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Restaurant Guide to Sicily:
Palermo

Palermo is Sicily’s largest city. It has improved dramatically since I first visited more than 20 years ago. It is safer, cleaner, richer, and more cosmopolitan. Still, you can walk or drive around certain parts of the city and feel like you were in an earlier century. Some parts are, indeed, still poor and squalid, and Palermo hasn’t even fully cleaned up from World War II. Buildings bombed during the war remain in ruin. If you walk around the perimeter of the Ballarò outdoor market you will see some of them.

Church Teatro Politeama

 

Ballarò, one of Palermo’s three open markets, is much more interesting than the old Vucceria market that you read about in all but the best guide books. The food stalls at Vucceria are quite limited these days, and the market seems mainly for the amusement of tourists. On the other hand, many North Africans shop at Ballarò and you will see produce, spices, and other ingredients that have nothing to do with Italian or Sicilian food, as well as all the things on which locals dote. There are good butcher stalls and fruit and vegetable vendors. Though I wouldn’t flaunt money or jewelry here, it is reasonably safe. While I walked with my friends around the market, Cecilia sat and read her newspaper at a table in front of a down-and-dirty café/bar. No one bothered her, but then she is an imposing-looking woman.

The third market in Palermo, Il Capo, is the largest and probably the busiest, to me the most interesting and fun, and so centrally located in the heart of the city that you may end up wandering into it without trying. The market is a long, fairly narrow street and many side streets that are filled with food stores and outdoor stalls and vendors of every other household and clothing necessity. Go in the morning for the maximum bustle. Watch you wallet.

The main shopping streets of Palermo, especially the wide boulevard of Viale della Libertà and its narrower extension, Via Maqueda, have beautiful shops of all kinds. For culture-vulture tourists there is almost too much to see. There is history and art almost everywhere you look. But among the highlights are:

Palazzo dei Normanni, which houses the Cappella Palatina (the Palatine Chapel), a jewel of Arab-Norman art that is famous for its exquisite mosaics. To me, it is the number one artistic site in Palermo.


The Cappella Palatina

The Cathedral of Palermo was originally an early Christian basilica, then later a mosque, then a basilica again. It exhibits many evolving styles of architecture. It defines the word awesome. (And it is a short walk to or from Palermo’s flea market, another place I like to visit, horrible as it is.)

La Martorana is technically Santa Maria del Ammiraglio, a church built in 1143, but with a 16th century façade and a Baroque interior that is famous for its mosaics. It is of oblique gastronomic interest as well: The word martorana has come to mean the life-like almond paste fruits and vegetables that are a Sicilian specialty because it was the nuns of this church that began that craft.

Near La Martorana is Fontana Pretoria, a huge fountain in the High Rennaissance style, also called the Fountain of Shame because it has many nude figures.

Teatro Massimo is a late 19th century opera house, one of the largest in Europe. It recently reopened after a long and extensive restoration. It is delightful to look at just from the outside.

The Regional Archeological Museum housed in a 17th century monastery, features treasures from excavations all over Sicily. It also has a beautiful atrium where you can sit and contemplate antiquities and tropical foliage.

Teatro Politeama is the late 19th century neo-classical style theater, which now houses the Gallery of Modern Art. As it is in the center of the city, you’ll walk by it frequently if you are in Palermo for more than a day.

And please, please don’t miss the Byzantine cathedral in Monreale, Santa Maria La Nuova. Monreale is a neighboring municipality, but so close to central Palermo it seems like part of the same city. Among the cathedral’s other gorgeous wonders, it has an amazing cloister that is lined with all different spiraling and mosaic-embellished columns.

Now you will need a lunch break, and dinner. Palermo is not the greatest restaurant city in Italy, but there’s certainly plenty to eat -- wonderful pastries, gelato, and ices (granite). You can find incredibly fresh fish. Swordfish, tuna, fresh anchovies and sardines, octopus, shrimp, and many types of bivalves are local and popular. The snack foods are great. Arancini, fried rice balls, may be the most famous, but there are many other snacks you will find irresistible. The bread is usually made from hard semolina wheat. Hence it has a yellow cast. And Sicilians in general, Palermitani in particular, love sesame seeds, which coat the crust of many loaves, as well as other savories and sweets. Leaving the center of the city to eat is also a good idea. The nearby seaside town of Sferracavallo has many family-style restaurants. There are a couple of chic restaurants in the neighboring, more upscale community of Mondello. They are too internationally oriented and expensive for me. Both communities are easily reachable by public transportation, meaning a bus. You may want to spring for a cab, but I find riding buses are much more fun, and the bus rides to Sferracavallo and Mondello provide a good tour of middle-class, residential Palermo.

Trattoria Piccolo Napoli
Piazetta Mulino a Vento, 4 (at Corso Scina)
Tel. 091320431
Closed Sunday

As you will see on the seafood display as you walk in the door, the fish they serve here are still in rigor mortis when they hit the pan or fire. That means they were caught only hours before, not days. And, also by the door, as you will see on the circular buffet, there are only a limited number of antipasti and vegetables available on a given day, but they are always the most seasonal. The food is simple, but the best simple, and the menu lists all the classics of Palermo – pasta con le sarde, pasta with squid ink, fish fillets baked with breadcrumbs, and much more. That’s why this is my favorite restaurant in Palermo, and I have eaten here more than anywhere else.


Antica Focacceria San Francesco

Via Alessandro Paternostro, 58
Tel. 091-320-264

One of the specialties of the city is spleen boiled in lard and eaten on a brioche-type roll with a squeeze of lemon, or, if you like a hearty smear of ricotta. It tastes a lot better than it sounds. Still, you have to be a bit of a food adventurer to enjoy it. The most famous and colorful place to eat vistedde, if not the absolute best, is this focacceria across the piazza from the Cathedral of San Francesco. It is old and famous and the vistedde is made on a vast antique black and brass stove in the center of the high-ceilinged hall. It is so popular an item that you will need to take a number for your turn at it. While waiting, observe the sandwich makers and decide how exactly you want yours – with or without cheese (a mild form of cacciocavallo) or ricotta, with or without lemon.

There are other Palermitani specialties served up at the food counter on the left side of the hall. The arancini, rice balls, are merely okay. You can get equal or better ones at almost any snack counter. The panelle, which are fried chick pea flour in rectangles, usually eaten as a sandwich filling, are better – that is if they have just come from the fryer. I don’t care for panelle in brioche, which is the local way of eating them, so I get them plain, on a plate. But beware: If the panelle are not freshly fried, or the arancini have been sitting for a while, the clerk will want to microwave them, ruining what quality they may have. There’s baked pasta on the steam table, too. I do like the so-called pasta al forno, which is pasta rings (anelli), with tomato sauce, ground meat, and cheese. There is also other hot food that is pretty good. I come here mainly for the wonderful local atmosphere and those spleen sandwiches. There’s seating and waiter service outside on the piazza, but the action is inside.

Spinnato (dal 1860 – since 1860)
Pasticceria and Caffe
Via Principe di Belmonte, 107/115 (off Via Maqueda)
Tel. 091-329.220

This is one of, if not, the single best pastry shop in Palermo. If nothing else, it is a chic experience sitting outside, on the wide pedestrian shopping street where it is situated, eating an incredible cannolo, or a wedge of cassata, Sicily’s iconic ricotta-cream filled, glacéed-fruit studded, almond-paste covered cake (oh so sweet), or fabulous gelato packed into a soft and eggy brioche roll. Sicilians even eat brioche ice cream sandwiches for breakfast. Once you’ve experienced Sicilian summer heat, you’ll understand why.

 

Sicily Guide: Palermo - Sferracavallo - Catania - Taormina - Modica - Siracusa
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