceiling, the chandelier is worth seeing (below). Hint: it’s not crystals or bulbs, but tubes of honey.
Cioccolato vaniglia (chocolate with vanilla), Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Modica
If you’re in Sicily and you’re a chocolate lover, a pilgrimage to Modica is a must. Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily, in production since 1880. Modica chocolate has a unique texture, using traditional Sicilian methods of heating cacao only up to 45 degrees Celsius instead of 90. In general, we are more accustomed to eating chocolate that has been conched, its sugar crystals have dissolved, and it gives us that ‘melts in your mouth’ unctuous taste experience. Not so with Modica chocolate. You appreciate it for its more “pure” state and the cacao beans’ aromas that have been preserved (Bonajuto’s beans come from West Africa).
The shop is in a tiny picturesque alley facing the Chiesa Madre di San Pietro. Inside you can follow the Bonajuto family history, watch a video shot at their cacao plantations and especially taste a square of each of their varieties – different percentages or spices and fruits (orange, lemon, salt, marjoram, cardamom), and the one that stood out for me, vanilla. I recommend tasting their marzipan stuffed olives and their mpanatigghi as well, both examples of sweet meets savory. Mpanatigghi are pastries made with chocolate, ground almonds, spices and…veal. The poor girl who tasted one while I was there and then asked what it was, only to reveal thereafter that she’s vegetarian (oops !).
Frutta martorana, Caffe dell’Arte, Modica
Throughout Sicily, especially Palermo, display cases of fruits and vegetables in the most vibrant of colors and the most perfect of forms can be found. The incredible details on these little pieces of art are impressive. Even more so when you consider that they are not much more than almonds and sugar. In Modica, a city known for its chocolate, this rainbow of a display caught my eye, and the shopkeepers let me simply ogle the trays and trays of glistening frutta martorana (also known as pasta reale) with wide eyes and an open mouth.
Cassatina Siciliana, Pasticceria Massaro, Palermo
Massaro is definitely an address I hope to return to, for the bright pastry shop with an absolute plethora of sweet choices – mini cakes and cookies and stunning marzipan fruit and vegetables, almost too pretty to eat. The Massaro gelateria across the street is just as tempting, with lines out the door and just about everyone walking out with a soft brioche exploding with heaps of gelato. (A stellar flavor was pistachio chocolate swirled together as one). Best of all was their mini Cassata Siciliana, a classic Sicilian dessert, interpreted differently by just about every pastry shop on the island. Everyone seems to agree on the sponge cake layers soaked in liqueur, the filling of rich, sweet ricotta, oftentimes dotted with mini chocolate pieces, encased in green colored almond paste, topped with sugary icing and always finished with gorgeous candied fruits. It’s pretty much the flavors of Sicily’s best known desserts in one. This one was bite-size, incredibly soft, and sweet without being cloying.
Pistachio & stracciatella gelato, Gelato Bianca, Siracusa (also in Noto)
For someone who avoids repeating restaurants as much as gelato flavors at one gelateria, rejoicing in tasting as many different ones as possible, it was quite a statement for me to order pistacchio and stracciatella at Gelato Bianca over and over… and over again. Yes, it was that good. Super creamy, it managed to be rich and light at the same time. Other flavors of theirs that I have only seen in Sicily, and that almost tempted me to stray from the above, were cannolo, cassata and ricotta. Next time…
Enoteca Il Barocco, Ragusa. Among the shelves filled with bottles of wine, bright green shelled pistachios and savory spreads is a wide selection of brands of Modica chocolate and carob bars.
Gelati DiVini, Ragusa. No tasting for me (see disclosure in opening paragraph), but certainly a unique list of gelato flavors at this tiny shop, specializing in wines and liqueurs – in their gelati.
Caffe Pasticceria Marciante, Siracusa. I nearly walked right by this shop, but the trays and trays of cookies in the window stopped me in my tracks.
Antico Caffè Spinnato, Palermo. Looking for a sophisticated, posh café address in the new quarter of Palermo ? This is it. The gelato was a standout for me and my friends, who all melted over the flavor, Sette Tentazioni (below left), a take on the signature cake made with seven different forms of chocolate.
What are your favorite sweet addresses in Sicily ??
Some more sweet reads for you:
Nick Malgieri reminisces about returning to his Sicilian roots, discovering an entire world of sweets and meeting the island’s best bakers
Serious Eats shares their “9 Must Try Sweets in Sicily”
Andrea de Robilant reveals the island’s best desserts, while searching for the mythical cake, Trionfo di Gola