Prickly Pear. | Photo by Karen Bradbury

Prickly Pear. | Photo by Karen Bradbury ()

Stationed in Italy? What a dream come true! Or maybe you’re a first time traveler to the Mediterranean’s largest island? Whatever the case may be, we hope you’re ready to do some mighty good eating while you’re there! For a crash course on Sicily’s famed culinary traditions, fear not and venture straight into the heart of one of its bustling street markets, where a combination of tasty treats to share with the folks back home and scrumptious specialties to consume on the spot await. Here’s a short shopping list of the unique products you don’t want to miss:

Modica chocolate: The secret to “cioccolata modicana” is found in an ancient method of preparation handed down from the Aztecs which gives the chocolate a grainy texture and keeps many of the beneficial properties of the cocoa intact. These ingot-shaped bars are sold in flavors including vanilla, cinnamon, chili, coffee or citrus fruits.

Prickly pear jam: Prickly pears are just one of the fruits you’re likely to see in a Sicilian market, and while you can’t bring fresh ones home in your suitcase, they’ll travel just fine in the form of jam. Known as Fichi d’India locally, you’ll also find them as an ingredient in locally made skincare products.

Pistachio nuts: When buying what’s referred to as the island’s “green gold,” you’re sure to see the name Bronte. This town on the slopes of Mt. Etna is famed for its fabulous crops of this buttery nut, which benefit from the lava-rich soil. Pistachios find their way into countless treats you simply have to try on the spot, from gelato to granita (slushies) and cakes to cannoli. Or bring home a jar of pistachio spread (crema al pistacchio) and use it to garnish your own baked goods.

Almond paste: The island’s other best-loved nut is the almond, and this Sicilian version of marzipan finds its way into countless cookies, tarts and pastries, including those associated with Christmas and other religious holidays. “Pasta reale” sold in plastic packets can be transported back home for all baking you’ll no doubt be inspired to do back home.

Spices galore: Home cooks might wish to pick up packets of various blends of spices. Common tastes of Sicily include the locally grown saffron, wild fennel, basil, red pepper, sea salt and oregano.

A bottle or two of wine: Fortified Marsala wine is the island’s answer to port, and one of the island’s most famous drinks. In terms of reds, Nero d’Avola is the grape you’re most likely to run across, and as for whites, you won’t go wrong with a bottle of either Catarratto or Grillo.

Liquors: The tastes that define Sicily are found in numerous liquors, so instead of (or in addition to) grabbing a bottle of limoncello, reach for those that taste of cinnamon, hazelnuts, citrus peel (agrumello), myrtle, walnuts or pomegranate. The aforementioned pistachio and prickly pear are also flavors of liquor.

Cheese: Again, your choices are almost endless, and you can hardly go wrong reaching for a Pecorino or a Provola, but for visual impact, go for a Caciocavallo, which looks just like a sack a gnome might carry upon his back.

Olive oil: Olive trees were brought to Sicily centuries ago by the Greeks, and today, Sicily accounts for nearly 10% of all olive oil produced in Italy. The finest of oils should be jealously guarded and used only in dishes in which it can shine as a major ingredient, such as a dip for freshly baked bread.

After all that shopping, you’re no doubt hungry. Quash cravings quickly with one of these treats:

Panelle: Particularly if you’re in Palermo, you’ll want to try this treat of humble origin. Chickpea flour is fried up and served as fritters or in white bread as a simple (and very inexpensive) sandwich.

Arancini: A gooey center surrounded by Arborio short-grain rice, breaded and deep fried, these balls of deliciousness are sold everywhere from bars to bakeries. While you could try a new filling for every day of your vacation, ones you shouldn’t miss include a mix of meat and peas called ragu, eggplant, sausage, ham and cheese, spinach and Mozzarella.

Cannoli: In need of a sweet little pick-me-up? One bite of this crispy, deep-fried flour tube stuffed with a creamy ricotta filling and finished with flavors from cinnamon to chocolate to cherry and you might never want to depart from Sicily’s hallowed shores. And with so many fabulous tastes, who could blame you?

What’s your favorite Sicilian market treat?

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