Natalie Cammarata wrote this article on Palermitani street food, appeared on Chicago Tribune last May 13, 2013. Enjoy it!
“This Sicilian city is full of secrets, but its street food isn’t one of them. Monday through Saturday, the locals follow the smells and sounds to any one of Palermo’s open-air markets for a taste of regional fare.
My experience eating mozzarella and gelato in central Italy did not prepare me for the entirely unique animal I encountered in the Sicilian capital. The foods I found here were simple — some simply delicious and others simply best left to those with strong stomachs.
Behind the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house, lies a spider web of alleys that make up Mercato di Capo. I started along Via Sant’Agostino and made my way through the hanging linens lining the narrow streets, past the tables of socks, baby clothes and Sicily-shaped magnets, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” DVDs, the ceramics stand and the tables of earrings, and came to a narrow street filled with fresh fish, homemade pastas and butchers awaiting my order. On this street, a young woman named Arianna and her brothers served the most heavenly arancini (Sicilian rice balls) in Palermo for 1.5 euros (about $2).
One of them was about the size of a large fist, with a thick fried crust that held in heat while I took a long walk. I made it to the center and found the middle so perfectly stuffed with ham and mozzarella that I planned my next arancini meal before I had finished eating.
Mercato Capo spat me out onto Via Volturno, where after a quick walk east I found what must be Palermo’s smallest food vendor. Cardonnio Giovanni has been selling street foods at a secluded corner in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi for 25 years. Every day he brings his three-wheeled cart to the same spot, where he sells favorites, including panelle (fried chickpea rectangles) and crocche (perfectly fried ovals of mashed potato and egg), to hungry passers-by and old friends. I guess I looked hungry, because Giovanni piled on the crocche before I could get away. Two panelle and three crocche, enough for lunch, cost about $2.60.
I ate my panelle and crocche on the steps of the Teatro Massimo and left just enough room for a granita, the icy Sicilian drink made of sugar, water and your choice of flavor. Piero Caccamo makes granita at Grattatella all’Antica, his mobile business that stands in front of the famed opera house. The Grattatella is somewhat of an institution, with a 40-year history initiated by Caccamo’s father-in-law. A granita limone is $4, but Caccamo tends to give discounts to friendly tourists.
I ventured farther south to the gritty but colorful Albergheria neighborhood, where Mercato Ballaro overwhelmed my senses. Ballaro is heavily influenced by the Arab-style open markets and consists mostly of fresh-food vendors. At its southernmost point off Corso Tukory, a young man named Mauro prepared sfincione, the Sicilian version of pizza. He topped a thick square of focaccia with tomato sauce, olive oil, onions and oregano. The thick, cheeseless pizza, which my Sicilian grandmother used to call tomato bread, filled me up for only $1.30.
Deeper into the Ballaro, outside the supermarket chain Brio, ricotta allo sfincione (blocks of baked ricotta cheese) lined tables alongside chunks of fresh cheese and green olives. One ricotta allo sfincione was topped with crushed pistachios and orange marmalade, and another with tomato, hot pepper sauce and basil. It was sweet cheese heaven but left no room for the olives and sesame bread the woman manning the table will inevitably make you try. One piece of ricotta allo sfincione was about $3.
Further into the colorful chaos of Ballaro, a husband-and-wife team dished out pane con panelle, a simple stack of panelle chickpea fritters stuffed inside a sesame roll bun. Since they couldn’t understand my textbook Italian, a nearby tourist translated my Italian into Sicilian and back, so the couple could describe the process of frying the chickpeas in the vat of oil boiling behind them. A pane con panelle runs about $9.
At the end of the market was Piazza Ballaro, where there were two street foods not to be missed. The first was pane con milza (a cow spleen sandwich). There was a vendor in Piazza Ballaro who made spleen sandwiches, which had thinly sliced meat resembling roast beef that had been soaked in a vat of salty juice and thrown onto a sesame roll. Its resemblance to an Italian beef sandwich made it less intimidating. It was mildly gummy but not all bad. The salt helped.
The day after my first pane con milza, I returned to Piazza Ballaro in the rain and discovered two men under an umbrella selling unidentified meat bits out of a large sheet-covered basket. The meat bits were called frittola, and there are no rules to what kind of meat you find in your bits. I ordered a panino and savored the spicy flavor of the mostly fat sandwich but had trouble getting past the first bite. The exact contents of frittola remain a mystery. I imagine its secrets are only trumped by the mysteries of Palermo itself.
Other markets not to be missed include the famed, albeit declining, Mercato Vucciria and the open-late Borgo Vecchio, where you’ll find stigghiola (intestines on a skewer), proving that Palermo is not for the faint of stomach.”