Born at Bagheria into a poor family, after having taken part in World War I Buttitta joined the Italian Socialist Party and around this time started to write poetry in Sicilian. His first volume of poetry published was Sintimintali (Sentimental), followed in 1928 by Marabedda. Soon after, Buttitta relocated to Milan, where he achieved some success in the commercial world while continuing to pursue his passion for literature. Due to his political leanings, he had to leave Milan during World War II; after which he joined the Resistance, was jailed by the fascists, and narrowly avoided the death penalty, before returning to Milan, where he spent time with Sicilian intellectuals such as Elio Vittorini, Salvatore Quasimodo and Renato Guttuso. In 1954 he published his new book of poetry, Lu pani si chiama pani (The bread is called bread), financed by the Italian Communist Party. In this volume he defined himself as Pueta e latru (Poet and thief), an allusion to the manner in which he would pass among the people like a thief, appropriating their feelings, leaving behind a sentimental thread. This was especially the case in relation to his nostalgia for his homeland, but there are also more socially-oriented themes, in particular, protests against the social situation of Italy and Sicily, such as A stragi di Purtedda (1947, about Salvatore Giuliano and the Portella della Ginestra massacre), and Lamentu d'una matri (1953, about Salvatore Carnevale, a Sicilian trade unionist killed by the mafia).
Buttitta, during his career as a poet, has never hidden his pride in being Sicilian, and his love for the language of the island. In one of his most famous poems, Lingua e dialettu (Language and dialect), he explicitly talks about language as a key issue for his people, and implores his fellows Sicilians to preserve their language:
diventa poviru e servu
quannu ci arrubbanu a lingua
addutata di patri:
è persu pi sempri.
becomes poor and servile
when their language is stolen from them
inherited from their forefathers:
it is lost forever.
A contemporary Berlin-based Sicilian folk singer, Etta Scollo, celebrates the work of Sicilian folk singer and Buttitta associate, Rosa Balistreri, including rendering a version of Buttitta's The Pirates of Palermo:
Arrivaru li navi
The ships arrive
- Selection of poems (in Sicilian, Italian, French and Spanish
- Some English translations of some Buttitta poems