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.
PALERMO - Dad can be very good at bonding with the locals. His eyes might glaze over with a museum guide or, say, me when I get going about food, but give him someone salty in a tweed cap or a tour bus driver and in five minutes, they’ll be sharing a bag of sunflower seeds with Dad telling the joke about the drunk twins from the County Cork.
In Palermo, this happens with Sicily guide Jean Paul Barreaud, the man who introduced me to pastry chef and gelato god, Santi Palazzolo, and spoke my favorite Motherland quote: “Sicilians eat like ogres.”
Their bonding subject was instant: Palermo traffic.
“I like your car Jean-Paul, are those claw marks on the bumper?” Asked Dad.
“The only pedestrians with untouchable rights are pregnant women,” replied Barreaud, not skipping a beat. “Everyone else is fair game.”
I couldn’t tell if Dad, a true road warrior, was terrified or agog in admiration for the Palermitans, but I can say that he never took the wheel and after returning home, he wrote a lengthy email thanking me for driving.
Barreaud brought us to U Zù Caliddu, a former smuggler’s safe house in the hills above Palermo run by a sprawling family that includes a grandmother in the kitchen and a four year old playing soccer in a Spider Man costume in the dining room.
There’s a 15-euro fixed-price menu that could put even the hungriest ogre under the table, but it’s also a great way to get a handle on family-style Sicilian. The antipasto includes great examples of the sweet and sour caponata, roasted ricotta and a pizza cousin called ‘old man’s face’ – a square and thick pie with a cheese-laden red sauce that Dad promptly got all over his shirt.
Seemingly from nowhere, the guide pulled out a bottle of miracle stain cleaner that he sprays on Dad’s shirt.
Barreaud looks at me and smiles, “He’s becoming Italian!”
U Zù Caliddu – MAP
C/ del Piano dell’ochio
PALERMO – Mom and Dad are gone and I have Palermo to myself for the morning. I walk behind the Teatro Massimo in the city center, find a bakery where fresh, hot, ricotta-laden pastries come out of the back room just as I enter.
Outside, a helicopter whoops mysteriously. I down my coffee and head outside with breakfast to see what the fuss is about.
The theater has moved outdoors.
“You can’t stand there,” says someone who I’ll later realize is a plainclothes policeman.
Twenty-odd mobsters have been rounded up and, one by one, under cover of the helicopter and an impressive line of carabinieri cars, they are escorted out of a special police station, down a set of stairs and into a waiting car.
Wives and grandmothers dissolve into tears and collapse to the sidewalk. News crews and families are pushed around. Tragedy! Comedy! Italians have a particular capacity for making the serious look ridiculous.
Some of the cons come out of the door and pause at the top of the stairs with a look of dread. Newbies. Others grin and give a handcuffed wave with a look that says, ‘Don’t worry honey, I’ll be outta the clink in a couple of days.’
One guy has a plastic bag that looks like it’s stuffed with a three-day supply of pasta and cannoli.
I pop the last bite of pastry, take a nervous picture of the chaos and wander toward my gelato.
Da Carlo is as fantastic as ever. I have scoops of yogurt and cantaloupe gelato in a brioche capped by a beautifully not-too-sweet whipped cream.
Later, I wash it down with a standup coffee at Caffé del Moro where the barista blurs the line between man and machine.
Without looking, he flips a clean espresso cup from the top of machine to his other hand, waiting for it next to the portafilter. Steam rises from the used grounds in the knockbox.
I ask if I can make a photo and while his machine gurgles, he sizes me up with a look that says, ‘Why bother?’ combined with ‘I don’t care.’
“Fa,” comes the response. Do it.
I’ll miss this city.
Caffé del Moro - MAP
Via Giovanni Da Procida, 3
Gelateria Da Carlo - MAP
Corso dei Mille, 72
Whenever I’m in the Motherland, Francesco, my good pal and stalwart guide, humors my quest to find the best pizza in Sicily.
There’s some good stuff in the south where he’s from, strong examples in Palermo and more unique, thicker pies in Trapani. We ignore the question of ‘what is real Sicilian pizza?’ and just go with our taste buds.
In the end, we got to the point where, instead of calling places by their names, we’d just call them by their score on a ten-point scale. The place in the hotel down the hill with Speedy Gonzales on the takeout box? Pizza Sette. The seaside place? Sette Punto Cinque. Reigning southern champion? La Contea in Modica, where a pie with rocket, cured wild boar and parmesan (a combination that tends to send me over the moon with glee no mater in which state I find it) which earned it the Pizza Otto title.
Before I came back to the Motherland, Francesco started hinting at a new find: a place he was calling ‘Pizza Nove Plus.’ The ‘plus’ being for the food at Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio (which we’ll get to in another post) hidden in the outskirts of Ragusa.
As a group appetizer, we order a tomato, mozzarella and basil pie. The sauce is sweet and acidic, the crust crisp and soft with wood-fired flavor. Plus, there’s milky sensuality from the mozzarella and a crisp, fresh bite from the basil.
Pizza Otto was dethroned in one bite.
Later, after a full non-pizza meal, I get edgy, thinking that I might not be back here for a while.
After the cheese course, I find chef Francesco Cassarino wandering the floor and ask for another pizza.
Full to the gills, everyone at the table stares at me funny until it shows up, but Francesco dutifully has a slice.
The pie has a sort of flight path: “This won’t change my life,” I think over my first bites, but then the Parmesan and cured meat sweeten and begin working together.
I look over and Francesco has broken his fork-and-knife protocol and eats his pie with his hands. He pops the last bite of crust into his mouth with an ‘I-told-you-so’ smile.
Then he asks for another slice.
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.
Once a week, the bar downstairs from my flat does little tapas-style appetizers. If you show up at about eight, you can make a meal out of it, paying only for what you drink. It’s not high gastronomy, but good, traditional stuff, and makes for a full house.
Giuseppe, who works at the bar and comes from Trapani (Sicily’s western tip), does all of the cooking. I’m sure he’s paid for his time, but it’s his initiative and he certainly does it more for fun than money.
On Thursday, I gave him a hand in the kitchen, doing everything from rolling out and baking little brioches from dough he made the day before to putting together two pasta dishes. He even made tiny versions of arancini – literally “little oranges” that are classic Sicilian street food - cooked rice balls with any combination of ground beef, tomato sauce, peas, eggs, ham and cheese, the whole thing rolled in fine breadcrumbs and quickly fried.
As most Sicilians who cook still tend to be women, it’s a funny thing for a twenty-something guy to do for fun, but for Giuseppe, that’s part of the connection.
“This is the cooking that my mother and grandmother did,” he says, and clearly he was paying attention as he grew up. For one pasta dish, he’s got tomatoes that have been briefly boiled to loosen their skin, yet he makes the whole sauce separately, cooking button mushrooms, basil, zucchini, red onion, a healthy glug of olive oil, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Only when everything else is cooked does he dice the tomatoes directly into the pot.
“If you cook the tomatoes in the sauce, they lose their flavor,” he says.
He gives the whole thing a stir and sticks his nose in the pot and breathes in deep. “Que odore!” he exclaims in our multi-language mix.
Later, he gets ready to fry the arancini he’s prepped the day before. He’s got a pot on the stove with a couple of inches of oil inside clinking away as it heats up and there’s not a thermometer in sight.
“How do you know when it’s hot enough?” I ask.
And why cook something so typical at a trendy neighborhood bar?
“Because it’s pleasing. It’s good.” he says, clearly at a bit of a loss for why I’d wonder such a thing. “Why do you eat hot dogs in America? Because they’re good.”
Later, he pulls out a jar of tiny, round red peppers he’s brought for a little work-time snack. They’re stuffed with a mix of classic Sicilian ingredients – capers, tuna and parsley – all soaking in olive oil.
I pop one into my mouth and it dissolves, pushing the corners of my mouth upward in a big, quiet grin.
“They cost a fortune,” he says, “about 12 euros (about $15) for a little pot, but they’re a classic, and they’re orgasmic.”
It looks like the classics will last for at least one more generation.
This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.
Day one in Palermo
Breakfast: Lemon granite (like a slushy sorbet) on a brioche bun
Lunch: Pane ca meusa – a spleen sandwich
Dinner #1: Foot, udder, tongue and head meat - all cow, served cold - sprinkled with salt and doused with lemon, served on the converted back of a three-wheeled Vespa Ape truck. 500 grams (about a pound), 2 euros (about $2.50).
Dinner #2: Food from Ghana. I yelled over the music, asking if they had a soup with vegetables. I got a stew with huge hunks of liver, lung and tripe in a spicy red sauce, with a huge side of rice. All to be eaten with your hands. It was great. Special note: when a bit of a scuffle broke out by the register, this restaurant also won the prize for the first one where I’ve ever looked for a back door.
Dessert: two Moretti beers while I type.
This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.