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Food Tours in Sicily: Palermo


Palermo and Catania, the two largest cities in Sicily, are a bit over two hours apart by the quickest route, but our food guides in the two cities talked as though they were in two different countries.


And it's true that each has specialties of its own, and that there are regional differences over how to make the ones they have in common—an aspect that led to our amusement, as the two guides, who are part of the same network, both had us pose for pictures to be sent to the other, declaring their city the winner. We won't take sides: If you go, go to both and eat!

Each of the tours was focused on foods sold and or eaten in the cities' public outdoor markets. In Palermo, with Marco, we began in the ancient Il Capo market, with over a thousand years of history; in Catania, with Aureliano, we plunged into the somewhat newer Pescheria (fish market, photo above) which sprawls from near the Cathedral, under the railway viaduct and through more streets and much more than just fish.


Palermo's markets wander through a warren of ancient and medieval streets; Catania's are just as much a colorful, and sometimes loud, phenomenon, but Catania is a newer city, thanks to 17th-century earthquakes, and the markets are held in large squares.

CCI05272017_00000Before we got to the first stop on each tour, we got our passports, a 'Passaporto de Mangia,' with stops and foods listed, and a map. At each stop, after our tasting, we lined up for our 'visa stamps.' Kind of fun, and better than fumbling notes! That's Catania's inside at the top, and Palermo's outside cover below. 

Our first item on the Palermo tour, though, wasn't on the scorecard; it's 'frittola,' which has been described "meat bits." I don't actually remember what meat it was...but look for yourself! What I can tell you is that it was fatty, delicious, and hard not to drip.


As we walked through the market, stopping to marvel at some points and to eat at others, Marco reminded us of the market's history, and Sicily's: the Palermo markets date to the 200 years of Arab rule starting in the 9th century. That's left the island's foods and Sicilian language with a distinct imprint, enough to remind us that Palermo is as close to Tunis by sea as it is to Naples.


Many of the market vendors speak only Sicilian, sometimes only a local dialect of it, meaning that even Italian tourists may need translation help. Our 'passaporto' described our adventure as a 'schiticchio,' a word that appears in no Italian dictionary; it's a picnic, and the Italian word is scampagnata!


Our first official stop began with arancine, those wonderful stuffed deep-fried rice balls, coated with crumbs. In my life, the filling has usually been a ragu, and the balls have been greasy (often pleasantly so, I'll admit). In Sicily, they can also be found filled with cheese, peas, cream, and more. The varieties differ from city to city. As does the spelling. In Palermo, the plural is arancine, in Catania arancini. There is a singular, arancina, but it appears to be never used. 


The next treat was a platter of panelle and cazzilli. The panelle are delicious thin crisp chickpea fritters (being made, below) and the cazzille are delicious small potato croquettes (much crispier and tastier than in most U.S. Italian restaurants). Another Sicilian word, by the way; in Italian crocchè di patate.


And here we have Marco, along with our next treat, sfincione. With traditional ingredients limited to onion sauce, tomatoes and bread, it is supposed to be the ancestor of the thick-crust food we call 'Sicilian pizza,' although along the way that developed cheese, toppings, a chewier crust, and more. Flavor was delicious but not deep. One of the few food disappointments in Sicily.


If the sfincione was a little disappointing, the next stop appeared a bit daunting. My rule for food tours is that even if I know I don't like it, I have to try it, because... well, because. One of Palermo's traditional market treats is pane ca' meusa, and we were headed for it, at the old sandwich shop above. 

It's a sandwich, on a soft roll, filled with chopped calf's lung and spleen, first boiled and then fried in lard. It has an Italian name, too, panino con la milza, but we were assured that only Sicilian was needed because only Sicilians, and in particular Palermitanos, eat it. I would be hard put to describe the flavor exactly: strong, aromatic, gamy come to mind, but they're not quite enough. It was actually enjoyable, to my surprise.


Off to a bar after that, for a pleasant glass and some snacks. The choices at the bar were three local wine-based specialties: Zibibbo, Marsala and Sangue. All are Sicilian wines, with Zibibbo being the sweetest, and Sangue, which means blood, the strongest, but still sweet.

Along with that, olives, bread, and lemons like we'd never seen before. Not only are they huge, but they are also thick-skinned, and the entire fruit, not just the pulp is edible. Delicious with a splash of salt, too!


And for a final treat: Off to what Marco told us is his favorite cannoli stand in the city, near the Cathedral. We were pleased to find it was the same one we'd discovered the day before and already patronized twice. Fresh pastry tubes, crisp and not-too-sweet, filled on the spot with the lovely cream confection!

DSC02174Needless to say: we didn't eat seriously again until the next morning!

A week later, we were in Catania and ready for another us there next week!

For more information on both city tours, from StrEATPalermo and StrEATCatania, click HERE


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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