This year’s marathon stay in Italy took us from Piemonte to Puglia through Calabria to Lipari and finally Sicily. My regular readers know that I import Italian wines under the name Girasole Imports LLC. Visiting my producers is an important part of the relationship building and education that is essential in representing the varietals. Italian wines are meant to be paired with the local food; a deeper understanding of the wines provides much insight into the food and culture of a locality. The schedule was a rigorous one with little time off the wine trail, despite the constraints on my time I was determined to book a street food tour once we reached Palermo.
Palermo, as elegant as it is rugged, has a long history of street food reflecting the diversity of the cultures which converged here. Foreign influences included the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Jews; their foods have been reflected in what has become know as Sicilian cuisine over the centuries. I searched for a tour that would offer a historical perspective of street food in conjunction with relevant cultural information; Palermo Street Food provided that and so much more.
We met our guide Giorgio at a location opposite Teatro Massimo, the majestic opera house and landmark in central Palermo. Winding through the bustling streets towards one of Palermo’s four outdoor food markets, Mercato del Capo, the energy was palpable. Locals out and about with their children, baskets in hand determined to get the first choice of what the vendors had that morning.
The Capo Mercato was alive with animated vendors calling attention to their wares. Stalls upon stalls of fresh vegetables, fish, olives, cheese and of course local street food. The sights, smells and sounds creating an excitement that reminded me of the souks in Israel.
At the entrance of the market our first stop was for a sandwich of Frittola. A long standing tradition within certain families Frittola is prepared with leftover bits, scraps actually, of veal at home and keeping them warm in a wrapped basket at the market. The tasty veal is tucked into special little rolls on a to order basis.
Fisherman returning early that morning with their catch lined both sides of the street. The clean smell of salt water permeated the air, this is what freshly caught fish smells like. Shinny glistening creatures of all shapes and sizes along with massive segments of tuna and swordfish adorned the tables.
Street food, being the food of the poor developed out of necessity having three three common elements. The food of the peasant class meant obviously that the food had to be inexpensive; Fritolla a perfect example of this – the veal scraps being gathered and cooked twice until tender and made tasty. Ease of eating was also key as this was the food of the working class and needed to be hand held to eat on the run or while working. Lastly, historically dental hygiene was virtually non existent, most people lost teeth to decay thereby requiring that the food be soft.
Our tour continued with Arancina, the classic Sicilian rice ball and Panelle & Crocche, a fritter of chick pea and potato. We snacked on olives, the likes of which we had never experienced as we strolled through the market.
Fried foods, typical of Sicily, were available in a variety of forms: zucchini flowers, cauliflower, and small fish just to name a few. Fried on request, the delicate tasty crust complimented the vegetable or fish but did not overwhelm it.
Cheese from throughout Sicily was stacked high at one of our stops, Giorgio selected a few for us to sample reflecting the strong flavors of sheep and goat’s milk – sublime.
Our last savory stop on the tour housed in a kiosk at the end of the market was something I tried to avoid, using the vegetarian La Levitt as my excuse. Spleen sandwich or Pan Ca’ Meusa has its origins from the early Jewish inhabitants in Palermo many of which were butchers by trade. Legend has it that they traded their butchering skills for offal and developed the Pan Ca’ Meusa as a type of “fast food” to market to non Jews. The spleen is first boiled then fried in pig lard before it is thinly sliced. The sliced spleen is placed in a seeded cool and topped with a bit of grated Caciocavollo cheese and perhaps a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
After all of that sampling, it was time for an Autista, a refreshing beverage made with fresh lemon juice, sparkling water, home made syrup green and a bit of bicarbonate of soda added immediately before drinking for that effervescent fizz.
As we sampled the delicacies of Palermo, Giorgio’s route took us through a number of important architectural and historic sites; he effortlessly wove historic details of Palermo’s past into our stroll. The diverse population of the city as it evolved influenced every aspect of its culture. Giorgio made a point of saying the at one time the Christian, Arab and Jewish population lived together in Palermo in complete harmony.
The tour concluded with a stop a quite a special spot, offering the deepest espresso, Cannolo, the iconic dessert of Sicily filled with lightly sweetened ricotta, a duo of gelato and almond granita. Certainly, these desserts can be found all over Palermo, for that matter all over Sicily but the defining factor here is quality. The essence of the flavor in each of this was precisely what it should be, truly a sweet ending to a wonderful tour.
Planning a trip to Sicily soon? I highly recommend a stop in Palermo and Palermo Street Food tours is an absolute must. Grazie Giorgio, it was a true pleasure to learn from you…alla prossima…
A well document reference on street food is Italian Street Food by Paola Bacchia.
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