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)
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
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)
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