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.
When not in Ragusa Ibla for gelato, Ragusa proper can hold its own. The discreet Pasticceria DiPasquale - no relation to the wonderful cheese shop up the hill with the same name - doesn’t fool around.
The inside has a whiff of discreet luxury and there’s a room devoted to writer Leonardo Sciascia (seek out his Mafia writing - he’s blissfully good). God knows if he’s ever used the typewriter in the corner case, but it makes you dream anyway.
Unusually, the gelato is hidden from view - you choose from a short list on the bar. A pair of Sicilian classics are seriously good but what’s most intriguing is the difference in texture; the almond is cake-like and the pistachio more liquid and creamy.
I could be just a flux in the fridge, but I doubt it. The slight differences make each one that much better - a secret modern touch in an austere place.
A stroll through Ragusa Ibla will shave hours from the time you need to get to know people.
We’ve just had dinner at Pizza Nove. Suffice to say, Ristorante Caravanserraglio retains its Sicilian pizza crown.
We head up to Ragusa Ibla for a walk, stopping off for a completely unnecessary gelato at Gelati DiVini and Francesco orders cups of jasmine and olive oil. (The olive farmer pleases the ladies in our group with edible flowers and does a bit of marketing at the same time - genius!)
More importantly, how do you turn jasmine - still blooming across the countryside in the Sicilian fall - into gelato? And how do you do it so it doesn’t taste like cheap perfume? This is the place to find out.
We head back into the side streets, staring at the stars between the buildings. Smiling. Present.
PS - That fuzzy looking thing in the photo of Lex? That’s the gelato - she made us go back the next day. And the blissed-out grin? That’s the gelato, too.
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
One of the nicest pleasures about being back in the Motherland is seeing everyone and everything again, picking up almost exactly a year to the day after I was here last. There are things to catch up on, there’s a slight seasonal shift, but an overall feeling of being home.
Francesco’s aunt Pinuccia, knowing I’m a sucker for good cheese, left a big hunk of a crumbly truffle-infused artisanal formaggio she’d picked up on a trip to northern Italy in my fridge. Usually, truffle-infused anything sets off little warning signals in my mind that read: “overpriced bunk”. Not here.
We had a bite of the cheese and the truffles did what truffles are supposed to do: reach through your tongue and mouth like smoke, gradually settling into your senses like no other food can.
The next day, I ran into the farmer who sells still-warm ricotta out of the back of his truck. Two euros ($3) for raw milk bliss.
More recently, after starting the day with gelato from the nearby supermarket bar, Francesco and I stopped by Caffé Sicilia in Noto to see what Corrado Assenza – arguably Italy’s best pastry chef – has been up to.
I had a cup of ricotta and pistachio gelato, the latter being the star, with a cake-like texture and beguiling simplicity. Francesco shared exactly one bite of his ‘orange salad’ gelato, based on a typical Sicilian dish that uses oranges, olive oil ultra-fresh onions. Barely sweet, the gelato went from an orange flavor to a vegetable one. It’s one of those experiences that short-circuits your brain and leaves you with a smile on your face.
Finally, I made a quick lunch the other day – a pasta with a sauce that’s so simple it feels like cheating: chopped up tomatoes, large amounts of good olive oil, salt and a bit of crushed garlic that all bubbles away while the pasta water is coming to a boil. In a moment of inspiration, I shaved bits of Pinuccia’s cheese over the pasta, the truffle’s potency and the sweetness of the cheese magnified by the warmth of the pasta.
Simple, complex, happy.
This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.
When I arrived in Palermo, the first thing I wanted to do was have a gelato or slushy granita in a brioche. I now know the first one I ate to have been junk.
This weekend, however, I struck gold.
At the end of a Sunday walk, I found a crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk from the Gelateria da Carlo near the train station. I pushed my way in and saw the sign: Brioche Calde con Gelato. “Calde” (hot) was underlined three times, which was all the convincing I needed.
Ticket and pre-paid receipt in hand, I waited for my number (78) to be called. I ordered and the guy pulled a brioche from a plastic bag, halved it (moving the brioche, not the knife for some reason) and filled it with hazelnut and almond gelato. He put the whole thing in what looked like a George Foreman Grill, closed it, and let it work its magic for 14 seconds.
It comes out as a sealed unit that looks like a flying saucer, and the first bite gives you the warmth of the brioche, the cold of the ice cream and the little bit that’s just starting to melt from the heat.
On Saturday, in the town of Cinisi, about a half-hour train ride west of Palermo, I met Santi Palazzolo, a master pastry chef, master chocolatier and ice cream fanatic.
“My grandfather didn’t have machines to make ice cream,” he says, referring back to the Palazzolo pastry shop’s founder. “One guy would turn the basin (which sat in an ultra-cold salted slush mix) with his hands while my grandfather would scrape the ice off the inside,” he said, demonstrating what looked like a ridiculously labor-intensive procedure.
We’ve come a long way.
Palazzolo led the way to the shop’s giant basement laboratory, passing through dedicated pastry and chocolate sections, before stopping in a tiny room with what looked like three stainless steel washing machines: a pasteurizer, an emulsifier and a chiller.
Like the setup at the Padova olive oil mill, it ain’t sexy, but the process yields incredible results.
Palazzolo breaks his gelato into two rough categories: gelato without milk, which are the fruit flavors, and gelato with milk - the ‘nut & bean’ flavors (like vanilla, coffee or hazelnut), with the latter group spending up to a whopping 24 hours in the emulsifier before going into the chiller. Mouthfeel fans and the rest of humanity will find this time well spent.
There are a stack of tricks and techniques like this Palazzolo uses to coax the most flavor from his ingredients, some technical like low-temperature pasteurization, others learned.
“We add lemon juice to that gelato just before refrigerating it (as opposed to all other fruit flavors, where the juice is added at the beginning),” he says. “It gets rid of a metallic taste.”
Back in Palermo, after giving my complete attention to my hot brioche with gelato, I watched the world go by.
Carlo’s is not beautiful. It sits in a building made from what looks like fancy cinder blocks and the inside is lit with blue lights. But it’s overflowing with people of all ages, all enjoying their Sunday treat. Two year old Palermitans, whose chocolate-covered faces would be best cleaned with a mop, mill around with goofy grins. Pre-teen girls, with little rolls of fat spilling out between their layers of fake Dolce & Gabbana clothes, mill around in packs. There are also middle-aged couples, workers on a break, grandparents, and teens on scooters.
It’s horns, Vespas, sunglasses when the sun’s not out, cigarettes, litter, strutting and family. It’s a kid wearing two shades of orange clothes and his dad with the same two shades on his cone. It’s a micro fender-bender and the arm flapping, hunched shoulder discussion that follows and the guy who rides by with a cardboard license plate taped to the fender of his scooter.
Today, hot brioche in hand, I got a big scoop of Palermo.
This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.