Food memories always linger the longest for us and we definitely wanted to try all of Palermo’s food specialties on our trip to Sicily. Often times knowing someone locally or getting some local recommendations is the key to unlocking a city's cuisine. In our case, we didn't know anyone in Palermo, Sicily's capital city, but we were able to tap into Palermo's street food culture by signing up for a four hour Streaty Street Food Tour of Palermo.
Meet Marco, Our Super Knowledgeable Guide
Turns out it was our lucky day. Marco, the founder of Streaty Palermo was running the street food tour. Marco was super knowledgeable about Sicilian street food and treated everyone on the tour like an old friend.
Palermo's Il Capo Street Food Market
Our first stop was Mercato del Capo, a busting street market not far from the opera house in Palermo. Unruly piles of fruits and vegetables spilled over the edge of the displays.
Suggestive Sicilian Squash
Walking around Il Capo, Marco pointed out these suggestive Sicilian squashes which vendors would sometimes refer to for a laugh.
Sicilian Fish on the Line
Il Capo street market also featured a wide range of fish vendors. First off, deeper is cheaper; sage advice from Marco. The farther into the market you go, the cheaper the price. Marco pointed out that it was important to develop a relationship with your fish monger. With a simple flick of the eye, the vendor could indicate what was fresh and what had been sitting around for too long.
The whole fish were all arranged so that they appeared to still be in motion. The head and tail were tied back so the fish seemed to be jumping off the table. This Sicilian tradition helps make the fish seem fresher longer.
Among the fish mongers, many were selling swordfish. The entire fish would be on display and over the course of the day would get smaller and smaller until only the sword was left.
One of the vendors in the group offered us a raw shrimp to try. I've never had seafood this fresh before.
Snails and Grandma’s Secret Sicilian Recipe
There is an art to cooking snails in Sicily. According to Marco, his grandmother would put the snails in a pot and then very slowly turn up the heat. The increase in temperature was so gradual that the snails didn't notice and thus didn't try to make a (slow) run for it. At the very end, just as they were about to boil, grandma would crank up the heat so that the snails put their necks out just before they succumbed to the heat making them much easier to extract from their shell and eat.
Sicilian A' Frittula
We got to try a few Sicilian street food specialties at Il Capo market. We were in luck because the A' Frittula vendor was working the day we visited. A'Frittula is essentially all the unmentionable parts of a cow (especially cartilage) grilled up and doused with citrus and salt. A' Frittula was actually pretty tasty street food!
Sicilian Street Food at Friggitoria Gastronomia da Arianna
We enjoyed some deep fried Sicilian street food creations at Friggitoria Gastronomia da Arianna. The place looks like a tiny hole-in-the-wall in the market. We definitely would not have been brave enough to step inside had it not been for Marco's recommendation. Our group sat down at some outdoor tables and sampled Sicilian panelle (chickpea fritters) and cazzilli (potato croquettes), and arancine (not to be confused with arancini in Catania).
All of this fantastic street food was washed down with a sip of beer, Forst to be exact. Forst is the cheap Sicilian beer of choice for tailgating before a football (soccer) match in Sicily, apparently.
Tour of Palermo - The Fountain of Shame
We ate a lot on our street food tour in Palermo, but we also took time to walk off all those calories and explore Sicily's capital city. We stopped to take a look at Fontana Pretoria, also known as the Fountain of Shame because of all the nude statues around the base. The fountain was originally commissioned and installed near Florence but was sold to the Senate in Palermo in the 14th century. The fountain was cut up into 644 pieces and transported to Palermo where it was reinstalled on the current spot.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Italy is filled with fabulous destinations to visit. Looking for ideas of where to go next? Have you considered:
Spongy Sicilian Sfincione
Continuing on our way, we stopped to try sfincione, a spongy bread covered in tomatoes and then warmed over coals. All of this took place in a tiny cart not far from the opera house.
It's Schiticchio Time
A picnic in a pub, that was essentially my interpretation of what happened next. We had been gathering supplies from local food vendors along the way. Marco laid out our Schiticchio towel and set up a feast of bread, sundried tomatoes, local Sicilian cheeses, and olives on the bar of a tiny taverna.
Sicilian Sangue and a Roadie
The Sicilian taverna that we visited was fascinating. It was another spot that I wouldn't have thought to step into on our own. A number of working class guys were just hanging out at the bar midday having a drink. We got a choice of Marsala or Sangue (aka blood). For just a euro, the proprietor tapped us out a glass from what looked like a small water cooler. We even got a 'roadie' (one for the road) served in a plastic cup.
Of course, before we left, we needed to get our Streaty Palermo passport stamped. Thank you very much! So many cool characters on this tour!
Palermo's Genius of Garraffo (aka the Snake King)
The mascot of Streaty Palermo is, fittingly, the Genius of Garraffo, a statue of a king seated and entwined with a snake. Dating from pre-Roman times, this ancient deity and protector evolved into the secular patron of Palermo. The statue is considered the personification of the city and symbol of Palermo's inhabitants. Marco also called out that while the statue dates back to the late 13th century, Palermo's residents conduct their lives in his shadow. It's as if the statue is presiding over the nightlife that spills out onto this square every weekend. Marco remarked that you'll often find a foosball table set up in front of the king.
Pane ca’ Meusa (Spleen Sandwich!)
The great thing about our Streaty street food tour of Palermo is that it gave us the confidence to try Sicilian street food specialities we might not have otherwise sank our teeth into. Marco took us to a humble street cart to try pane ca' meusa (aka a Sicilian spleen sandwich!). We cautiously took a bite...it tasted pretty good, kind of like mushrooms. I managed to eat most of the half sandwich we were given per couple. My husband had a couple bites and decided he'd had enough of the spleen sandwich experience. Again, it tasted quite good. It was only when I stopped to think about what I was eating that my stomach kind of balled itself up into a knot.
The Best Cannoli in Palermo
The final food stop on our street food tour in Palermo was much less controversial because it involved cannoli. Who doesn't love cannoli?! We watched as the pastry tubes were filled on the spot (a critical element of the whole enterprise). If cannoli are filled in advance, you start to lose that crispness in the shell. These Sicilian cannoli were absolute perfection.
Father Puglisi's Story at the Palermo Cathedral
We ended our Streaty food tour in front of the Palermo Cathedral. Pretty much every visitor to Sicily is curious about the mafia. Marco took time to walk the group through the church and tell us Father Puglisi's story. Now considered a martyr by the church, he was 'taken out' by the mob for his work trying to shield children from that way of life.
Thus ends our fascinating and delicious street food tour of Palermo. We tried Sicilian foods we've never had before and may never eat again. Our food memories from the trip definitely run deep.