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Anne's Travel Notes - Street Food of Palermo, Sicily

Anne Robichaud

Fast food? Invented by the Palermitani centuries ago. Palermo's streets have always teemed with the carts and kiosks of street vendors - the mensari - calling out their wares in Palmeritano dialect as they fry in great vats and then season the many delicacies of the cucina povera. Now called "street food", the seeking out and savoring of these ancient traditional dishes is a sensorial/cultural experience not to be missed while in Sicily.

AranciniActually, our first encounter with the flavors of Palermo's "fast food" always starts on the hydrofoil from Naples before we even land in Palermo. When our children were small, they were quick in line at the shipboard cafeteria for arancine("little oranges" - although the size is equivalent to quite a big orange!): large saffron-flavored rice balls, rolled in bread crumbs before frying and hiding a secret in the center - a meat sauce (ragu) made with peas, all bound together with wisps of caciocavallo cheese (optional). You can also purchase other variations on the classic arancina: with ham and mozzarella in the center or nowadays, il vegetariano made with spinach and a soft cheese. Almost any bar or rosticceria of Palermo serves the arancine, often a favorite breakfast selection of those who prefer something salato (savory) to start the day.

Sfincioni, a bread so richly loaded that it is a meal on its own, is often a worker's breakfast choice. Every panificio (bakery) or rosticceria (self-serve cafeteria and/or take-away) has its own favorite sfincioni recipe, though the traditonal one calls for a generous topping of tomatoes, onions, olive oil, bread crumbs, cheese (caciocavallo), and anchovies, all put on the bread dough before it is slid into the oven.

Another street food Palermitano favorite of husband Pino is pane ca’ meusa (Palermitano dialect for pane con la milza) - a soft roll (vastedda) filled with slices of calf spleen, lung and liver, fried in fat. I know: description not appealing but what a treat! Pino usually eats his schietta - with just a few drops of lemon juice (often used in Sicilian cooking, especially that of meats as it cuts the fat and aids digestion). Many prefer the maritata (”married”) version of the meusa (i.e., topped with a flavorful sharp cheese). The most famous place for pane ca’ meusa? Not a street stand at all but the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, Via Paternostro 58, tel 091-320264, on the ground level of the Palazzo Cattolica very close to the colorful open market, the Vucciria. Since 1834 the Conficelli family has served here not only pani ca’ meusa but also cazzilli (potato crocchettes, seasoned with parsley, salt, pepper) - sometimes called “crocche” - and panelle (made with chickpea flour, one of many North African culinary “imports” of Sicilian gastronomy).

Pane con panelle

Pane con panelle

A Sicilian street-food favorite which frequently makes an abundant lunch for workers is pane con panelle e cazzilli (panelle e cazzilli together in a delicious soft roll). At Piazza della Marina, Francesco has been slicing rolls to fill with panelle or with spleen for over fifty years. Dario and other young men wait tables under palm trees outside and nowadays, Bangladeshi immigrant, Suell, fries the chick pea squares over vats of hot oil even when the thermometer soars to 40C (i.e., 104F).

We always stop there for pane con panelle during Palermo sojourns. On a summer day, I asked Signor Francesco if he felt the heat? "No, I am air-conditioned," he said with a grin, lifting his arm to show me a big hole in his T-shirt. His wife Caterina sat in a chair nearby, taking mint leaves off stalks to add to her crochette di patate mixture. (Note: Pino’s mother, Vincenza, used the traditional chopped parsley in her crocche).

For those who prefer to start the day with dolce rather than salato (sweet rather than savory), a favorite choice is a plump brioche con gelato and the flavors in Sicily outdo those of the mainland ice creams (ever tried gelso - mulberry?). A thirst-quenching granular ice called granita di limone is another favorite summer starter (actually, an around-the-clock hot weather favorite).

One summer, Pino and I decided to do comparative tastings of granite wherever we were: in various Palermo spots, as well as in S. Vito Lo Capo, Castellamare al Golfo, Castelluzzo, the islands of Lipari and Salina. Our favorite, though, remains the Bar Gardenia in Cardillo, the village on Palermo's outskirts where Pino grew up. Tough competitors to their classic granita di limone: the granite made with mulberry, strawberry, mint, peach, tangerine, orange, pistachio, coconut milk, espresso coffee mounded with fresh whipped cream. Tradition says that the Arabs introduced granite by sweetening the snow of Mt. Etna with honey and the juice of citrus fruits.

Pastries? Endless varieties belie the French, Arab, Spanish influences in Sicily: cannoli, cassate, la martorana (marzipan - delicately molded into every imaginable shape) only glaze the pastry surface! Tradition says that centuries ago, the nuns at the convent adjacent to the Church of La Martorana welcomed an important visiting bishop by fashioning oranges of almond paste (la martorana) to decorate the naked citrus fruit trees in the convent garden.

Sicily is a colorful tapestry of Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, Spanish and French history and folklore, art and architecture. The aromas and flavors of the Sicilian culinary traditions amalgamate this rich past, making it an island to be tasted.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2011. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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