Guts, hearts and lungs in Sicily

Palermo’s street food presents an unexpected side of Italian cuisine and shows how history has shaped Sicilian fare


Palermo’s Capo market. Photo: Hubert Stadler/Corbis
Palermo’s Capo market. Photo: Hubert Stadler/Corbis

I dare you to try this,” Marco Romeo says, pointing to a large wicker basket containing some unrecognizable pieces of meat. “It’s frittola, a mix of veal remains—meat, fat and cartilage—boiled and then fried in lard.”

We are at Porta Carini, the old gateway to the Capo market in Palermo, and are about to embark on a street food tour with Romeo. We look with some trepidation at the frittola, whose impish young vendor, Piero, had waved us over just a minute ago. The brownish-grey meat bits don’t look particularly appealing but, in the spirit of “trying everything once”, we accept the frittola. The meat is distinctly chewy, though the lard and lemon seasoning impart a rich flavour to it; and it’s warm, which is a blessing on this cold, rainy morning. I can’t go beyond a couple of bites, while the husband devours the rest of the serving—he was probably starving since we had chosen to skip breakfast in anticipation of the tour.

This is our second visit to Italy and, after having spent some eight weeks around the boot-like peninsula, we thought we knew Italian food. But, as in India, food in Italy varies greatly from north to south—the fresh seafood of Veneto, the cured meats in Emilia-Romagna (its capital Bologna is fittingly named la grassa, or the fat one), Tuscany’s hearty game fare, Lazio’s cucina romana, where both artichokes and tripe are equally celebrated, and southern Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant fare from Puglia or Calabria.

Further south, Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has its own distinct culinary legacy. Its strategic location on Mediterranean trade routes made it a prime target, and everyone from ancient Greeks and Romans to Byzantines and Arabs has ruled the island, and had an effect on its cuisine. The capital city of Palermo in northern Sicily is often an entry point to the island for tourists, who rush to the Greek ruins in Agrigento and Taormina, or to Catania to catch a glimpse of the smouldering Mount Etna, or to Syracuse, eulogized by Roman philosopher Cicero as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”.

A vendor sells stigghiola, intestines of sheep or goat roasted on a skewer. Photo: India Picture
But if you want a taste of how history has shaped Sicilian food, venture into Palermo’s centro storico, its historical centre, where centuries-old street markets form a maze of crisscrossing alleys, all heaving with seasonal fruits and vegetables, freshly caught fish, spices and local fast food.

As we walk further into the markets, they seem less European and more Arabic or Levantine. The Arab influence is obvious in some of the foods we try, notably the arancina, which the Arabs brought to Sicily in the 10th century. These rice balls stuffed with veal, onion, peas and carrot, coated with breadcrumbs and deep-fried to golden perfection, make a filling snack. The Sicilians used to carry them on their hunting expeditions. The rest of Italy calls them arancini and also adds tomato sauce to the filling.

“In Palermo, we follow the traditional, Arab-inspired recipe that uses saffron, not tomato sauce,” says Romeo. The saffron imparts a lovely orange colour—hence arancina, or little orange—while the meat sauce or ragù packs a punch and the outer breadcrumb layer provides the perfect crunch. I cannot imagine why this perfect recipe was adapted with the addition of tomato sauce; minus the overpowering tang, I can actually appreciate the complex flavours of the ragù and discern the delicate touch of saffron in the rice. Vegetarians need not despair: A spinach arancina, equally delicious, is on offer.

Dainotti, the arancina shop, also serves up more deep-fried goodies, including another Arab-origin snack called panella (plural panelle). Chickpea flour is cooked in salted water with parsley and the thick mixture is spread on a metal surface. Once cooled, a heavy tile (with an embossed design) is used to cut fritters, which are then deep-fried. In the olden days, the panelle were cut in the shape of a fish and flavoured with vinegar, to give the city’s poor a cheaper substitute for the fish they couldn’t afford. We have the panelle stuffed in a bread roll along with cazzilli, small potato and cheese croquettes shaped like small sausages, hence the name cazzilli or “little pricks”.

Sfincione, a cross between a pizza and focaccia. Photo: Prachi Joshi
At the end of Capo market we stop at an unassuming food cart piled with large round breads that look like a cross between a pizza and a focaccia. “This is a Sicilian pizza called sfincione (pronounced sfin-chee-o-nay), loosely translated as thick sponge,” explains Romeo, as the unusually reticent, white-haired vendor cuts us thick slices. The pillowy pizza has an incredible lightness and is topped with a flavourful mix of tomatoes, onions, herbs and caciocavallo cheese, a typical Sicilian stretched-curd cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk.

Next stop is a Palermo institution, the Taverna Azzurra in the Vucciria market. “How about some Sicilian blood,” Romeo jokes, but after the frittola I’m a bit wary. Turns out Sangue Siciliano is a dessert wine, blood red in colour and cloyingly sweet. We are also served a glass of zibibbo, a gold-coloured dessert wine made from zibibbo grapes. These grapes originated from Egypt and are one of the oldest genetically unmodified grapes still being cultivated. We enjoy the sugary hit and the slight potency of the two wines.

Cannoli. Photo: Shutterstock
By this time we are stuffed and there is no sign of the cannoli. Romeo assures me we have one additional stop before we hit the dessert. That stop turns out to be a hole-in-the-wall shop selling a Palermo speciality, pani ca meusa, or spleen sandwich. A huge vat full of offcuts simmers behind the shop counter—cow spleen, lung and throat cartilage boil away, and from time to time Bartolo, the owner, removes some of the grey meat, fries it in pork fat, stuffs it inside a bun, adds a handful of caciocavallo and serves the sandwich with lemon wedges. One bite and I know it is a lost cause; while I’m a consummate meat-eater and don’t shy away from liver and brain, I feel a psychological aversion to spleen and lung. This Sicilian delicacy is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

We head over to the Ballarò market for our dessert, and the moment I had been waiting for—a proper Sicilian cannolo (plural cannoli), a dark-brown, tube-shaped, fried pastry shell, into which the nonna (grandmother) of the shop generously pipes some ricotta filling, sticking a candied orange at one end and sprinkling some powdered sugar before handing it over to me. As I bite into the crunchy shell, and the slightly sweet, creamy ricotta fills my mouth, I remember that famous quote from The Godfather—“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Six little words, but they emphasize what food means to the Sicilians, mafiosi or not!

GROCERY RUN

A guide to Palermo’s historic markets:

u Capo market

Capo is one of the oldest street markets in Palermo, and the city’s main fish market. It was founded by the Arabs in the 10th century and retains a distinctly Moorish feel.

Located behind Teatro Massimo, extending from Via Porta Carini to Via Volturno

u Ballarò market

Ballarò, also dating to the 10th century, is the longest street market in Palermo’s old city and also the most multicultural. Palermitans, Arabs, Africans and Bangladeshis work side by side; the food reflects the diversity.

Via Ballarò in Albergheria

u Vucciria market

Vucciria was founded in the 13th century during the brief but oppressive Angevin French regime and now sells food items and household bric-a-brac. The 700-year-old daily market is largely fading today, but at sundown many restaurants and cafes open up in its narrow alleys.

Piazza Caracciolo, 1

All markets are open seven days a week, from 8am-2pm. The Ballarò market is open till 8pm on weekdays. All markets are best visited in the morning, before noon. At Vucciria, the party lasts all night long, starting at 7pm, especially on Fridays and Saturdays

The StrEat Palermo tour takes 4 hours in autumn-winter, and is priced at €39 (around Rs.2,600). The summer tour is 3 hours, and is priced at €30. For details, visit www.streatpalermo.it/en

For previous stories in the Foodprint series, click here.

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