Palermo-A-Manger: Discovering Sicilian Street Food
A Food Offer You Can’t Refuse
Sicilian street food is kind of a big deal. What’s more, food in Palermo is a serious business – like everything concerning food in Italy. Forbes recently included the capital of Sicily in its list of ‘The World’s Top 10 Cities For Street Food’. Palermo ranked 5th, the only Italian representative in the top ten and the only European city in the top five. But, it should come as no surprise. Few places have encountered as many cultural influences as Palermo. Once the gem of an Arabian emirate, then part of the duchy of Swabia and finally conquered by the Aragonese. It’s a unique and fascinating mix, that shows in the stylish alleys of the city and in its cuisine. To discover the uniqueness of Palermo’s street food, though, one needs to know what to expect and where to look.
The Imperial rice ball
The queen of Sicilian street food – a true Palermitan uses the feminine – is arancina. This dish is beyond popular and it’s common to find local variations throughout the country, even outside of Sicily. What is it, really? A tasty rice ball covered in breadcrumbs and filled with whatever Sicilians find irresistible in their cuisine.
Developed during the invasion of Sicily by the Saracens, this delicacy has evolved over the centuries. Of course, America had not been discovered yet so there was no tomato sauce in its filling. The breadcrumb coating would be introduced only after Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. He loved to bring some arancine to snack on during his hunts, and the hard coating made them more portable.
Since then, coating the rice ball with copper-colored breadcrumbs has become very popular. This technique gives the contemporary name of the dish – arancina means ‘little orange’. And with time comes creativity. You can find any type of filling inside, from bolognese sauce to spinach with some even putting Nutella inside.
But where to go to find this Sicilian street food speciality? The most famous place to eat this rice snack is Antico Caffè Spinnato. This café in via Principe di Belmonte is located in the most important meeting point of the city, Politeama Square. Since 1860 visitors have flocked here to enjoy Sicilian street food making it is an unmissable spot for foodies.
Venting spleen in Palermo
Wander through the charming city centre, leaving Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama behind, and you’ll find Antica Focacceria San Francesco. This traditional focacceria opened in 1861. Local aristocracy believe the royal dish pasta ch’i sardi (pasta with sardines) could not be enjoyed by lower classes. With time, however, the dish became well known and is well known as one of the symbols of Palermitan cuisine.
The forte of this restaurant is undoubtedly pani ca’ meusa – a sesame bun filled with veal spleen fried in lard. If you want to try this truly Sicilian speciality, you can add caciocavallo cheese or ricotta. In this case the sandwich would be maritatu, ‘married’, underlining the deliciously holy union of the two ingredients. Be sure to explore the rest of the Middle Eastern-influenced Kalsa district when visiting Antica Focacceria San Francesco.
Near the modern via Leonardo da Vinci you can find Oscar, the must-see pasticceria for those who love sweets. A must-visit destination for cannoli and snack-sized cassatine since 1969.
Frutta martorana, marzipan in the shape of fruits, are eaten on the 2nd of November. According to the myth, the name of the fruit comes from the nuns of the Martorana church in Palermo. Legend has it that they decorated the bare trees with fake (marzipan) oranges during Holy Emperor Charles V’s visit.
The church of Martorana is a good starting point for a stroll through the historic streets while searching for food. Leave the church behind, walk towards Central Station and you’ll encounter Palazzo Sant’Elia and Palazzo Cutò – two of the most beautiful buildings in Palermo. Turn onto Corso Tukoru an stop at the Porta Sant’Agata, a well-preserved medieval gate from the Norman invasion.
Here you will hear the most important sound of Sicilian street food: vendors chanting in an almost incomprehensible Sicilian dialect. One of these word is sfincione, a sponge-like porous pizza-by-the-slice that is impossible to find outside of Palermo. A bread and pizza hybrid, sfincione is packed with salty sardines, onions, Caciocavallo cheese, oil and lots of tomato sauce. Whereas a a tomato-less sfincione can be found in the municipality of Bagheria.
A dish you can only find in Palermo is stigghiole, which dates back to the days of the Greek occupation. This is true Sicilian street food, because no shops or restaurants sell it. But it’s not easy to find stigghiole. One has to spot the peddlers, who are always on the move and rarely registered to a regular address. How to end the treasure hunt? Just follow the smoke, it will lead the way; or ask locals if your Sicilian is up to scratch.
Stigghiole consists of duck offal or goat intestines that are grilled and roasted. The word itself come from extilia, the Latin word for ‘organs’. The smell is very strong and the smoke very dense, so it’s not so hard to find a stigghiolaru. Again, just follow the smoke – it’s worth it.
The last piece of the Sicilian street food puzzle is pani chi’ panelli, the simplest and most popular sandwich in Palermo. This consists of a sesame bun filled with chickpea fritters named panelle. This dish can be found almost anywhere in Palermo, both in shops and from carts. Some restaurants, like the famous diner Za Teresa in via Silvio Pellico, order fresh-baked buns every hour. Creative variations also exist, such as the one made by Franco u Vastiddaru which adds fried aubergines into the equation.
Everybody in Palermo knows that the natural companions for panelle are potato and mint croquettes – named crocché. Most locals order a sandwich with panelle and crocché as a typical lunch in the city. Indeed, it’s the ideal dish to bid farewell to Palermo with.