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.
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.
Walking through the town of Catania, Francesco explained its Festa di Sant’Agata as best he could.
“Agata (like Agatha, with a better sounding name) was the daughter of a noble family, destined to be married to a guy from another family. But she preferred to die because she was devoted to God,” he said, sounding reasonably certain.
“But it’s impossible to starve in this town,” he said.
After working a full day in Ispica yesterday, we hopped in the car and set off on the hour-and-a-half trek to Catania to prepare ourselves for the Feast of Saint Agata.
“Catania is one of the most important places in Italy for street food,” Francesco mentioned a day earlier.
I’m not sure what he was thinking about for the first two days I was here.
We started off with a couple of false trails, which only served to heighten our hunger, before finding a place with a blue neon star with a red letter “A” in the center. Inside, immediately on the left at hip-level, were three vats big enough to fry a horse head or small kid in, with nothing to keep customers from falling in; I’d say “Darwin would love it here,” but my sister would point out that I almost fell into a Frialator once.
A big woman behind the counter introduced us to crispelle, fritter-like things of two different flavors and sizes. We had a ball-shaped one stuffed with ricotta and another, more mangled-stick shaped with anchovies in the middle. I could taste the genius potential, but they were leftovers at the end of the night, and she gave them to us, promising that she’ll set up a full testing plate for us when we go back this weekend. Yeehaw!
Afterward, we wheedled our way through the creepy/beautiful Santo Spirito neighborhood on our way to another street food hotspot. It seemed to be one of those places where you walk in the street because you’re worried you might fall into a hole in the sidewalk.
“I see smoke,” I said.
“That’s our place,” replied Francesco.
Frankly, coming out of Santo Spirito (which Francesco assures me is about to become the town’s next hotspot), the people crowding around the source of the smoke looked like bums around a trash can in the movies. Then we got closer and I could smell how wrong I was.
Via Plebiscito is aptly named, as it’s the where Catania’s street food freaks, err, vote to eat on their feet.
Lining the street, nearly every butcher shop and restaurant has a big, square grill flaming away in front of it and stout men impervious to heat use stubby tongs or their blackened, bare hands flip sausages, large spring onions wrapped in bacon, pork products, breaded quail and, my recent favorite, and the neighborhood specialty, horse steak sandwiches. On the grill, most of the products are regularly brushed with a sort of oregano vinaigrette. The grill tenders, one of whom was carrying an obscene stack of cash in his apron pocket from the night’s haul, flick salt onto the meat in a sort of long-distance sidearm Rollie Fingers style.
Say what you will about eating Trigger, but piled on a big bun and sloshed with the vinaigrette, horse is good stuff. Among other selections, the star of the street was the spring onions wrapped in unsmoked bacon. Sweet, simple, vinegar-y goodness.
Stuffed, we went to Francesco’s favorite places for those tamarind syrup with lemon and sodium bicarbonate drinks to help digest it all – at a little street stand called Giammona. Apparently, Francesco wanted to make sure he trusted me a little more before showing me the best in the city.
He was right and I’m hooked. Fuzzy goodness in a cup.
“It’s a ritual,” said Francesco, “I can’t leave town without stopping there. For me it’s like shutters going down at the end of a meal. After that, I close.”
Technically, we didn’t close – we went and got cannolis at a 24-hour place, and those aren’t technically street food. But they are a story for another day…
This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.