I asked Marco Romeo “What is the best street food in Palermo, Sicily?”. He is a Palermitano and a licensed tour guide who leads the StrEat Palermo Tour. This is what he told me.
Palermo is one of the best cities in the world to gorge on traditional Italian food where the best of Sicilian food is sold by street vendors. Every single street speciality of Palermo will tell you a story, a legend or the entire history of the Mediterranean civilisation. To me, the queen and the king of street food in Palermo are panella and pani ca’meusa.
Panelle are chickpea flour fritters with parsley. Any Palermitano will tell you that some time ago these delicious fritters were shaped as fish. Why? Because poor people could not afford fresh fish, so it was the only way to have fish…made of chickpeas! The roots of this simple dish go back to the 9-10th centuries, when Sicily was under Arab rule.
Pane e Panelle (panelle on bread) is the favourite snack devoured by students in Palermo during their lunch break. Every school has it’s a panellaro (panelle seller) who waits outside for the midday bell to ring. He quickly fries and serves as many panelle as he can before the school bell rings again! Palermitani love to eat pane e panelle with cazzilli, mashed potato croquettes with parsley and mint. Absolutely delicious, filling and doesn’t break the bank!
It is common knowledge in Palermo that the panellaro uses a peculiar method to check whether the oil is hot enough for frying. He spits on it! Everybody knows it but nobody has ever admitted actually seeing it. And, certainly, it would never stop a real Palermitano from enjoying a good panella.
It is not easy to find a good panellaro in town. Although many of them have perfected the art of chickpea fritters making over generations, my favourite would be a small place called Mr Testagrossa (Corso Calatafimi, 795, near the Cappella Palatina).
Pani ca’meusa is not for the squeamish. The locals will tell you it is the tastiest street food in the world but we have had 500 years to fall in love with it since the first Jewish community of Palermo came up with the recipe. The rich ate the best meat cuts back then, the poor had to do with whatever was left. And they found ways to create absolutely delicious things. For tourists pani ca’meusa is a love-it-or-hate-it affair, although, in my experience, once a pani ca’meusa virgin tries it, there is no going back. They become addicted to it!
Pani ca’meusa is a divine mix of veal spleen, lungs and throat cartilage boiled, then fried in lard, and served on a soft bun with sesame seeds. Street vendors (“meusari”) sell them in the centre of Palermo, cooking the innards in huge pots and piling them on bread while they are hot and bubbly. When buying pani ca’meusa you might be asked “single or married?” It doesn’t mean that the vendor is nosey and is about to ask you for a date. It refers to the way the buns are served: “single” (“schietto”) means with lemon and “married”(“maritato”) is with caciocavallo or ricotta cheese. If you want to try the best pani ca’meusa head to Franco U Vastiddaru (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 102).
I can’t resist and have to add my favourite Sicilian street food: arancine rice balls stuffed with a variety of delicious fillings, from minced meat ragù to spinach with cheese. They are deep fried will crisp and golden and can be eaten cold or hot. Gooey filing and crunchy outside shell, the texture and the taste always hit the spot for me!
Photos by: Jessica and Lon Binder/Flickr, Franco Pecchio/Flickr, Vincenzo Caico/Flickr, Casper Duhn/Flickr