The second stop on our five-country trip was Palermo, Sicily, and it just confirmed (once again) that Italy is my favorite country. This is actually somewhat ironic because many Sicilians and mainland Italians don’t even consider Sicily part of Italy. Set right in between Europe, Northern Africa, and the Arab world, Sicily has been influenced (and invaded) by many cultures throughout history. To say Sicily is simply Italian is as reductive as saying Hawaii is American. Sicily barely saw the Renaissance that Italy is so famous for, yet its diversity in people, architecture, and cuisine exemplifies a cultural richness that cannot be found anywhere else.
We’d been to southern Italy before, so we prepared ourselves for utter chaos upon arrival, but the transportation from the airport to our apartment couldn’t have been smoother. Right in front of the airport exit was a desk dedicated to the Prestia e Comande bus service, where we bought round-trip tickets and were even given a little postcard with the bus route and timetable on it. After a scenic 45-minute bus ride, we got off outside Politeama theater and walked to our apartment, a penthouse on the ninth floor. The jaw-dropping balcony, which wrapped around almost our entire floor, was larger than our whole apartment back in Brooklyn. We enjoyed many breakfasts and evenings up there.
The highlight of our short time in Palermo was easily a four-hour food tour with Streaty. We met our guide, Salvo, outside the impressive Massimo Theater, which is the third largest opera house in Europe and the setting of that climactic scene in The Godfather Part III. (For those of you who haven’t blocked that movie out from memory, it’s where Sofia Coppola got shot and Al Pacino did his silent scream.)
Salvo was a goofy and passionate art historian who handed each of us a “foodie passport” before we started. Every time we tried one of the dishes in our passport, he gave us a stamp! It was a delicious way to learn about the history, customs, and influences of Sicily.
Our first stop was Capo Market, a daily street market full of locals doing their grocery shopping, as well as tour groups like ours. We found a table and tried three Sicilian specialties: panelle (flat chickpea fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes with mint), and arancina (fried risotto balls). The chickpeas and mint are obvious signs of Arab influence.
Before we left Capo Market, we passed one of the oldest vendors, a hand-pressed orange juice cart. The owner of the cart went through dozens of oranges to make a glass of fresh orange juice for each of us.
For our next stop, Salvo taught us how to order food in Sicilian dialect. We ordered sfincionello, which is Sicilian-style pizza — rectangular, thicker, and cheese-less, topped with fresh tomato, oregano, and chili. We brought sfincionello, olives, cheese, spicy sun-dried tomatoes, and bread to a local bar so we could enjoy our food with some wine. This delightful tradition is known as schiticchio. The bartender poured us some sweet Sicilian wine on tap. When we were done eating, Salvo told us to leave the rest of the food right on the bar; it’s tradition to leave food for locals to enjoy — this is so similar to the “Scrounge Table” at Reed College (except we’re feeding hungry Sicilian locals instead of Portland hipsters too cheap to buy a meal plan).
Anthony’s favorite part of our food tour was when we tried Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen and lung sandwich) from a cart. The rich meat is boiled in saltwater, cooked in lard, and stuffed into a bun. The Jewish people in this neighborhood couldn’t eat the spleen of animals due to their religion, so Catholics decided not to let good protein go to waste. These sandwiches were delicious, and we were two of the four people from our group of ten who dared to eat it — the ones who refused to eat it were from North Carolina and Georgia, naturally.
Our final tasting was what everyone was waiting for: cannoli! We passed a man selling Godfather-themed products, and Salvo explained Sicily’s tempestuous relationship with the franchise. Some Sicilians, such as the man we saw, understandably use it as a way to make money. For others, however, it hits too close to home. While we felt completely safe during our time in Palermo, the Mafia still exists — it’s just hidden. Corruption has moved to the businesses and politicians, which doesn’t sound too different from America. Just think The Godfather Part II (“legitimate” crime) instead of The Godfather Part I (mobsters shooting each other).
As we sat by the stunning Palermo Cathedral, Salvo went to fetch our cannoli and returned with a mouth-watering tray of them. I never particularly enjoyed cannoli back in the U.S., and it’s because they’re often pre-filled, sitting in a case for hours. True Sicilian cannoli should always be freshly filled with whipped ricotta (not that sugary stuff you often find in the U.S.) right when you order, and is often topped with pistachio, candied orange, or chocolate chips.
The Palermo Cathedral was the perfect venue to end our tour. Salvo concluded with a heartwarming statement about the importance of coexistence, since adapting to the natural shifts in populations is a crucial Sicilian tradition. Palermo Cathedral is Catholic, but it proudly incorporates Islamic art and architecture to honor the large Arab population at the time. Apparently, 12th-century Norman soldiers were more progressive than half of America.
Other buildings also reflect the diversity of Sicily, such as San Cataldo and its red Arab-Norman-style bulge domes, as well as Palazzo dei Normanni’s extravagant Byzantine interior.
Sicily is a place that everyone should visit. You can’t just visit the Italian clichés of Venice and Florence. If you enjoyed Rome, head further south because you deserve to experience Sicily, too. Most Italian-Americans hail from Sicily, so it’s even more crucial that Americans visit this island to understand such a large part of our immigrant history. Come for the past, but stay for something that Sicily can really teach us about the present — how to grapple with diversity, with the refugee crisis, and with overcoming the hate and fear that seems so prevalent in the rest of the world.
Tips for future travelers:
The Prestia e Comande bus is really convenient. It arrives outside the airport every 30 min and brings you to the center of Palermo in about 45 minutes. Buy round-trip bus tickets so you don’t have to worry about buying tickets on your way back. The little postcard they give you with the bus schedule is surprisingly accurate.
Obviously, take the Streaty food tour, but for other meals, try L’Anciova for a nice Italian dinner, Cannoli & Co. for the best cannoli I’ve ever had from a shop that’s been handcrafting them since 1024, and PPP-Burger for an interesting Sicilian take on the humble burger.
Check out Quattro Canti, a Baroque square at the intersection of two major streets (Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele). The four nearly-identical facades contain fountains with statues of the four seasons, the for Spanish kings of Sicily, and the patronesses of Palermo. Quattro Canti was one of the first major examples of city planning in Europe.
Have breakfast the Sicilian way, with a cappuccino or granita and a pastry, such as a brioche or ciambella (doughnut). Preferably on a balcony.