The capital of multicultural Sicily, Palermo regularly ranks as one of the world’s top destinations for street food.
The city’s frenetic markets and down-to-earth street stalls offer an authentic taste of Sicilian culture, featuring flavours that range from the familiar (pizza-like sfincione) to the exotic (chickpea fritters with minty potato croquettes) to the downright daring (spleen sandwiches and skewered entrails, anyone?).
A centuries-old tradition
Snacking on the street is a proud, centuries-old tradition in Palermo, born of both practicality and poverty. Even as street food writ large has become a worldwide fad, with celebrity chefs preparing amped-up versions of humble home-grown classics, street food culture here remains true to its unpretentious roots.
Walk Palermo’s back streets and you’ll find simple snacks designed to provide maximum calories at minimum cost (most priced between €1 and €2), still made on the spot at independently run friggitorie (fried-food stalls), where the typical vendor’s toolkit is limited to a simple grill or a battered metal cart and a vat of boiling fat.
Favourite snacks and culinary hot spots
Street food venues are scattered all over the city, with many popular spots concentrated near the bustling Vucciria, Ballarò and Capo markets. Below is a list of Palermo’s most traditional snacks – don’t leave town without trying a few!
Ease into your culinary adventure with a slice of this spongy, oily pizza topped with tomato sauce, onions and/or caciocavallo cheese – about as tame as Palermitan street food gets! Sample it at Francu U Vastiddaru, where you order at the counter, then decamp to plastic tables on the adjacent sidewalk.
These luscious balls of saffron-scented rice, fried to a crispy golden brown, are ubiquitous throughout Sicily. Fillings range from straightforward butter or ragù (meat sauce) to more elaborate combinations like shrimp with pesto or spinach with smoked cheese. Let the size of your appetite dictate where to taste them; dabble gently with the miniature arancine at I Cuochini (a local favourite since 1826), or pig out with a ‘Bomba’, the obscenely large one-pound version at the renowned Bar Touring.
Pane, Panelle e Crocchè
Sicily’s North African roots are nowhere more evident than in panelle: flat, savoury fritters made from chickpea flour and plunged into hot oil. In their simplest form, several panelle are loaded onto a sesame bun to create the inimitable pane e panelle sandwich, but you’ll likely be tempted to supplement your deep-fried delight with scrumptious additions like crocchè (potato croquettes flavoured with parsley or mint), melanzane (eggplant) and a squeeze of fresh Sicilian lemon. Classic spots for a taste include Friggitoria Chiluzzo in Palermo’s Kalsa neighbourhood, and the no-name food cart on Piazza Carmine in Mercato Ballarò.
Mangia e Bevi
Take a green onion, wrap it in bacon, grill it, slice it into circular pieces and serve with fresh lemon slices. Ecco! Mangia e bevi, a treat that’s popular not only as street food but also at Sicilian picnics.
Ready for something a little more adventurous? How about these brined and skewered sheep or goat intestines, flavoured with parsley and onions and cooked on an open grill? Head to Piazza Caracciolo in the Vucciria district on a Saturday evening and join the throngs of locals feasting away.
Pani ca Meusa
OK, now it’s time to graduate to the Palermitan delicacy that separates mere dabblers from serious devotees. Simply translated, this classic sandwich means ‘bread with spleen’. For the best in town, seek out the mobile food cart of Rocky Basile. Known as the ‘King of the Vucciria’, Mr. Basile cuts off slices of beef spleen, drops them into his tub of bubbling lard, then slaps them onto a roll with a shake of salt and a squeeze of lemon. It’s not for the faint of stomach – but finish one of these and you’ll have earned bragging rights as a true Palermitan street food connoisseur.
Gelato con brioche
No meal would be complete without dessert, and while it’s not quite street food in the traditional sense, Sicily’s decadent gelato con brioche is an absolute must-taste. Step up to the counter at Gelateria Ciccio (gelateriadaciccio.it), in business since 1940 and only a stone’s throw from the train station, and watch as they slice open a sweet roll and fill it with your choice of six dozen ice cream flavours, from cannolo to cassata. The real challenge is eating it all before it melts!
Still hungry for more? Keep your eyes open for rascatura (fried morsels of leftover crocchè and panelle dough, blended together and scraped off the hot griddle), babbaluci (miniature snails sautéed with celery, parsley, garlic and olive oil) and quarume (veal entrails in vegetable broth).
What’s in a name? Palermo’s colourful street food terminology
The linguistic lexicon associated with Palermo’s street food is as colourful as the food itself. Potato croquettes, with their short cylindrical form, are affectionately nicknamed cazzilli (little penises), while eggplant slices are colloquially called felle (butt cheeks), thanks to their appearance when placed together in pairs. When ordering pani ca meusa, you’ll be asked if you want it schietta (single, with spleen only) or maritata (married, with a white ‘bridal veil’ of caciocavallo or ricotta cheese to tone down the intense taste). Meanwhile, the famous fried rice balls that go by the masculine name arancini elsewhere in Sicily are given a feminine ‘e’ ending here in Palermo (arancine), in recognition – some say – of their sensuously beautiful rounded form.
On your own, or with a tour?
It’s easy enough to discover Palermo’s street food on your own, but if you’re shy about field-testing your limited Italian, squeamish about biting into something unexpected or simply desirous of a broader cultural perspective, consider an escorted visit through Palermo’s street food stalls with tour companies such as Palermo Street Food and Streat Palermo. Both offer a low-key chance to wander Palermo’s back streets in good company, stopping for a taste (or two, or three) at the city’s most authentic hangouts.