The Moorish delicacies of Palermo

Sunday, 15 January 2017
The Moorish delicacies of Palermo

Rationality was not the first word that sprang to mind as we manoeuvred our way down Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a narrow boulevard lined with decaying Baroque palaces, that bisects Palermo on its way to the port. We were caught in the morning peak hour, drawn into a maelstrom of dented cars, buses and grimy trucks belching acrid fumes. And yet, in its day (the 16th century), the Corso was a miracle of precision and good order.  Its very straightness was revolutionary, a defiant attempt to impose Renaissance logic on a chaotic medieval city.  Like so many later attempts, it didn't work, only adding another layer of complexity to this remarkable city.

There is more than a suggestion of the Third World about Palermo (pot-holed roads, shabby concrete apartment blocks which crowd magnificent palaces that are crumbling under half a century of inept and corrupt government). However, as usual, first impressions shouldn’t deceive.  Beneath the uninviting surface, Palermo conceals an extraordinarily rich living heritage: Phoenician, Roman, Norman, Spanish and, most intriguingly, Arabic.  Palermo is a very frustrating city to navigate but a fascinating city to explore.

As close to North Africa as it is to continental Italy, Palermo has always been a frontier of European civilisation against their Islamic neighbours, a bulwark against the infidel.  Fortunately, it was not always successful.  The city’s period of greatest prosperity was between the 9th and 11th centuries AD, when it was conquered and ruled by the Moors, an Islamic kingdom dominated by the Berbers of Tunisia and Morocco.  Under them, Palermo was transformed from a small harbour town into a thriving entrepreneurial port at the centre of Mediterranean trade.  The form of the city, and even some of its existing infrastructure, dates from this period.  These days, Moorish rule is seen by some as a kind of Paradise Lost, which has left an indelible mark on the city and the psyche of the people.

The most obvious remnants of Palermo's Islamic heritage are the grand state buildings that have survived. The Cathedral, for example, founded in the 8th century, served as the main mosque during the Moorish rule before being reconsecrated by the Normans. The Royal Palace was originally the emir's palace, built in the 9th century on foundations that date from Phoenician times, before it was taken over by the Normans.  It contains Palermo's most famous treasure, the magnificent Norman mosaics in the Palatine Chapel, a marvellous example of Moslem craftsmanship in the service of Christian ideology.  But it is in the streets among the people of the old quarters of the city that the Moslem heritage still lives.  Exploring the maze of lanes and alleys, the visitor becomes very much aware that the life that animates the streets owes much more to Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli than it does to Rome, Florence or Madrid.

The most vibrant quarter these days is Ballero, by day a sprawling produce market that has filled the streets and piazzas around the Jesuit church of Jesus since the Middle Ages.  Coming around the corner to Ballaro is like stepping onto a stage. Massive shop front tables press against rickety stalls made of wooden crates, all bending under the weight Sicilian fruit and vegetables: mountains of oranges, eggplants and tomatoes piled in front of avalanches of crinkled greens.  Small moustachioed men framed by garlands of curling capsicums, spruik from behind walls of jars of vermilion pickles and sauces, lined up along lanes crowded with early morning shoppers, trays of glistening olives and sacks of dried beans and chillies.

Probably the most famous market of Palermo is Vucciria, near the imposing Baroque church of San Domenico.  Once a recruitment ground for mafiosi henchmen, Vucciria is much diminished the days, although the names of the lanes still recall the market's glory days, when it was the most vibrant in the city: the streets of the knife-makers, cobblers and silversmiths.  At the end of the street of the pasta makers there are still some of the butchers who gave their name to the market: slabs of red meat shiver on white marble in front of them, under rows of flayed goat carcasses swinging from steel hooks.

Under the austere Fatimite Moors, Palermo was horizontal, a city of closed courtyards and secret gardens.  Although all the quarters spill into each other, it is Il Capo, the oldest quarter, across Via Roma from Vucciria, with its low buildings, cluttered rusting balconies draped in flapping washing, and its twisting alleys, which most strongly evokes the Islamic past.  Entering the quarter through Porta Carini is not so much entering a market as entering a bazaar, a North African suqk, where anything and everything can be bought from salamis, cheeses and fresh fish, bolts of the finest fabrics and handfuls of costume jewelry to contraband cigarettes and dvds sold by sharp-tongued urchins from the top of upturned suitcases. The alleys are so narrow in places that the awnings overhead touch each other and even in the middle of the day much of Il Capo is lit by sagging ropes of fairy lights.

At the intersection with Via Sant Agostino, the street opens onto the flagstones of another piazza and it is here that you find the stars of the markets - the fishmongers.  The piazza is crowded with benches, shaded by fluttering canvas sheltering the mornings catch from the scorching Sicilian sun.  Piles of fresh fish are displayed on heaps of crushed ice: orderly ranks of pilchards and silver red bream, coils of fat eels, nests of octopus, wedges of crimson tuna and, most impressive of all, the swordfish, their truncated heads mounted on the tables like trophies.

Moorish influence is most obvious in the kitchens of Palermo in the locals love of spices and contrasts, and their passion for challenging sweets such as marzipan, cannolli and, the most Sicilian of desserts, cassata (which derives its name from the Arabic quas-at).  If you can’t arrange an invitation into a Palermitan home, Ai Cascinari (Via D'Ossuna 43-45), five minutes’ walk from the markets of Il Capo, is a worthwhile alternative.  It is one of the few trattorie in Palermo which continues to explore and celebrate traditional cooking of Palermo.  The restaurant is run by Vito and Piero Riccobono, whose family also produces most of the ingredients, from the meat and vegetables to the cheese, oil and wine.  The handwritten menu changes daily and may include dishes such as fusilli with tuna sauce, spaghetti with fried eggplant and basil, involtini alla siciliana and a wonderful insalata palermitana, a rich salad of boiled potatoes, green beans, fresh tomatoes, roasted onions, anchovies and white olives.  The Osteria Paradiso (Via Serradifalco 23) not so far from Porta Carini, is one of the finest, and smallest, seafood trattorie in Palermo.  A modest restaurant which seats thirty-five people, it is only open for lunch, serving a limited choice of specialties, depending on what the morning markets provide.  It may offer first courses such as pasta with sardines (cooked with broccoli and sultanas and garnished with fried bread crumbs) or fresh tuna roe.  The seconds may include grilled swordfish steaks (thinly sliced and best eaten in May) or raw prawns marinated in oil and lemon juice.

One can also graze on Moorish delicacies in the stalls and bakeries of the markets. It is a kind of medieval fast food that has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition to McDonalds.  Panelle are fried strips of chickpea flour that can only be found in Palermo, and hardly ever outside these markets.  They are simple, wholesome and exceptionally delicious.  Guastelle, on the other hand, are more commonly found and are a little more indulgent: leaves of bread dough topped with whatever is at hand (aniseed, minced prosciutto, diced cheese), deep fried and then sprinkled with salt, sugar or melted butter.  The aristocrats of these snacks, though, are undoubtedly the sfinciumi: small loaves of dough leavened with yeast soaked in milk and olive oil and then filled with whatever suits the cook's imagination.  The classic sfinciumi are filled with anchovies, fresh tomatoes and cooked onions, thin slices of primo sale cheese and black olives, anointed with olive oil and garnished with oregano, before being warmed in an oven for half an hour.  The best place to sample these is still at the Foccacceria di San Francesco, open late in the evenings, sharing a table with students, theatre goers and hipsters inside or perched around the fountain in the square in front.

Sitting here or at Caffe San Domenico among the morning shoppers in Vucciria in the shade of the towering Baroque facade of the church, or nestling in the fading splendour of a small bar on Piazza del Monte in Il Capo, eating a serving of robust street food, washed down with a glass of dry Donnafugata Bianco, is a memorable way to celebrate Palermo’s eclectic heritage.

Checklist

If your budget permits, the only place to stay in Palermo is the Grand Hotel Villa Igea (Salita Belmonte 43, 091.543.744), a beautiful Arte Nouveau palazzo built in 1900 and set in gardens by the sea. If you can't stretch it that far, at least treat yourself to an aperitivo in their elegant cocktail bar, with its terrace overlooking the sea). The Politeama Palace Hotel (piazza Ruggero Settimo 15, 091.322.777) is a slightly more economical alternative, a comfortable modern hotel opposite Palermo's premier concert hall.  For the more adventurous, try the Grande Albergo Sole (Corso Vittorio Emanuele 291. 091.581.811) in the heart of the old city or, for the really adventurous, the Cortese (Via Scarparelli 16, 091.331.722), which has rooms overlooking the lively, noisy but very colourful Ballaro’ markets.

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March 2017: Slow Food, Easter, Manet and a weekend in 'Campania Felix'

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