Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Sunshine & Street Food Tour Palermo

My second day in Palermo, I took a trip out to Mondello with Jess. This beach is absolutely stunning. I've never seen water that clear in my life! I felt like I was in the Caribbean more so than in Italy.

We had fun people watching. There were flocks of school kids at the beach -- many of them were playing soccer or goofing off in the water. At one point, a rogue soccer ball flew at our heads. The boys just turned to us and laughed, shrugging without any trace of embarrassment as they ran out to retrieve it. I basically just ignored them. Boys.

I don't have any photos of Mondello because I didn't take my camera with me. I wish I could share more images with you, but the generic ones from the internet will have to do!

After our day of lazing about at the beach, we headed back into the city for aperitivo and a birthday dinner at our hostel. That's what I love about hostels...even though the beds are not very comfortable etc., there is a really wonderful sense of community among the guests! In this case, the owner of the hostel held a birthday dinner in honor of one of his guests who was turning 25. We enjoyed fresh pasta with summer vegetables and mint.t

The next morning, I met up with Marco, a palermitani and street food connoisseur. He gives food tours of the city through his company StrEAT Food Palermo. His tour was, by far, one of my favorite experiences in Italy. We started off in Capo market, where fish vendors were crying out about the freshness of their wares. One would call out in Sicilian dialect, "a paruala ci manca"..."They're only missing their voices." While another would reply with a lyrical baritone, "Fresh fish!"


One of our first stops was Friggitoria Gastronomia -- one of those Mom and Pop stands that still sells "authentic" Sicilian foods. We munched on panelle (those fried chickpea patties) while we learned about the history of another Arab influenced dish, arancine (e.g. "little oranges"). Now, Italians would spell little oranges like arancini, but Sicilians spell it arancine (and that difference matters to them). The chickpea fritters were even better than the ones I had the day before!

While the cook was preparing our food, we took a quick side trip to a beautiful church. I think pictures can explain better how magnificent this space was -- I'm so glad we were able to poke our heads in to have a peak around. The marble inlays were absolutely stunning. It was overwhelming in a way -- so much color and so many different designs.

After visiting the church, we had the opportunity to go into the kitchen to watch the cook make the arancine, which was such a treat. She had her saffron flavored rice laid out on the counter. She mixed this beautiful golden rice with ground beef, peas, and carrots (harking back to 9th century Arab culinary traditions). Today, it is difficult to find places in Sicily where they serve arancine with this mixture of meat and vegetables. Often, they serve them stuffed with cheese. In Rome, they have their own version of arancine called supplì. Romans take white rice ball, stuff them with fresh mozzarella, and deep fry them so that when you pull one apart the mozzarella cheese stretches into long strings. Supplì are also known by the name supplì al telefono because the long string of mozzarella resembles a phone cord. Anyway, after the arancine are rolled into balls and stuffed, they are coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. They come out of the fryer looking like little oranges (hence the name) and are one of the most delightful street foods I have ever tasted. They were so good that I added them immediately to the "things I need to eat before I die" list. The best part was the quarter inch thick crust -- such a lively crunch on the outside with a creamy delicious layer or rice inside.

After tasting arancine, we meandered through the streets until we reached another street food vendor. This time we were trying out some Sicilian pizza or sfincione. During our discussion with the street food vendor, I learned that these vendors had their own special street cries that went something like this: "scarsu d'ogghio e chinu i prubulazzo!"..."Come get your freshly baked pizza with dust on it!" This reference to dust was poking fun at the fact that Palermo used to be such a dirty city that no matter what, you would have a bit of dirt on your pizza. Here is another one: "uara u sfuinnavi uara! chistu è sfinciuni ra bella viaro"..."I've just taken it out the oven! this is a very 'beautiful' sfincione!" The vendor was too embarrassed to sing out the street cry, so Marco ended up belting this song at passersby. It was actually quite musical and catchy!

Similar to the other sfincione vendor I visited, this young man heated up his pizza in the portable oven built into his cart. He gingerly sprinkled fresh olive oil onto the heating plate, lay the pizza on top, and let it warm up for a few minutes. He then added dried oregano and a bit more olive oil before wrapping it up in paper. He treated his work as an art form. You can see the look of concentration on his face as he expertly served the pizza!

Our food tour was nowhere near over. So, with our bellies full, we continued on through the winding street of ancient Palermo. I almost died when we passed by a knife grinder sharpening someone's knife on a hulking stone. This struck me as fascinating because the character of the "knife grinder" is very common in New Orleans nineteenth century street food culture. There are all these images of the nomadic knife grinder carrying around his mill stone on his back. As he walked, he would ring a bell announcing his presence to the neighborhood to attract business. It seems as though some things never change (even if you are halfway around the world and in the 21st century):

On our way to the next culinary stop near the Vucciria market, we passed by a stall that was selling the most beautiful candy fruit. I had to stop and take a photo:

Anyway, our next stop was Taverna Azzurra -- one of the oldest bars in Palermo. Here, I tried a local specialty called sangue or "blood." I don't even know what is in this alcoholic mixture, but it reminded me of port (e.g. a sweet dessert wine).

With a little something to give us courage, we headed off to our next food challenge: pane ca'meusa, or thinly sliced spleen cooked in a copious amount of lard and served on a sesame seed bun. The vendor at this stand was lovely - smiling, joking, and a real character. He greeted Marco with a kiss on both cheeks and turned to us with a wide grin on his face. He explained the cooking process and began serving us our sandwiches. I have to admit, my stomach was feeling a bit queasy as he pulled those strips of spleen out of the pan and onto a fresh bun. They were dripping with liquid lard and you could almost hear the bread sucking up that fat as he made the sandwich. He finished it off with a healthy dash of sea salt.  Believe it or not, the pane ca'meusa actually tasted really good! I was a bit freaked out by the weird, white veins (of fat?) running through the meat, but I sort of just closed my eyes and kept munching away at it.


Before I knew it, we were heading to our last stop on the food tour to try out gelato on a brioche bun (the way Sicilians eat their favorite summer dessert). No vanilla ice cream cones in Palermo! The man just kept packing gelato onto the brioche bun. I was only able to take a few bites before I gave up. Too much food!

My finished street food "passport":

Then, I headed straight to the airport, where I grabbed a cannolu (the Sicilian way of saying a single cannoli) before boarding the plane. After all, I couldn't visit Sicily without having one. Now, I'll throw in my homage to the God Father; "Leave the gun." "Take the cannoli."

Lastly, at some point or other, I was able to try out another famous dessert: cassata or ricotta cake. It's super sweet and often layered with bright green fondant. I had this one along this adorable alleyway that was lined with marionette puppet theaters.

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