In the midst of a chaotic market bustle, on a gritty back street of Palermo, Marco is an anchor of calm. “Now let’s begin,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Do we have any volunteers?”
Marco, who runs Streaty food tours, has spotted an opportunity to get his group precipitously high on the Sicilian-street-food learning curve. Following his gaze, I spot it, too. It’s a little, wheeled cart — about two centuries old, from the looks of it — topped by a big wok, filled with mystery meat.
Being a “volunteer” on a street food tour is high-risk, high-reward. But I’m in Sicily to experience Sicily. (And to work on our new Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, helping out Rick and co-author Sarah Murdoch — coming in spring 2019.) And today, it’s all about weird foods. So I raise my hand.
The vendor grabs my upraised hand, flips it over, and lays a little square of tissue paper in my palm. He proceeds to pile it with hot, gelatinous…something. It’s from an animal — presumably deep, deep inside the animal — but beyond that, I’d hate to guess. My stomach sends a few trembles down my arm to my hand, jiggling the mystery meat as the vendor spritzes it with fresh lemon juice.
And then I taste it. And…it’s not bad! It’s nice and salty, generously seasoned with pepper and bay leaf, and goosed with the zip of lemon juice. The seasoning makes it. The texture…not so much. It’s like chewing on sauteed gristle.
“This is frittula,” Marco says. “It’s basically the leftover parts of veal — cartilage, intestines, little bits of bone — all chopped up and fried together. What do you think?” The members of our group bold enough to sample it nod in agreement. The others look a little green.
A gregarious Palermitano, Marco has a knack for making this challenging city appetizing for visitors. And now that he’s lined our guts with a baby cow’s, we’re about to plunge into the street market.
“This is one of three big outdoor markets in central Palermo,” Marco explains. “It’s been here for one thousand two hundred years. And it has not really changed in all that time.”
We walk past tables piled high with the sea’s bounty: big fish, small fish, tiny fish, shellfish. Occasionally, guys circle around and fling handfuls of water from cheap plastic buckets onto the styrofoam containers.
But it’s the soundtrack that really marks this experience as Palermo. The fishmongers shout about the freshness of their wares with a singsong cadence that’s a holdover from the Arabs who turned Palermo from a humble village into a thriving metropolis. Walking down the narrow aisles, being nudged aside by vintage Vespas, it’s a cacophony of sales pitches: “Tutta fresca! Tutta fresca! Tutta freeeeeeeesssss-caaaaa!” one of them shouts in my ear as I walk past. “Prego-prego-prego-prego-prego-prego-preeeeeeeGO!”
Marco explains that there are three ways to buy your fish: You can buy it whole, and process it yourself. You can ask the fishmonger to prep it for you, to suit the recipe you’re planning. Or, if you’re short on time, some fishmongers will shop around for you, buying all of the ingredients you need for your recipe. Just call ahead, then drop by later to pick it up. It’s sort of a low-tech, Sicilian Blue Apron.
For this reason, people prize their relationship with their fishmonger. They become extremely loyal — close friends. And if you get sick, your longtime fishmonger may even deliver to your home. Marco says, “My mamma has told me she’s going to leave me two things when she passes on: Her house. And her list of market vendors.”
We walk past a marble slab with a gigantic half-fish, lying on its side, exposing a tree-stump-sized cross-section of vivid-red flesh. “Aha! Tuna season has just begun.”
Little bunches of mint lie next to the fish. Marco explains that the mint — a fresh, young, tender spring herb — indicates that it’s the very beginning of tuna season. Later in the season, when the tuna is almost finished, they’ll put out chrysanthemums — a sign to shoppers that their time for fresh tuna is running out.
Fresh tuna is a huge deal in Sicily. “Freshness is important, because we like to eat it almost raw. You know bistecca alla fiorentina?” Marco asks, referring to the famously super-rare Tuscan T-bone. “This is like tonno alla fiorentina — sear it just 30 seconds on one side, 30 seconds on the other, and finito!”
“But it’s not just the steaks. We think of tuna as the ‘pork of the sea,’ because we use every part…except the fins. The heads are used to make fish soup. We even dry out the roe, and then sprinkle it on pasta — that’s called alla botarga.”
Next to the tuna is strung up a swordfish — its head suspended from the canopy, to make it clear what a fearsome beast the fishermen have managed to pull from the deep. Standing over the tuna and swordfish cadavers, the fishmongers sharpen their comically oversized knives with the ear-piercing sound of metal on metal…and a glimmer in their eye as if daring me to take their picture.
Greengrocers have their own top-of-their-lungs sales pitches to brag about how their produce is both incredibly fresh and, somehow, also incredibly cheap. Tectonically speaking, Sicily has one foot in Africa — and it grows tropical fruits that thrive in few other corners of Europe. Sicilians love to brag about their domestic mangoes.
And even for more conventional produce, Sicily is the garden patch of Italy. The market bursts with bright-purple eggplants, plump tomatoes, and distinctly Sicilian zucchinis, three feet long. I watch a prospective zucchini buyer pick up the vegetable and swing it around a bit, demonstrating how floppy it is. “Eh, terrible quality. I’ll pay half!”
Someone asks Marco whether vendors here are honest. His answer threads the needle delicately. “Sicilians have a…special way of interacting with each other. First of all, we don’t just speak Italian — we speak Sicilian. We learn Sicilian not in school, but in the streets. So if you talk to someone in Sicilian, they’ll give you the local price. If you talk to them in Italian, or in English, you get a special price. Maybe a euro more.” When he explains it so matter-of-factly, somehow it just makes sense.
“And there’s a kind of…what I would call ‘gamesmanship’ at the market. Not just with tourists or outsiders, but among Sicilians. Sure, sometimes maybe a vendor will try to cheat you in some way. It’s almost expected. But if you figure it out and come back to confront him, then he respects you for it. He’ll give you something free to make up for it. Even some Sicilians really don’t like this way of operating. I have relatives who won’t come to the market — it’s exhausting for them. For others, it’s fun. Kind of a game, a challenge.”
Marco points out a sign, where the 9’s have tiny little tails. “From a distance, those look like zeroes — oh, just €1.00 for a kilo! Not bad. Only when you get close do you see it’s double — €1.99.”
We reach our next snacking stop: giant deep-fried rice balls. “What do you call this?” Marco asks. I’m one of the know-it-alls who blurt out the answer: arancino, of course! Marco clucks his tongue and jerks his chin up sharply — a definitive, Sicilian no. “In Catania,” he says, practically spitting on the ground as he mentions Palermo’s rival city on the east coast, “they call it arancino. Here in Palermo, we call it arancina — feminine.”
The Catania-style arancino— similar to what you’ll find in most of mainland Italy — is rice, tomato, veal ragú (meat sauce), mozzarella, and peas. But here in Palermo, they do it differently: Instead of tomato, an arancina is flavored with bright-yellow saffron…yet another artifact of the Arabs who built Palermo.
Slicing into a steaming arancina, the bright color pops. This is one of those foods — like croissants piping hot out of the oven — that’s infinitely better when fresh. I’ve had a lot of forgettable arancini that were cold or microwaved. But there’s nothing in Italy more delicious than a hot arancino (ahem, arancina): burn-your-fingertips, crispy outer shell; soft, warm, and gooey rice inside.
Next up: Another classic Palermo street food, two deep-fried treats that are usually served together: panelle e cazzilli. We stop at a characteristic stand, where the two vendors — colorful as cartoon characters — are engaged in a neverending banter with their clients and passing tourists.
Marco gets his plate of panelle e cazzilli and gathers us around for a lesson. Panelle are flat chickpea fritters. With some imagination, a panella is shaped roughly like a fish fillet — to stoke the fantasies of the poor Palermitani who ate these to fill their bellies when they couldn’t afford actual fish. Biting into a panella, I can really imagine pretending this is fish-and-chips.
“Well, the one thing that poor people could afford,” he clarifies, “was sardines. And not fresh ones — the poorer you were, the longer you had to wait to buy the sardines…as the price dropped. So by the time you got them, they were already nearly spoiled. That’s why a very traditional Sicilian dish is pasta con le sarde — pasta topped with sardines, pine nuts, fennel, and raisins…to aid digestion.”
“And of course, pasta con le sarde is sprinkled with breadcrumbs. Anything in Sicily that’s prepared alla Palermitana comes with breadcrumbs. This also comes from poverty: Poor people could never afford to grate fancy cheeses over their pasta. But they could sprinkle on salty breadcrumbs from yesterday’s leftover bread.” One century’s hardship food is the next century’s defining culinary style.
Back to the other half of the deep-fried dish: cazzilli, which is a slang term for the male anatomy. These little elongated croquettes are filled with mashed potato, mint, and parsley. Because of their respective shapes, and because they’re often eaten together, panelle e cazzilli are sometimes called “husbands and wives.”
Leaving the market and wandering through town, we come upon a pretty square in front of a Baroque church, with another nondescript food cart out front. Inside the glass case are stacked sickly-looking hunks of french bread with a pinkish topping.
“These are sfincioni — sometimes called ‘Sicilian pizza.’ It comes from an Arabic word for ‘sponge.’ The traditional one does not have cheese or other toppings — just tomato, and one onion. Then they sprinkle it with black pepper and oregano. That’s all. Simple.”
Noticing our skeptical looks, Marco says, “I know, I know. These do not look appetizing. But what you don’t realize is that he has a little oven inside the cart, where he can grill up the sfincioni before serving them. And that makes all the difference.”
We watch the vendor stick his sfincioni into the cart, wait a couple of minutes, then pull out a deliciously toasted snack. It’s flavorful, with a nice oregano zip, a little char on the bottom, and just the right amount of oily. Who knew? (Marco knew.)
Continuing down the tight lane into another market area, called Vucciria, we pop out at an impossibly ramshackle piazza, ringed with food carts. This part of town, close to the port, was decimated in World War II bombings, and some buildings were never rebuilt. Still, the area hosted a thriving street market…until recently.
As more Sicilians are doing their shopping at modern supermarkets, some traditional markets — like this one — are struggling. However, this area is enjoying a new life as a hotspot for food stalls and after-hours cocktail bars. Little “for sale” signs hang from apartment balconies — like flags of surrender flown by homeowners ready to vacate their newly rowdy neighborhood.
One little stand serves octopus. That’s it — just octopus. A small octopus (not much larger than your hand) is boiled in salty water, blackened by ink. When ready to eat, the critter is fished out with a hook, roughly chopped into little chunks of tentacles, and spritzed with a wedge of lemon. And that’s polpo bollito…boiled octopus. The name says it all. If you like the taste of octopus, and savor the flavor of the sea, it’s heavenly. If not…skip it.
At another vendor, a glass display case shows off all manner of meat strung out on skewers. Nearby, a hissing grill kicks up a rich and flavorful smoke. The vendor is chopping up juicy wands of spring onion, then wrapping them in thick strips of bacon. It’s called mangia e bevi: “eat and drink.” Tossed on the grill, the smell is heavenly. I suddenly realize that summer barbecue season is just kicking off back home, and I’ve got a new recipe to try… (However, I’ll pass on the other variation, stigghiola, which is intestines wrapped around spring onion.)
But the star of the show is the stall that sells Palermo’s ultimate “gross street food”: pani ca’ meusa — spleen sandwich. Marco introduces us to the vendor, who has served this grease bomb to an illustrious array of celebrity chefs and travel TV personalities from around the world. He fires up his big wok, drops in a hunk of lard, and then stirs in chunks of organ meat.
“They call it ‘spleen,'” Marco explains. “But actually, it’s mostly lung.” Marco, you’re not helping.
“Not everybody likes the taste. It does taste like organ meat. If you don’t like liver, you may not like it. However, it’s not as strong as liver. But for many Palermitani — including me — this is the most delicious street food we will try today.”
The vendor lays strips of sizzling organ meat onto the pillowy bun, spritzes it with lemon, and hands the sandwiches around. Now, I have a rule that I am willing to try any food…once. And so, swallowing hard, I take a bite. And…
It’s just as Marco described: A milder version of liver. It’s deliciously salty and pleasingly greasy — which helps it slide down. Some bites feel like thinly-sliced, gristly meat. Others are more chewy and sinewy. And, after about half a sandwich, I’m equal parts pleased with myself for giving it a go…and ready to call it quits.
Looking around the busy Vucciria market, it strikes me that this is one of those rare spots where grizzled locals and adventurous tourists coexist harmoniously. Here stands a little scrum of curious street foodies. And across the square are a pack of Palermitani just hanging out, like they do every day. A big guy pulls up on a little moped and idles while he chats, spewing exhaust onto the tourists nursing drinks at their plastic tables. He greets the grillmaster with a long handshake and a tender kiss on the cheek. They wave their arms in conversation, before he buzzes off down a grimy street, and his friend returns to his grill full of guts.
Only one thing’s left on this food tour: dessert. And there are few more enticing places for dessert than Sicily.
On my trip to Sicily, I’ve quickly become a connoisseur of granita — a sweet, refreshing, icy slush that suits this hot climate perfectly. In mainland Italy, gelaterie sometimes have one or two flavors of granita on the side. But here in Sicily, things get more creative. They have limone, of course, but also maondorla (almond), pistacchio, gelsi (mulberry), fragola (strawberry), and many, many others.
My favorite is caffè. A robust, dark-brown granita di caffè, with a few little bits of coffee beans mixed in, is my go-to alternative to an afternoon cup of coffee. Insanely refreshing. Pay an extra €0.50, and you can get it con panna — with whipped cream — turning it into something resembling a frozen latte. (For the record, my favorite granita di caffè in Palermo is at Lucchese, a venerable old-time café and pasticceria facing the square of San Domenico.)
Sicilians enjoy granita for breakfast, often stuffed into a brioche bun. But I like mine straight. If a place has constantly spinning granita machines, skip it. The best granite is kept in metal bins with lids, so the vendor has to stir it around and scoop it out. If you get real granita — which has a thicker consistency — you can even combine flavors. If you order pistacchio and caffè, a savvy clerk will layer the powerful coffee flavor on the bottom, to avoid overwhelming the more delicate pistacchio.
On Marco’s tour, however, he’s chosen to give the people what they want: cannoli. To reward us for all the offal we’ve been consuming, he takes us to a spot that has his favorite cannoli in town.
There are two secrets to a good cannolo: First, you don’t fill the deep-fried pastry tube until you’re ready to serve it. If you fill it earlier in the day, then stick it in a display case, the pastry casing gets soggy and loses the textural contrast that makes this treat special.
Second, the cannolo has to be filled with quality ricotta cheese. You’ll see them made with all sorts of tourist-pleasing variations (pistachio creme, chocolate creme, vanilla custard, Nutella, and so on). But a pure cannolo has a sweet yet tangy filling of fresh ricotta. The cannolo is dusted with powdered sugar, and sometimes they throw in some candied fruit, nuts, or chocolate chips.
Eating this cannolo in the shadow of Palermo’s cathedral is like eating cannolo for the very first time. It’s just one of many delicious memories I’ll pack home from this journey through Sicily…and my trip is just getting started.
In Sicily, I’m piggybacking on the hard work of co-author Sarah Murdoch and contributing author Alfio di Mauro; together with Rick Steves — who was just filming here a few weeks ago — we’re excited to be coming out with our new Rick Steves Sicily guidebook. Look for it in spring of 2019.
I’m enjoying crossing paths with our tour groups in Sicily. The Best of Sicily in 11 Days Tour is one of the most popular Rick Steves’ Europe Tours itineraries — and for good reason. My trip, and our new guidebook, are following in the footsteps of that itinerary.