Harness the power of pistachio. Sicily is home to the fattest, sweetest pistachios in the world, and you would be smart to seek them out at every possible opportunity. Gelato is the most obvious vehicle for the awesomeness of pistachio, but you’ll find it in dozens of iterations: dressing pastas of raw tomato and garlic, crusting great steaks of grilled swordfish, and ground into a smooth olive green paste and stuffed inside flaky croissants. If there is one item worth bringing home from Sicily, it’s a jar of pistachio pesto—the easiest way to fool people into believing you’re a culinary bad ass.
There are sardines, and then there are sardines. Americans are terrified of small, oily fish—something to do with the fact that most of us grew up eating Filet-O-Fish instead of oil-cured anchovies and grilled mackerel. It’s a tough aversion to conquer, but if ever there were a plate that could do it, it’s pasta con le sarde, Palermo’s most iconic dish. Fresh sardines are cooked down with wild fennel, capers and raisins until they dissolve into a sweet, salty, briny stew that coats thick coils of spaghetti like an ocean pesto. A little toasted breadcrumb on top, a glass of cold white wine on the side and a lifelong food fear dies a dramatic death.
Take to the hills. The southeastern corner of Sicily is the agriturismo capital of the island, where farmers, wine makers, and olive oil producers open their doors to tourists looking to live out their pastoral fantasies—if only for a day or two. Come hungry. One dinner, at the Agriturismo Leone outside Noto, lasted three hours and consisted of a dozen or so antipasti, two full trays of pasta, and a spread of six different grilled meats and sausages. When we told the owner we were too stuffed for dessert, he looked like we had told him one of his pet ostriches died.
Keep it casual. There are chefs doing interesting, creative things with the superlative raw materials of the island, but the best food of Sicily, like the best food of Italy, isn’t to be found in restaurants with Riedel stemware and Michelin pedigrees. The best food we ate—grilled spring onions wrapped in pancetta, pasta alla norma, fried risotto balls—were found at inexpensive bars and trattoria across the island. Signs of a potentially amazing Sicilian restaurant: no tablecloths, no walls, no menus.
Gas station espresso is the lifeblood of Sicily. There’s not a highway rest-stop barista who couldn’t grind and extract circles around the mustachioed coffee police of Portland, Brooklyn, and other hipster havens. Pull over to fill up anywhere on the island and inside you’ll find a deli case stuffed full of a dazzling display of panini and pizza and a Sicilian man playing a $5000 espresso machine like a grand piano. Espressos are short in this part of the country, so if you like to sip your joe rather than scrape it out with a spoon, order a lungo.