We spent a week based in Palermo. We explored the city as well as some of the surrounding countryside. For the next few posts, please come along with us to Sicily!
Street Food of Palermo
The street food of Palermo is a thing. At least that’s what the Palermitani say. (Palermitani are Palermo residents!) We enjoyed a food-themed walking tour of the city on our first day. The best way to keep our attention is to jump from food item to food item.
Our tour guide, Francesco, seemed at first like a sleepy librarian. But by the time he got to his second story of many that day, we were laughing.
He didn’t shy away from big topics. He talked about the history of the mafia, or Costa Nostra, in Palermo. The Costa Nostra started in the 19th century as a protection racket (“Pay me to protect you from me!”). After World War II, more mafia families rose, bought power, and brought decades of violent infighting to Sicily, especially Palermo. ※
A very significant moment in the fight against the destructiveness of the mafia in Palermo was the assassinations in 1992 of anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone and his colleague Paolo Borsellino. At the location of their assassinations along the highway from the airport to the city, we had seen the monuments to them, their work and their deaths. Through the life-sacrificing work of Falcone, Borsellino, and many others, within a few more years, the mafia’s hold on Palermo and the city had been broken. In the last 30 years, Palermo has rejoined the tourist cities of Europe and the world. In 2018, Palermo was the Italian Capital of Culture.
Nonetheless, we could see the legacy of the mafia in many of the apartment blocks outside of the historic center of the city. Construction of sub-standard apartment buildings, often after the disappearance of much more livable and historic neighborhoods, was a key money-laundering mafia enterprise. The fact that Palermo started becoming safe and welcoming only 30 years ago expresses itself if you walk a street away from the main commercial avenues of the heart of the city. In other European cities that we’ve had the good fortune to visit, ones with much longer history of safe visitor culture, an exploration off the main boulevard usually reveals small streets of interesting boutiques, or charming houses, or picturesque winding ways. In Palermo, we did find a jumble of back streets; however, they offered no boutiques or pretty passages; just tired badly-maintained dark buildings — not at all welcoming. It will take some more time for Palermo’s new prosperity and security to spread.
Our guide explained that the mafia still exists! It operates behind the scenes, very much diminished. Tongue slightly in cheek, he said also that you can see the heritage of the mafia in plain sight: just look at how the people of Palermo drive, park, and cross streets! Chaos and rule-disdain everywhere! (We did have to look in every direction repeatedly whenever we wanted to cross a street.)
But that’s enough about the mafia. What about the street food?
We visited two of the three major food street markets: Mercato del Capo, and Mercato La Vucciria.
As part of our food tour, we walked through Mercato del Capo in the morning. The vendors had just laid out their amazing ranges of snack foods. We regretted that it wasn’t lunch time yet so we could try them all.
Our guide did, however, collect a few of the most typical for us to taste, including these:
Sfincione: Sicilian pizza. It’s a puffy bread, like focaccia. The name comes from an Arabic word that means sponge. Just tomato, garlic, onions, and perhaps anchovy; no cheese. It’s a typical breakfast or mid-morning snack. Definitely yummy: who can go wrong with tomato, garlic and onions?
Arancina: Fried rice balls which are typically filled with ragu sauce of veal and then deep fried in oil. But there are plenty of other filling options, such as beef, peas, cheese, and ham. We expected them to be very crispy on the outside, and dense on the inside, because that’s the way they look! But no! They are lightly crispy on the outside and moist and delicate on the inside. They may look boring, but they really are delicious.
Panelle: Chickpea fritters, whose history goes back to Arab times. Panelle are typically eaten as a snack or lunch. We found them a little boring, and a lot oily.
Crocchè or, in Palermo slang, cazilli: Potato fritters with a bit of parsley and mint. Best when just out of the fryer.
After our tour, we went by ourselves in search of more street food at the Mercato La Vucciria. Whereas the Mercato del Capo was bright and end-to-end food tables, the Mercato La Vucciria was darker, more chaotic, and seemingly a bit sketchy. We walked from one end to the other, past terrible tourist souvenir stores, graffiti-covered walls, and blank doorways. But this is supposed to be one of the best places to try really local food. We selected a food stand that seemed fresh and organized.
Even if the server was both hilarious and frightening…
…the food was delicious. Including:
Mangia e bevi, and its variations: Traditional mangia e bevi is bacon rolled around spring onion and cooked on a street barbecue. At the La Vucciria street market restaurant where we stopped for lunch, we found a range of meat rolls. At the display case in front of the open kitchen, we were invited to select uncooked options. These include pork or bacon or chicken, rolled around eggplant or onion or more meat! Then the cooks deep fried what we’d selected, and the server brought it all to us hot from the fryer.
Caponata: A bit like ratatouille, based on eggplant, with tomatoes, olives, capers and vinegar. This may not be exactly street food, but it is a Sicilian staple. This is the kind of dish that every cook makes in their own way, like Indian curries or Mexican moles. Each time we had some caponata, it was served just a bit cooler than the ambient temperature. For us, the olives and capers brought the other tastes to life. A favorite!
Streets and squares.
Continua… To be continued…