The Sicilian Diaries: An Ode to Palermo Food
Sicilian food tastes like what I imagine food in heaven is going to be like. If not, I’m more than happy to rot in hell. [Provided that there will be abundant supply of sushi.] As Matthew Fort writes in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, “Sicilian cooking embraces contrast, discord, counterpoint, counterpunching, variance and the absence of delicacy … the dishes are as bold and baroque as any flamboyant building.”
An excellent example of this is caponata, a vegetable dish that gives aubergine the one-woman show it always deserved: these delicate items of purple gold are cooked with affection in a fragrant tomato sauce with sauteed onions, celery, capers and olives. It’s salty, sweet and sour at the same time, and I would be content with having it every day for the rest of my life.
Then comes arancini. Or how Sicily did the perfect portable, high-energy snack for people working in the fields, fishing boats or, you know, taking care of dodgy business before granola bars existed. Having tasted arancini, the appearance of the latter feels like a gastronomic backslide. Arancini, delightfully named after the little oranges that they are supposed to resemble, are fried rice balls. They are an excellent way to utilize leftover (?) risotto or, for the more zealous cooks, they can be prepared from scratch. Crispy, crunch, golden crust aside, the arancini beg to be eaten so that they can reveal their delicious filling: from mozzarella and ham if you’re keeping it simple, to meat ragu and a plethora of vegetables if you’re feeling adventurous. They’re hearty, comforting and indulgent; you can feel your blood vessels clot the moment you take your first bite, but you’ll happily surrender to them nevertheless.
The rest of the local cuisine is carb heavy and unapologetically unsuitable for vegetarians – think fresh pasta, pizza and dough in all forms and shapes filled with local cheeses and cured meats, fresh fish and seafood with anchovies making guest appearances to an abundance of dishes. One of the meals we enjoyed the most was the one that we had standing in the middle of one of the local markets. There are three of them in Palermo – Vucciria, Ballarò and Capo – but more on that later. Recipe for success (and maybe heartburn):
- broken Italian,
- plenty of pointing and exaggerated hand gestures,
- panelle (savoury fritters made from chickpea flour and bathed in hot oil)
- crocche (potato croquettes flavoured with parsley or ming and bathed in hot oil)
- a happy medley of vegetables including aubergine, zucchini and squash blossoms (generously covered in batter and, yes, you might have seen this coming, bathed in hot oil), and
- generous squeeze of lemon (Sicilian one, obviously!)
You can thank me later.
Now, I’m going to reveal the location of the Best. Tiramisu. Del. Mondo. I’d love to say that it’s a well-kept secret of the locals but heated discussions on tripadvisor suggest otherwise. Quiet, narrow, cobblestone Palermo alleys will take you to Cioccolateria Lorenzo with its airy, instagrammably decorated patio, which constitutes the perfect refuge for scorching hot summer days. Order two coffees and a tiramisu to share – do not ask for seconds, you will need an excuse to return the next day and order it again, like we did, profoundly refusing to show any signs of guilt. Fragrant, light, smooth, perfectly balanced, this is the best tiramisu I’ve had in my quarter of a century. As a true, certified tiramisu devotee I would like to testify that this tiramisu is the closest equivalent you can get to an orgasm if you’re used to living in the sexile called London. Fun linguistic fact for the language/translation nerds and the rest of my readers who didn’t necessarily asked for it but will – hopefully – find it amusing: tiramisu means “pick me up”, “cheer me up” or “lift me up” in Italian as the espresso in which the ladyfingers are painstakingly dipped is supposed to keep you awake. Debatable but interesting.
Tiramisu might not be quintessentially Sicilian but cannoli are – these little, ingenious tube-shaped shells of pastry dough that are filled with a sweet, creamy filling traditionally containing ricotta. Italian friends and acquaintances raised the importance of eating as many of them as possible but I might have been temporarily distracted by granita, another local speciality. Granita is made using sugar, water and various flavorings (lemon and almond being the most traditional variations) and shall not be confused with sorbet as it has a coarser, more crystalline texture. I’m being told granita is often consumed together with a brioche bun as a typical breakfast on warm summer days. My favorite yoghurt, granola and blueberry combo seems pale in comparison but this little foodie will not surrender to this astronomical amount of sugar for breakfast (yet).
Obviously, you do not need me to remind you that a key point to your Palermo visit would be to enjoy ice cream with the abandon and fierce joy that characterizes mainly 3-year olds that are left unsupervised. Pistachio is another local product so trying pistachio ice cream would be highly recommended. Based on its colour you should be able to tell how good an ice cream vendor is – if it has an odd, unnatural fluo colour, you can walk away. If they do not have pistachio ice cream at all, run. Gelateria Al Cassaro on Via Vittorio Emanuele is a great option if you have a soft spot for dark chocolate ice cream that is darker than your ex’s heart or coffee-flavored ice cream that could easily substitute an espresso shot.
Overall, when it comes to food in Sicily (and Italy in general), using fresh, local ingredients full of flavour and aroma is what makes even the simplest dishes stand apart. Take pizza, for instance: order the most minimalistic version possible, aka tomato, mozzarella and basil, and allow the ingredients to shine. When the aforementioned combo arrived to our table, I was almost in tears. The smell of fresh basil permeated the air (and my heart), taking me fifteen years back, to when I was sitting, all long limbs, tan lines and salty skin, in my grandma’s balcony and the delicate fragrance from her basil plant pots filled the warm summer night air.
Food in Sicily is a full-blown sensory affair indeed.
Hungry (as always),