Visitors to Italy often dream about one thing – food.
Pizza and pasta are often the first things that people visiting Italy are desperate to try, and who can blame them? You can bet your last dime that the first thing I did in Naples was to try a traditional Neapolitan pizza, and I ate pasta for pretty much every meal when I was in Tuscany.
However, there is so much more to Italian food than pasta and pizza, and readers of this blog will know that Sicilian food, especially Palermo street food, is a different ball game altogether.
While it certainly has a lot in common with Italian food, Sicilian cuisine is an amalgamation of all of the cultures that have existed on the island of Sicily over the years, including the Arabs, Romans, Normans, Greeks, Spanish, Jews, and so on.
From the Arab domination of Sicily in the 10th and 11th centuries, we see saffron, apricot, raisins, rice, nutmeg, cloves and pine nuts, with the Greeks bringing a taste for fish, pistachio, olives and fresh vegetables. In Western Sicily, you will find Northern African influences. San Vito Lo Capo, for instance, has its very own annual couscous festival!
Outside influences on Sicilian cuisine are particularly strong in the local street food, with the capital of Palermo having been named as one of the best cities for street food in the entire world!
Streaty, the self-professed ‘pioneers of street food tours in Italy,’ are an Italian tour company based in Palermo (although they also run tours in Catania, Venice and Florence).
Although I’d already been eating my way around Palermo for a couple of months when they reached out and invited me along on one of their tours, I jumped at the offer. An afternoon eating greasy Palermo street food and learning about my favourite city in the world? Count me in!
Discovering the Best of Palermo Street Food with Streaty
I met Marco Romeo, owner of Streaty, at 11am outside the magnificent Teatro Massimo on Piazza Giuseppe Verdi. We bumped elbows in what has now become the global covid-approved greeting, and it wasn’t long before we were joined by the two couples who would also be attending the tour.
Our group was small (Streaty have an 8-person maximum group size) but eclectic – together we were Sicilian, English, French, American, Ukrainian and Polish – and Marco was so personable and chatty from the get go that the ice was broken between us all right away, and I found myself immediately at ease.
Perhaps to those travelling with friends or as part of a couple, this may seem insignificant, but as I was on the tour alone (the way I do most of my travelling), it was super important to me to have a guide that understands how crucial it is to form a great group dynamic from the very beginning – group tours can be scary, and I’ve definitely been on more than one awkward ‘why is nobody speaking to me?!’ day out in the past.
As he gave us a bit of background about himself and his company, Marco explained that a Streaty Palermo food tour is less an organised tour and more of a meeting with friends.
‘To me, you are friends visiting Sicily, and, just as I would with any other friend, I’m going to take you to the places that I, as a Sicilian, go. It doesn’t matter how dirty the place is, or how challenging the food may be – this is where we go to eat, so this is where we take you.’
Already I liked him, and I knew that this tour would be an authentic introduction to Palermo street food. Sicilians, especially Palermitani (the name given to people born and raised in Sicily’s capital), are not pretentious.
While they certainly enjoy an elegant aperitivo, they are not too snobby to get their fingers dirty and consume a week’s worth of calories in an offal sandwich, and I could tell from Marco’s wry smile and interesting word choices that we would definitely be sampling all that Palermo had to offer in terms of weird and wonderful street foods.
Our first port of call was the bustling Mercato il Capo, or the Capo Market, just a few minutes’ walk away from Teatro Massimo.
Mercato il Capo – An Assault of the Senses
Mercato il Capo was founded by Arabs and has been open every single day for over 1000 years, with the exception of the Patron Saints day of St. Rosalia.
Just outside the gates of the market stands Tony, a serious looking Sicilian standing in front of a wicker basket (a panaru) covered with a blanket that makes it impossible to see what’s hiding inside.
Having spent a lot of time in Palermo, I knew exactly what was about to come, and I wondered how the other guests of the food tour would feel about what they were going to eat.
Marco grinned and looked right at me.
‘Do you know what this is, Dani?’
I nodded. ‘I do indeed.’
‘You’ve tried it before?’
‘No, but I’ve been searching for it everywhere!’ I answered honestly.
I had actually been asking around my Palermitani friends if they knew where I could get my hands on some frittula, but had always been met with wrinkled noses and disgusted expressions, and the question ‘why would you want to eat that?!’
But what exactly is frittula?
Well, not for the faint-hearted, frittula dates back to the 15th century and is probably the most mysterious Palermo street food out there, its defining characteristic being that it is always hidden underneath a cloth that is never lifted, not even for a moment.
If you are brave enough to order a portion, Tony will reach underneath the cloth with his bare hand and grab a handful of ‘stuff’ from inside, slapping it onto some grease paper or a sesame bun along with a squirt of lemon and a liberal amount of black pepper.
As you bite into it, you may feel as though you are eating salty chicken skin or a pork scratching.
In fact, you are consuming the slaughterhouse waste of a calf’s carcass, including ground bone, cartilage and scraps of meat not fit to be sold. The scraps are boiled, before being fried in lard, seasoned with bay leaves, lemon and pepper, and served to peckish Palermitani for around a euro a portion.
To my great surprise, every single person on the tour tried some, and while they didn’t seem to enjoy it quite as much as I did, I was definitely impressed by their lack of squeamishness.
As we finished licking the grease off our fingers, Marco gestured for us to follow him into the cobbled streets of Capo Market, where we’d find our next bite to eat.
Walking through Capo Market is as good an introduction to Palermo as you can get (with the possible exception of Ballaro market), and your every sense will be aggressively stimulated. Children as young as 10 will zip by on mopeds, handsome stray dogs will meander lazily by, and the smells of fresh fish, greasy fried goodness and exotic vegetables are only punctuated by the sounds of the vendors yelling and singing, an Arab tradition that has survived the last 10 centuries.
Marco told us that Mercato il Capo is like an open air supermarket, but with cheaper and better ingredients and chattier sellers. I think that this massively downplays the Palermo market experience, where 3 foot long zucchinis sit alongside 50 different types of tomato and the famous bread made using a secret recipe and cooked in a wood oven in Monreale, a hilltop village above Palermo.
Is it intimidating?
YES. The Palermo markets are intimidating as hell, and this is the reason that I have continued doing my grocery shopping at Lidl, despite desperately wanting to buy fresh produce from Ballaro or Capo like the locals do.
We passed by a fishmonger’s and Marco beckoned us over to a shady spot by the side of the stall to explain the art of food shopping in the Palermo markets to us.
‘First of all, if you don’t like to talk then you should do your shopping at the supermarket,’ Marco laughed.
‘The sellers here will want to know everything about you, including what you intend to do with their products. If you are choosing the wrong type of tomato for the pasta you want to make, they will refuse to sell it to you, giving you the right one instead. You must tell them how you plan to cook the food so that they can help you choose accordingly – if you’re hosting a BBQ then they will give you the juiciest fish, while if you want to make pasta with the fish, they will cut it into cubes for you.’
Most importantly, he told us, it is imperative to have a good relationship with your fishmonger. If you are new to town, you should find a local to introduce you to him so that you won’t be given a bad fish. If you build a relationship with him and he sees you buying fish elsewhere, your relationship probably won’t recover.
The politics of this may sound complicated, but that is precisely what the Palermitani love about the market. The gossip and drama of it all, the challenge of winning over a local seller and being given the best goods, and the thrill of realising you’ve been overcharged and confronting the vendor next time you pass by (he will reward your boldness with a discount or a freebie) is what makes shopping in the Palermo markets so special.
The stall that we are standing beside is a family affair. Three brothers stand front of house, displaying their decapitated swordfish and tuna steaks proudly, while their wives are tucked away behind the scenes, using the fresh fish caught in the morning to prepare delicious Sicilian dishes such as swordfish caponata, octopus salad and pasta con le sarde for construction workers and lawyers alike to enjoy on their lunch breaks.
And when is the best time to visit?
‘Early in the morning or just before they close,’ Marco told us. ‘Of course, if you go early then you will find the best fish, but at the end of the day, they are trying to get rid of things and you will always get something extra thrown in for free.’
After Marco finished explaining how to buy food at Capo Market, it was time for us to eat some more Palermo street food, and it wouldn’t be a Palermo food tour without an arancina or six!
Arancine – The Most Iconic Sicilian Street Food
Arancine are the most quintessential Sicilian street food, and it isn’t difficult to see why.
Certainly easier to stomach for the general public than frittula, arancine take their name from arancia, Italian for ‘oranges,’ because, well, they look like oranges!
Arancine are balls of creamy yellow risotto (the rice takes its colour from the saffron brought over by the Arabs), deep fried in breadcrumbs and filled with just about anything! Usually though, arancine will be stuffed with a ragu meat sauce or ham and mozzarella.
Marco took us to an unremarkable little cafe with red plastic chairs outside and a dingy feel. It is the kind of place that you would walk past without a second glance, but, as with most things in Sicily, sometimes the best things are found in the unlikeliest of places.
Marco explained that for the most part, ragu arancine in Palermo are no longer prepared in the traditional way, and that Piera, the lady who runs the show, is the only person who still makes arancine using the original recipe, which is over 1000 years old.
These arancine do not have tomato sauce inside them, only minced veal, peas, onions and carrots, and they are served at room temperature to make the rice stick together and prevent it from falling apart when bitten into!
Arancine are usually eaten as a hearty snack on the go, and can be found everywhere in Palermo from €1.50 – €2, so there really is no excuse not to try some!
Also, fun fact – in Catania this food is known as ‘arancino’ and ‘arancini’ and the two cities will fight to the death about which is the correct version! Of course, as someone who is head over heels for Palermo, I am firmly in the arancina/e camp!
Before we’d even finished the arancine, the next Palermo street foods appeared on paper plates in front of us – cazzilli (or crocchè di patate to give them their proper name), and panelle.
Cazzilli and Panelle – Deep Fried Goodness
Cazzilli, which literally translates to ‘little dicks’ (!), are essentially little potato croquettes. Cazzilli are simply mashed potato that has been covered with breadcrumbs, deep fried and seasoned with mint and parsley to give them their distinct Sicilian flavour.
Panelle, which are never usually far away from cazzilli, are flat chickpea fritters made from chickpea flour, water, salt and parsley. They can be eaten alone or on a sandwich, sometimes with the cazzilli as well – a Palermitani chip butty, if you will!
After we’d gobbled down the greasy goodness, Marco took us down a narrow alleyway behind the cafe.
‘Here you can see the panelle being made,’ he said, gesturing into the doorway of a room where two men quickly and methodically pressed and rolled the raw mixture. It was almost mesmerising to watch them work, never missing a beat despite the high speed at which they were working.
It seems that practice really does make perfect.
Cheese, glorious cheese…
After we’d gawked at the poor men for long enough, we left them to it and walked further into the market, stopping at a hole in the wall shop named Buone Feste (‘Happy Holidays!’) that specialises in baked ricotta and other typical Sicilian cheeses.
Cheese in Sicily is mainly cow and sheep cheese, the latter of which explains the inclusion of ricotta in everything – there are simply too many sheep in Sicily! Marco wanted to let us try some fresh cow cheese as he said the hot weather wouldn’t suit the saltier, richer cheeses, but the man in the shop insisted that we try some of his aged pecorino as well because, he told us, it was just too good to miss!
Despite the fact that I was starting to feel very full by this point, I took the paper cone that Marco offered me and got to work on eating the ridiculous amount of cheese inside – I swear there were about 10 cubes!
Although the pecorino was nice, the fact that it was 35 degrees definitely meant that the fresh cow cheese, which was a lot smoother and milder in flavour, was easier to eat.
Sfincione, Sangue and spleen in La Vucciria
By this point, we were just about done with Capo Market and it was time to explore another legendary Palermo market – La Vucciria.
La Vucciria is my favourite spot in all of Palermo. Ramshackle buildings line the narrow cobbled street that leads to an equally ramshackle piazza.
During the daytime, the dingy bars of La Vucciria are the watering holes of a few resident boozy Sicilians, but come nightfall, this gritty little corner of Palermo comes to life, turning into one of Palermo’s hottest nightlife spots with loud music, street food vendors galore, and scores of young Palermitani looking for cheap beer and a good time.
The first food that we had to try in La Vucciria was a Palermo classic – sfincione, or Sicilian pizza.
Sfincione is a kind of pizza bread (not a comparison many Sicilians like!) that is common to eat, both as a street food on the go and, more recently, as part of an apericena. It was originally a kind of ‘peasant food’ that was born from the need to dry, long-lasting products that would nourish those working in fields far from home.
It begins with a doughy bread base that is topped with various ingredients. In Palermo, the classic sfincione is made with tomato puree and seasoned with salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil, but the sfincione that we tried was the Bagherese version, which skips the tomato puree altogether and uses olive oil, anchovies, fresh pecorino, breadcrumbs, oregano and scallion onions.
This was my first time ever trying the Bagherese sfincione, and I have to say that I much preferred it to the Palermitani version! The salty cheese, onions and fresh herbs create a wonderfully strong flavour, while the breadcrumbs give it a crunch that its Palermitan relative lacks.
Before we’d even had a chance to dust the crumbs off our fingers, Marco led us to a legendary Vucciria dive bar – Taverna Azzura.
Taverna Azzura is an old man’s pub by day and beloved student haunt by night, with an interior that hasn’t changed at all over the years and a crowd of locals that frequent the place so often that they may as well be part of the furniture.
Marco explained that when he was younger, he would sit inside Taverna Azzura and gaze out at curious tourists, all of whom were peering in inquisitively, but none of whom were brave enough to actually go inside and order a drink.
With Streaty, he wants to bridge the gap between tourists and locals, helping cautious travellers overcome their fears and dive into the unknown. Taverna Azzura, he said, is a must-visit, and as somebody who has taken many a €1 shot at the sticky bar, I can confirm that this is true.
The reason for our visit to Taverna was to try Sangue, which is a fortified wine whose name literally translates to ‘blood.’ Sangue is a kind of dessert wine with a pungent smell similar to Sherry, served to us from repurposed water coolers in white plastic cups.
‘Have you ever tried this?’ Marco asked me before I took my first sip.
I shook my head.
However, as soon as the sickly sweet liquid touched my lips, I knew that I’d been given this once before, on one of my many drunken nights out on La Vucciria.
‘I – probably wouldn’t buy this again,’ I grimaced, taking another couple of sips before laying my cup down on the bar.
Usually, I’d drink €1 wine no matter the taste, but when you can get an ice cold bottle of Forst beer for the same price, it’s no competition – sorry Sangue, you’re not for me.
Our next stop was definitely more up my street.
As we made our way into the main piazza of La Vucciria, I spotted Rocky Basile, one of the most well-known street food vendors in Palermo who has been serving up his speciality since he was six years old, and his father and grandfather before him.
And what is this speciality, you ask?
Pani ca’ Meusa (or ‘Pane con la Milza’ in Italian) is a sandwich not for the faint-hearted or those with a delicate stomach. Made with chopped veal lung, spleen and trachea that have been boiled and fried with lard, Pani ca’ Meusa was brought to Palermo by the Jews in the 13th century and is about as authentic as you can get when it comes to Palermo street food.
The mixture is left to bubble away in a large pot before being slapped onto a sesame seeded bun, squirted with a dash of lemon juice and a generous helping of salted ricotta cheese.
To my surprise, most of our group agreed to try some, but unfortunately I was the only one that liked the unusual dish. Pani ca’ Meusa has quite a strong flavour – it’s definitely not your average beef patty – and Marco likened it to liver. To me, Pani ca’ Meusa is reminiscent of kidneys, if kidneys were piping hot, drenched in lemon juice and sitting on a fluffy bun.
My shorts were really starting to feel tight at this point, and I have to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when Marco told us that the next stop would be our last – I don’t think I could have managed anymore!
We wandered down a narrow cobbled street down towards the port and into a gelateria, tucked away from the main tourist strip of Via Vittorio Emanuele.
Marco told us that we could choose two scoops each, in either a tub, a cone or a brioche bun (the Palermitani way of doing things). As I was absolutely stuffed by this point, I opted for the cup, choosing a refreshing lemon sorbet, paired with a peachy pink mix of mandarin, orange and melon (at least I think that’s what it was!).
As we savoured the last tasty treat of our tour, Marco wrapped things up – part of me couldn’t believe that we’d all been together for 3 hours but my bulging stomach certainly said otherwise!
Palermo street food is not easy. It does not try to accommodate squeamish foreigners by diluting its flavour or switching up its ingredients.
If you like it, great, and if you don’t then you’re very much welcome to trot off on the horse you rode in on.
Marco’s tour epitomises all of this. As he said in the beginning, it doesn’t matter to him how challenging the food is or how dirty the establishment is – he eats there, so that’s where he’s taking you to eat.
For me, this is what makes Streaty stand out. Fancy restaurants are all well and good, but Palermo is gritty and unapologetic and its street food is the same, so why would the tour be anything else?
If you want to experience Palermo’s street food scene in an authentic and socially responsible way (you’re not only helping out Marco’s business, but also the businesses of the vendors), then I highly recommend booking a Palermo street food tour with Streaty.
I thought that I knew Palermo inside out before I went on this tour, but Marco managed to make me fall even deeper in love with this city, a feat I didn’t think possible.
Thank you to Marco and Streaty for inviting me on this tour and giving me such a wonderful day!
For more information, you can visit Streaty’s website here.