Perched on the edge of Europe bursting with influences from the Carthaginians, Romans and the Saracens, Palermo is a diamond in the rough. Narrow streets with peeling paintwork give way to beautiful Byzantine squares, thick with marble carving and decoration. Arabesque domes share space with frescoed cupolas; street markets sit neatly down side alleys that were originally at the ancient gates of the city. This is an authentic town that has a long history of snacking in the streets created by a culture of poverty and practicality. Palermo street food, rather than being influenced by the worldwide trend of food trucks, still relies on tradition and local ingredients, producing food that is has stayed true to it’s roots and is frequently named one of the top destinations in the world for street food.
The sun sucked into the side streets leaving us hugging the small strips of shade, moving from one side of the street to the other as we turned left and right, tracking the shade and following our guide. We were headed for Porta Carini the old city gate and Il Capo Market. It winds its way through the narrow old Arab quarter starting with bright vegetables at the gate entrance, giving way to fresh fish from the morning’s catch, spices in multicoloured rows and goat, pork, beef, perfectly butchered. All topped by coloured tarpaulins suspended like sails to protect the produce, listless in the heat and muffling the voices of the barking vendors. Here amongst the chipped stonework and peeling paint we would find the best of Palermo street food.
Friggitoria is where we started, literally a shop selling fried food, but at Friggitoria Arianna the batter is crisp and the oil fresh. Panelle arrived at our rickety red plastic table, making oil stains on the brown paper wrapping but smelling wonderful. These are ugly ducklings, squares of seasoned chickpea flour with a little parsley which are plunged into hot oil until crisp on the outside and served with a wedge of lemon.
After these, crocchè, affectionately called cazzilli (little penises), arrived rolling gently on a paper plate. Small deep fried breadcrumbed croquettes of light, fluffy potato mixed with either parsley or mint. To eat either of these in true Sicilian style stuff multiples into a sesame roll to create fried carb heaven. Pushed into each of our hands was a Sicilian Birra Moretti, opaque with condensation; the perfect ice cold chaser.
Arancine the infamous fried rice balls, not arancini, in Palermo have a feminine ‘e’ ending which is very important to the locals and is much emphasised when you buy them. Said to be in recognition of their beautifully rounded form, but much more likely to come from the local dialect spoken widely in the market. Made from succulent saffron risotto and stuffed with rich ragu there is nothing ‘left over’ about these wonderful balls. There’s sleight of hand at the Friggitoria, oval shaped ones are ragu and mozarella and the spherical ones are ragu only. These are the traditional flavours but it’s now possible to find a plethora of fillings in friggitoria that specialise in arancine and nothing else.
Stoppng at a stall heaving with bright coloured spices and plump dried fruit we bought large fat raisins, mixed with local pinenuts a Sicilian snack ‘stand by’ done up in a twist of plastic. We passed stalls loaded with limoncello, fat bunches of dill, tiny snails and vivid red tomatoes, finally stopping in a bright deli. Amongst the Bottarga di tonno, Cacotte di Sicilia (local cheese) we were here to buy Schiticchio, a picnic to take to our next stop. Armed with large green olives, a chunk of Cacotte and some local artisan bread we dived back into the side streets to find the legendary Pane Cá Meusa.
The Pane Cá Meusa is a must try Palermo delicacy, but even the most adventurous eaters can struggle here. A sesame bread bun stuffed with lung and spleen that is first boiled and then fried. The helping is generous and after a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon we tucked in. The bread is light and fluffy, the filling slightly grey with the faint taint of offal and dripping slowly onto the paper wrapping. I took my first bite, it was not so much the taste as the aroma I struggled with. I offered it to my fellow travellers but there weren’t any takers.
So far we’d had beer and water on our tour but now we were to try Sangue, meaning blood. A thick deep red fortified wine served ice cold in small glasses. Our guide laid out the Schiticchio we’d bought earlier and standing at the ancient bar we sipped sweet wine and ate olives, bread and cheese whilst chatting to the locals. Taverna Azzurra is a real slice of Palermo, unspoilt and unchanged, crumbling and familiar to the those who frequent it, a favourite of Giorgio Locatelli.
It was time for a dessert and another Palermo speciality, Gelato Con Brioche, literally ice cream in a bun. There’s a choice of more than twenty flavours from Panna Cotta to pistachio, whipped into whirls in huge iced tubs. With an amused smile the store owner slathered my brioche with thick panne and fragola ice creams, wrapped it in a paper napkin and stuck a bright plastic spoon in to the middle. This was going to be about who demolished this first, me or the sun. We’d reached the end of our tour, a real discovery of Palermo, a taste of the real city and an appreciation of it’s traditions.
We travelled to Palermo for a long weekend, Its an easy distance for a few days away with beach, bars and lovely restaurants to hand.
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