If the streets of Palermo could talk, I am sure they would have some epic tales to tell. Sicily’s capital has endured more than its fair share of conquerers, rulers, and passer-bys, each bringing a dose of prosperity and turmoil to these shores as they came and went. What they left behind was an intriguing jumble of cultures and styles, layered on top of each other to create one which you could say is what makes Palermo so unique. This is quite evident in the city’s architecture where Norman facades give way to Byzantine mosaics, which are in turn housed under the Arab domes and arches, but it has also left its mark quite strongly on the cuisine.
While I am fond of getting lost in the warrens of an old city, what I love even more is to discover edible gems down the narrow alley ways and street corners which only the locals know about. Rumour had it that here in Palermo there were plenty such gems, all we needed was that local. Accosting strangers in the street didn’t seem wise, so we booked ourselves onto a street food tour with Streaty Palermo. Meandering through the streets with Marco, our exuberant born and bred Palermitan guide, was definitely the best way of getting a taste of the city.
Street food is the focus of this tour but it is actually impossible to uncouple the things we ate with their cultural origins and the history of the city. You could do your own tour and easily find everything we ate, but without the commentary, it’s not quite the same… Marco held our appetites and attention on tenterhooks by taking us to some of the best street food spots in the city, while weaving in interesting, informative and sometimes quite hilarious tidbits about life in Palermo. Here’s a snapshot what we ate…
Meandering through Capo Market
Capo Market may be named after the head, in reference to being at the top of the city, but in my view, this is the heart of the city. Though it was established hundreds of years ago, this fully-operational market continues to be an integral part of the community today. As our little group snaked through the main thoroughfare, we overheard locals and vendors ordering, bartering and joking with each other – shopping here is not your ordinary scan and pay supermarket transaction, it’s all about building the right relationships to get the best produce!
Our first bite of the day was served out of a mysterious wicker basket from a small cart near the entrance of the building. The frittola is a speciality here but I can’t imagine that veal fat and cartilage that has been boiled then cooked in lard and seasoned with pepper and lemon will be to everyone’s tastes. However, those with a strong stomach and adventurous palate will be rewarded with a rich, buttery, though somewhat chewy, snack. Less controversial were the panelle, flat chickpea fritters which are a reminder of the North African influences, and the crocchè, potato croquettes flavoured with plenty of parsley. You will find these in restaurant menus all over town, but I think they are most satisfying when consumed straight out of the hot oil in the middle of the street!
Stuffed on Sfincione
As we were technically still in Italy, a pizza stop seemed unavoidable but this is not the crusty, tomato and cheese topped disc we all know and love. The Sicilian sfincione is more like a pizza bread; it is soft and doughy, comes caked with a layer of tomato, then is toasted and seasoned to order. There are several sfincione carts around town but don’t worry about find the best one. The vendors really only heat up the sfincione; they all source them fresh from the same bakery that has been using their original recipe for generations!
Salut-ing our Arancine with a round of Sangue
You might know them as arancini but here in Palermo they are referred to as ‘arancine’ and you best remember that if you want to be served. They are also bigger and much better than any others I have tried before; a rich tomato ragu is encased in a ball of luscious, saffron-infused rice which is then crumbed and fried until crisp and golden. We picked up a batch of Palermo’s best arancine then headed down the street to one of the city’s oldest bars for a quick drink of sangue (nicknamed blood, tastes a bit like Oloroso sherry) alongside our arancine, olives and cheese. During the day, this charmingly dishevelled bar is filled with older gentlemen bantering with beers in hand, but by the evening the grunge levels increase and it will be filled with Palermo’s youth who are in search of loud music, great atmosphere and cheap drinks!
Pining for a Pani ca Meusa
This is the holy grail of all Palermitan street food and the one thing that a certain someone and I were waiting for all morning: the famous spleen sandwich. According to Marco, the Streaty Palermo team and probably every other local you encounter, you have not properly been to Palermo unless you have tried one of these. Beef spleen is firstly sliced then sizzled in a salacious amount of lard which has been bubbling in what reminded me of a giant wok, before being thrust into a soft roll and seasoned with salt and lemon juice. It sounds dreadful but tastes wonderful. It didn’t have that rich, offaly flavour I was expecting, and though rife with fattiness from the lard, it went down scarily easily and I could have done with another!
Cannoli by the Cathedral
Our final stop was for a cannoli outside the Cathedral, one of Palermo’s most famous attractions. We sat in the grounds happily savouring these sweet delights; a crisp pastry shell filled right to the edges with the velvety ricotta and orange filling. Traditional Palermo cannoli are darker than others across Sicily as they add cocoa to the pastry, and a proper one will always be filled to order to ensure it doesn’t get all soggy. These are not light desserts but nor are they overly sweet and sickly thanks to that tartness from the ricotta. The cannoli, as well as the spleen sandwich, were definitely my favourites, and a fitting way to end our Streaty Palermo tour with Marco!
Have you been to Palermo? Did you try some of their famous street food?
Streaty Palermo run tours in Palermo and Catania; these often last 3-4 hours and cost €30-39/per person.
Thanks to Marco and Streaty Palermo for taking us on this delicious tour of the city, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
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