I feel exceptionally fortunate to have a head (plus several hard drives and 20+ travel diaries) full of extraordinary travel memories. If my home was on fire they’re the first things I’d grab. Along with my Smeg fridge (as I fully expect adrenalin would kick in and make light work of lifting my 85kg beauty).
Those memories are particularly sweet in a time when travel is nigh on impossible. It’s a cracker of a first world problem when so many are in strife but I can’t help but feel sad about unlived adventures. Which is even more reason to relish the happy experiences I’ve banked up.
Exactly two years ago I was in Sicily with two dear friends and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Sicily is positively intoxicating. And while I would go back to Taormina in a heartbeat for those exquisite gelato brioche buns and Syracuse for piled-high paninis, it was Palermo that especially grabbed me because of its effortless cool.
My partner in culinary crime agrees that Palermo’s charisma would pull us both back in a heartbeat. The food was exceptional, as it is in all corners of Sicily, but the edgy vibe and tangle of laneways left us craving more. It’s the perfect city for the flâneur (and flâneuse) to wander with abandon.
When I go back this is what I’ll want to relive.
Cool laneway bars
Palermo makes Melbourne’s laneway bar scene look tame and that’s saying something. Bars were nestled in all sorts of random nooks and crannies, often slightly crumbling like most of the city.
Always dimly lit and a bit dingy, it did not seem a stretch of the imagination to assume there were Mafioso-type deals going on around us. Slick cocktails with aperitivo thrown in (free snacks to whet the appetite) meant we were in heaven.
Comical market stall holders
The street markets of Palermo are magical, each snaking languidly through the narrow streets. The colours and character were such a delight and every stall held something exciting; from glimmering produce to stacks of fresh fish and crustaceans. The most endearing part to me though were the entertaining stall holders, seemingly professional comedians who just happened to use a stall in place of a stage. They’d capture your attention and hold it – through compliments, jokes and gentle teasing. I never needed a heavy duty sales pitch because I was always eager beaver to try their wares but it was fun watching them dial their charm up to the highest rating.
Gelato anywhere, any time, all the time
I expected to see gelato everywhere but I did not expect to be eating it for breakfast. But who am I to argue with a well-worn tradition? Having come from Taormina where granita and brioche was the standard breakfast combination, gelato and brioche seemed completely normal. The gelato was always creamy, intense and popping with flavour. After experiencing the pistachio festival in Bronte just days before I only had eyes for the pastel green hues of my new favourite nut.
These babies are really worth a post of their own. Could any other single food be so perfect in every way? Maybe scotch eggs. Arancini in Sicily are as ubiquitous as hot dogs in New York but much more creative. I already thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I experienced pistachio and porchetta arancini in Bronte, stuffed with mozzarella, crumbed and fried. Swoon. But Palermo had its own riff on classics, like roasted pork, sweet ‘n’ sour onion and smoked scamorza cheese or Nebrodi black pig ragout. The best part was watching the world go by while we ate them.
It’s actually a shame we didn’t make a concerted effort to do some cooking (impossible because we were too busy eating every type of street food we could find) because the produce was unbelievable. Zucchinis that were a metre long. Vegetables in shades I didn’t think possible!
I was so taken by the violet aubergine (yes aubergine is already ‘purple’ but really it’s black. This was purple!) that I was trying to work out how I could get a bag back to Sydney without being arrested (I couldn’t so I didn’t).
I was born to love seafood; it’s in my genes thanks to Greek island lineage and grandfathers who worked in fish shops and restaurants when they moved to Australia. Nothing excites me more than fresh seafood and it’s everywhere you look in the markets. Sardines caught that morning would be flash fried and served with lashings of fresh lemon juice. Fantastic.
Then there were the ostriches (yes confused me at first too) which came with free wine. Free wine! The ostriches were oysters shucked on the spot and full of salty briny goodness. The wine wasn’t half bad either.
It’s contentious to admit but I love offal. Greeks and Italians are similar here – we eat the whole animal because for a long time we couldn’t have survived otherwise. I find most people have a mental block about eating the innards of an animal but the flavour always belies the mind. Intestines, tripe and the like are as common as any other cut in Sicily and every stall we came across had long lines of hungry customers. I was particularly enamoured with cow intestine; grilled to perfection with salt and lemon by one of our favourite ‘comedians’.
Then there’s Palermo’s spleen sandwich, one of its most iconic street foods. Pani ca’ Meusa is made from boiled cow spleen, lung and trachea which are then fried in pig lard right before eating. It’s piled on a bun and sprinkled with ricotta and caciocavallo cheese. It’s rich but oh so tasty, especially as the oil soaks into the bread nicely.
I love colour. One in particular for anyone who knows me (PURPLE!) but actually I don’t discriminate. My eye is always drawn to the brightest colour in the room, on the street or on the plate.
Palermo itself is all shades of grey and shadows but layered on top are pops of colour everywhere – from the produce I’ve already waxed lyrical about to the intense marzipan fruits (far too pretty to eat) that could have been art. I can’t wait until I’m surrounded by Palermo’s palette once again.