Thanks to the array of occupying foreign powers and the geographical separation from mainland Italy, Sicily developed a quite unique culture over the centuries. From festivals and celebrations, agricultural and food traditions to linguistic and verbal peculiarities - the special cultural features can be found in many parts of Sicilian lifestyle.
1. Sicilian hand gestures
The Italian gesture is the most typical cliche of Italians, but among Sicilians, hand gestures are often used in many different fields of everyday life. Its origin is often believed to have been favored by the great variety of languages and people over the centuries and gestures made it easier to communicate with each other. Others also link the use of gestures as a way of furthering resistance against foreign rule since the Greek invasion.
Indeed, some of the common gestures you may see mean "This tastes great", "Do you want to stop for coffee?" or "His wife is cheating on him". You will also find that gestures are more common among men than women.
Festivals held for patron saints once offered the only chance for a holiday, socializing and entertainment. Celebrations often take place in spring, giving farmers the chance to rest after planting and to pray for a successful harvest. Everybody came in from the field on these occasions for religious processions, games, horse races and music. Today, these festivals are still celebrated as a chance to dress up and get together, and are often centered around food and wine, like the Sagra del Cappero (caper festival) in Pollara, Salina, the Inycon Festival in Menfi celebrating wine with music, dance and crafts, or the Sagra del Pistacchio in Bronte in late September, dedicated to the tasty local nut.
3. St Martin's Day celebrations
On November 11, St Martin's Day, families celebrate their new, thick, spicy, green olive oil by sampling it on "I Muffuletti", round sandwich loaves baked with fennel seeds and dressed with salt and oil. If they don't have their own olive trees, families obtain a year's supply of olive oil from a relative or another trusted source, making sure to have a full "giara", a waist-high terracotta storage jar.
"I Muffuletti" is accompanied by a glass of new wine - usually strong and amber-colored and retrieved directly from the barrel. Many families have a least enough grapevines for a yearly bottle of wine, keeping it in the cellar if there is one, and if not, in the garage or anywhere else they can find a cool spot.
4. Schedules and timetables
As Sicilians are used to unreliable local transport, many do not really stick to precise timetables or schedules. Opening hours of shops, churches and offices should be referred to with caution - see them more as a guideline and don't get too hung up about them. Generally, shops open at 8 or 9am until midday and then again after 4 or 5pm until 8pm, but a bit of flexibility is always expected.
5. Water Usage
Out of habit and necessity, Sicilians fiercely conserve water. Indoor plumbing did not reach the rural interior until the 1950s. Even there is and has been plumbing, there is often no water due to poor piping. Bowls are often placed under spouts and spigots to catch an errant drop, and water is recycled - water from boiling pasta, for example, is given to pets or plants instead of spilled down the drain.
Family remains of central importance in Sicilian society. Young Sicilians tend to live with their parents until their own marriage, a pro-pension encouraged by the lack of affordable houses and well-paid jobs. The constant support of one’s family has its negative side. Young people fear the moment of separation and acquire suitable professional skills relatively late.
In fact children will usually stay at their parent's home and in Mamma's care until they are married and even then return on an almost daily basis to talk, get their washing done or have a meal prepared. While this closeness is a wonderful quality, you may find it a little over protective and demanding if you stay with a Sicilian family and are not used to accounting for all your goings on!
7. The mafia
During centuries of absentee sovereign power, Sicilians developed an inherent distrust of government, a fierce loyalty to their own and learned to rely on justice administered by local bosses. After unification 1860, landowners employed thugs to intimidate and protect and the underworld system flourished. Using crime to create fear and form alliances, the mafia soon infiltrated every part of society.
During the late 1980s, more than 350 mafiosi were convicted, resulting in the murder of the judges Falcone and Borselino in 1992. Salvatore "Toto" Riina was convicted for the murders and finally arrested in 1993 after being fugitive for 23 years.
The mafia does not bother tourists and it is unlikely that you would run into anything connected to the group while in Sicily. Sicilians are now more comfortable speaking out against mafia violence, though they remain suspicious of anyone asking too many questions.
8. Sicilian language
You will not come across Sicilian language much today except for in the more remote villages of Sicily, but it is still blended in with formal Italian in the larger cities. Small Sicilian is made up from Arabic, Hebrew, Byzantine and Norman, making it sound very different from formal Italian with its Roman roots. Depending on a person's heritage, small Sicilian words are still found in everyday speech and you can also detect minor difference in sentence structures and different accents .
Even though it is not used as an official language, Sicilian is recognized as a "minority language" by the UNESCO and is regarded to be distinct enough from formal Italian to be considered a separate language
9. Sicilian Cooking
Sicilian cooking shows traces of all cultures that have existed on the island of Sicily over the past two centuries. Sicilian has a lot in common with Italian cuisine, but you will also find many Greek, Arab, French and Spanish influences.
Sicilian cuisine is commonly known for its own produce and seafood. No matter the season, there is always an excellent choice of fish and seafood in Sicily, including tuna, swordfish, red mullet, prawns, octopus, squid and many more.
The amazing variety of pasta dishes makes use of all the bounty that Sicily has to offer. A typical Palermitan dish is "pasta con le sarde" - served with fennel, sardines, pine nuts, raisins and anchovies.
Arancino is probably the best-known Sicilian fast-food treat, small fried rice croquettes filled with vegetables or cheese, which can widely be found in bars or street food vendors.
Sicilians also coined the creation of cannolis and are praised for their delicious Gelato. What makes the Sicilian ice-cream so special is its base made from milk and starch, producing a rich, smooth and light dessert. Dating back to the Arab rule, Sicilians have long been used to combining ice with sugar and natural flavors to make delicious granite and sorbet and the craft of ice-cream was perfected in the 17 century when chocolate arrived with the Spanish from the New World.
10. Sicilian Wine
Sicily's dry and warm climate with long days of sunshine and little rain over the summer months perfectly suits wine production and Sicilians have been making wine since 4000 BC. Today, Sicily boasts one of Europe's most dynamic wine industries.
Sicily has more than 50 varieties of Indigenous wines grown on approximately 100,000 hectares of vineyards producing over 600 million litres of wine every year, making it one of the largest wine producing areas in Italy. Besides the classic Nero D'Avola, the intensive Sicilian red grown on the Eastern side of the island, you will find fine red sand white wines made from Grillo, Inzolia or Frappato grapes, varieties that are also used in the famous Marsala wine from the Western coast.
Many new wineries have emerged in recent years, some of them have been producing fortified wines for years, but only recently began to make their own varietal wines, some of which can be considered to be among Sicily's best wines.
Check out our fantastic small adventures to Sicily here.