23 February 2019
To get to know Palermo’s history and culture a bit better we decided to take a guided tour on our first day. It was to be a tour focused on Palermo’s legendary street food culture and our guide was to be the lovely Raffaella, born and bred in the city.
In temperatures that were already icy we started at Il Capo, just one of Palermo’s street markets dating back to Arabic times. Today though artichokes, wild asparagus and cedri, a large citrus fruit we’ve only seen in Sicily, were all in season and there was swordfish aplenty.
Stalls selling all kinds of takeaway food vied for position between the fruit and veg stalls and fishmongers. Despite the cold there were plenty of people hanging around enjoying a bite.
Our street food tour was an interactive one. We got to eat as we went along! I was mercifully excused from the first sampling, frittola. Served by the handful from a wicker basket covered in cloth, I have it on good authority from all three of the others that this mixture of calf meat, lard and cartilage was as disgusting as it sounds but the locals seem to like it!
Our next stop, sitting amongst the noisy, busy stalls, we tried some much more agreeable bites. Stefan and I have regularly enjoyed aranchini for a lunchtime snack during our time in Sicily. Here, however, we enjoyed some of the most delicious examples we’ve had stuffed with ragu or molten mozzarella. They are definitely best eaten fresh from the fryer. So popular are these filled rice balls that in Palermo on the festival of Santa Lucia on 13 December people eat nothing but aranchini for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We also enjoyed a taste of panelle, chickpea flour fritters with parsley and mint, and cazzilli, a type of potato croquette whose name translates in English as little penises! Already starting to lose the feeling in our hands from sitting in the cold, we swiftly moved on.
After all that fried food we cleansed our palates with an autista, a bright, bizarre citrus flavoured drink made explosive by the addition of bicarbonate of soda immediately before drinking. Not easy to drink without it going everywhere.
When not looking at, talking about or eating food, Raffaella also took us through the lanes of household market stalls and shops. Many vendors hadn’t bothered to set up their stalls on account of the weather. The wind was howling through the alleys.
She took us back to Taverna Azzurra, a Palermo institution that we had already stopped at for a drink the night we arrived. With the locals we perched at the bar enjoying a selection of food bought as we wandered the markets. This included sfincionello, a type of tasty pizza bread with tomato and sardines. Over a glass of sangue we talked with Raffaella about the influence of the mafia on Sicily and her childhood memories of the murder of anti mafia judge Giovanni Falcone and emerging movement against the payment of the pizzo protection money. Aged just 7 she remembered waking up one white sheets hanging everywhere in the streets, not in surrender but defiance. Our chat was made more poignant by the fact that her mother was a judge who served alongside Falcone in the judiciary.
Raffaella had one last “treat” in store for the meat eaters. This is Stefan munching into pani ca meusa, a sandwich of boiled veal lung and spleen fried in lard. His verdict? “It’s better than the frittolo“!
Before our tour came to end with some obligatory cannoli it started to snow. Raffaella was incredulous. She had not seen snow for many years in the city! By the time we said arrivederci we might have all been frozen to the bone but had a lot of warmth in our hearts for her wonderful city.