Food & Travel / Words & Photos
PALERMO - There are moments when I come back to this city and wonder if it isn’t the coolest place on Earth.
(This is before I’ve been here too long and the too-close buildings become too close, but till then, hoo boy.)
I cooled my heels after some field research for my WSJ gelato story, sat outside of Caffè Malavoglia, ordered a whiskey (they were out of Fernet), and slow-sipped until peckishness settled in and I realized that even on a Monday, I could roll down to the nighttime fest of the Ballarò market for a panelle sandwich.
Who would have thought that a chickpea fritter sandwich from a street vendor could be so good?
Here’s why: extra-fresh bread laden with sesame seeds, extra hot fritters, along with a shot of lemon and a spritz of salt to wake it up, all in an atmosphere that makes you feel alive.
Hoo baby. So good, I burned the roof of my mouth. Twice.
After that, as my good friend Francesco says, the shutters go down. Time for bed.
This is Joe Ray reporting from The Motherland.
If you want to mess with a Sicilian’s head, try playing with their preconceptions about food.
This is a pet theory of mine that I’ve been having fun testing out over the past week.
Last week, for example, I came back from the market with some leafy vegetable I had never seen, along with zucchini and pasta, thinking I’d throw something together for dinner. Giuseppe (see last entry) immediately sent me back to the market to buy the right kind of zucchini (the three-foot long cousin of what I bought) before he’d show me what to do with the leaves.
Similarly, I had just sat down to lunch with Sabrina Gianforte – a Sicilian who both helps run Confezionando, her family’s fancy-food store in Palermo and is in charge of her own gastronomic consultancy – and I had already disappointed her.
“You can’t eat fish without having wine!” she said, rather uninterested with how drinking at lunch wipes me out for the rest of the day. “You’re disappointing me!”
“Here,” she said, reassuming a serious tone, “lunch is a rite.”
Half an hour earlier, she had brought me to Palemo’s Ballaro Market, picked out some fish (a leopard-skinned murena eel, and a large red fish), paid the fishmonger and left him with a small gift from her shop. We brought the fish with us to the restaurant and gave it to the chef.
“You can only do this if you know the chef very, very well,” she says, reeling off a very short list of places she can do it.
The eel came back with spaghetti and broth, which was exquisitely simple – a preparation that is a sort of privilege of this kind of freshness. The flesh was somewhere between ‘regular’ whitefish and monkfish and the skin added a nice silky texture.
Later, the fish arrived whole, with little more done to it than baking it in a hot oven. It was dropped off by the chef and accompanied only by small plates and a fork and knife. It was up to us to serve ourselves.
It’s this simplicity that gets us comparing about Sicilian restaurant fare and home cooking.
“What are the first things you remember about your mother’s cooking?” asked Sabrina.
We both pause for about 10 seconds to think back and smile.
“I remember chops and breadcrumbs,” she said, before reflecting some more.
“Another time, I was playing with friends and went home and my mom made a sandwich with egg, cheese and parsley,” she says, making the gesture of Sicilian sandwich makers when the scoop out the inside of the roll with their fingers to make more room for the filling. “I thought it was magic.”
Sometimes, you wander into restaurants here and wonder if they aren’t just reproducing home cooking on a larger scale, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.