by Jeremy Dummett
Sicilian food is distinctive for its variety, freshness and intensity of flavour. It contains a unique blend of influences from the island’s past, for many of the foreign powers who ruled the island left their mark upon eating habits. The Greeks brought the Mediterranean diet including wine and olive oil. The Arabs added a new level of sophistication, bringing rice and pasta, oranges and lemons, aubergine and cucumber. We also have the Arabs to thank for introducing sugar cane, which led to the preparation of the very sweet pastries and desserts. In recent years the Sicilian wine industry has greatly improved both the quantity and the quality of production. Palermo with its strong Arab connections is one of the best places to experience this wonderful cuisine.
Food plays a big part in Palermo’s culture with people enjoying animated discussion of their favourite recipes. Writers from Lampedusa to Camilleri include detailed descriptions of meals being consumed. No book on Palermo, no matter how serious the subject, a magistrate’s memoirs for example, is complete without a description of favourite dishes and places to eat. Food is available everywhere in the city in astonishing abundance, from street stalls to bars, bakeries, ice cream and pastry shops, pizzerias and restaurants of all types. It can be eaten on the move or at a table in a small bar or smart restaurant. Visitors are in for a gastronomic treat.
A good place to start is in the street markets, where the variety and quality of food are on display. The most famous of the markets is the Vucciria, to be found off Via Roma close to Piazza San Domenico. The name comes from the French boucherie, or butchery, and is presumed to have originated in the time of the Angevin domination in the twelfth century. The market went on to specialise in fish, fruit and vegetables, stretching down to the Cala, the old port. At the centre of the Vucciria lies Piazza Caracciolo, named after the eighteenth century reforming viceroy. In the piazza one can see fish being cleaned by stallholders at the central fountain. Nearby in the tiny Piazza Garraffo can be found the striking, fifteenth century statue of the Genius of Palermo, the mythical founder of Palermo.
The character of the Vucciria was captured by Renato Guttuso in his painting of 1974, usually displayed in Palazzo Chiaramonte in Piazza Marina. It shows the rich profusion of produce on sale, the piles of fruit and vegetables, the meat and cheeses, in a visual feast. The Vucciria is now much reduced in scale, with only a handful of stalls selling food, as the district goes through redevelopment. It does, however, still retain some of its old atmosphere.
Today, the full colour and vitality of the street markets are to be found in the Capo and Ballarò districts, where the city’s Arab legacy is to seen in the rows of stalls that fill a maze of small streets and alleyways in an endless open market. Leaving the Teatro Massimo to your left, and proceeding down Via Volturno, you come shortly to an old city gate to your left, Porta Carini. Through this gate you enter Capo market and join a throng of shoppers as they push their way down a narrow gap between stalls piled high with tomatoes, artichokes, aubergines, peppers, oranges, peaches, watermelons and aromatic herbs. Gleaming piles of fish are displayed on slabs, with huge tuna and swordfish waiting to be sliced up.
Behind the stalls men prepare street food as they have always done, using deep pans to fry panelle, crocchette and arancini (chickpea fritters, croquette potatoes and rice balls filled with cheese or ham) while dishes of pasta are prepared such as anelletti al forno, small rounds of pasta baked in a tomato sauce with aubergine, boiled eggs, peas and cheese. Pizza al taglio (by the slice) is also on offer, including a local version called sfincione. Other specialities include pasta con le sarde (pasta cooked with fresh sardines, pine nuts, currants and wild fennel) and caponata (a sweet and sour vegetable dish based on aubergine). Look out for the sweet pastries, the classics being cannoli (crisp pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta) and cassata (a cake made from marzipan, sponge cake and sweetened ricotta).
Cannoli have become synonymous with Palermo, renowned worldwide. New York has its King of Cannoli, supplying the local market, while Berlusconi once ordered 300 to be made and sent to Rome for a convention. In the film, Godfather I, after a shooting, an underling is instructed to “leave the gun but bring the cannoli!”
Shortly into the Capo market, on your right, stands the church of the Immacolata Concezione (Immaculate Conception), unobtrusive from the outside, but containing on the inside some marvels of baroque decoration. The alleyway that winds through the market, having turned to the right, eventually leads to the back of the cathedral.
Here are some recommended establishments offering examples of the local cuisine:
Antica Foccacceria di San Francesco
Via Alessandro Paternostro, 58
(off Corso Vittorio Emanuele)
T: 091 320 264
Standing opposite the church of San Francesco d’Assisi, (St Francis of Assisi, who came to Sicily initially as a knight on crusade) this establishment serves a choice of traditional street food in cafeteria-style. It has been going since 1830 and counts among its famous customers Garibaldi and his redshirts.
Via Pannieri (far side of Piazza Caracciolo)
A stall with tables opposite, offering a whole range of street food.
Restaurants & trattorias
It is advisable to book in advance, especially for Friday and Saturday evenings.
Via Maqueda, 172
T: +39 328 131 4595
A new, high quality, venture by the owners of the renowned Sant’Andrea restaurant, now closed.
Corso Vittorio Veneto, 176
T: 091 322 378
Offers a “Cucina Popolana” (meaning a “popular” or “workers” menu) with straightforward, well known local dishes, in an informal environment.
Ferro di Cavallo
Via Venezia 20
(off Via Roma)
T: 091 331 836
Colourful, popular trattoria, serving excellent pasta and local dishes; don’t miss the cannoli.
Piazzetta Mulino a Vento, 4
(off Via Domenico Scina, leading from the Politeama theatre towards the sea)
T: 091 320 431
A smart, attractive restaurant offering a broad menu, specialising in fish, seafood and fresh pasta.
Piazza Sant’Onofrio, 37/38
T: 091 550 5440
Serves some of the best pizzas in town, as well as exceptional desserts.
Trattoria da Salvo
(Kalsa district, down by the sea)
T: 334 335 1329
Operating in the summer with outdoor tables and an open grill, this trattoria specialises in fish, including octopus, calamari, grilled sea bass and spaghetti alle vongole (clams). Carafes of cold white wine (preferably Grillo, the favourite of Inspector Montalbano in the novels of Andrea Camilleri) complete the experience.
Here are three personal favourites:
Via Principe di Belmonte, 111
T: 091 749 5104
Established in 1860, Spinnato is a well known feature of Palermo, situated in a wide, pleasant street free of traffic, with flower sellers at one end. It can be found off Via Ruggero Settimo, near the Politeama theatre. Aperitivi come with a generous plate of small snacks.
Gran Caffe San Domenico
Piazza San Domenico
T: 091 583 729
Situated in Piazza San Domenico, off Via Roma and next to the Vucciria street market, one can sit and admire the baroque façade of the church while enjoying a drink. A good place for a light lunch.
T: 091 777 3368
The Cala, the old port, has been renovated in the last few years to include a pedestrian walkway around which the yachts and fishing boats are moored. Alongside the walkways, on either side of the Cala, two bar/restaurants have been built, the Calamida on the north side, close to the main road. Here one can take an evening aperitivo watching the fishing boats prepare to go out for the evening. Campari with prosecco is among the drinks in favour.
Mary Simeti, Sicilian Food (Butler & Tanner Ltd, Frome and London, 1989). Simeti, an American resident in Sicily, links the food to the island’s history.
Andrew Graham-Dixon and Giorgio Locatelli, Sicily Unpacked (BBC2, January 2012). This television series, which combines art history with Sicilian food, covers Palermo in episode one.
Andrea Camilleri, La Vucciria (Skira editore, Milano, 2008).