When I think of Italian cuisine, I think of meals with the family: spaghetti, tagliatelle, polenta. I think of lunch as a ritual, of being together, of weddings with friends and relatives around a large outdoor table.
But in Italy, there’s also a long-established street food culture, and Palermo is one of those cities where street food is still deeply rooted in its traditional forms.
Palermo’s street cuisine is very tasty and filling. In the past, its ingredients were mainly scraps or recycled food, but it also included more elaborate recipes.
Every time I go to Palermo, it’s hard not to stop and eat street food, some of which recall memories of my childhood when the term street food wasn’t even widespread. Here are some of my favorites.
Pani ca’ meusa
It’s difficult to pronounce it, but the pani ca’ meusa is probably the king of street food in Palermo.
It originates from a poor’s cuisine. Common folk couldn’t afford expensive cuts of meat and bought bowels, considered as waste by the wealthy aristocracy.
It’s a highly filling sandwich stuffed with strips of calf spleen. Commonly, also trachea and lungs are used, but the one made of spleen only is considered more valuable. The meat is first boiled, then cooked in hot lard, next it’s used to stuff a loaf called “vastedda”. You can find many variations of the pani ca’ meusa but the most common ways of eating it is schettu (seasoned with lemon) or maritatu (with lemon, caciocavallo and / or ricotta).
Many people say it has a marked flavor, but I find it quite delicate although you can’t call it the easiest food to digest.
Among the places where you can eat the pani ca’ meusa: Pani ca’ Meusa a Porta Carbone, Nni Francu u Vastiddaru, Focacceria San Francesco or one of the stalls you find in markets or streets.
The worst mistake you can do is to call it “pizza”. Despite their apparent similarity, the sfincione is different for its high and spongy dough and its peculiar seasoning. Its name derives from the Latin word sponges, which means sponge. The sfincione is seasoned with a sauce made of anchovies, tomato, onion, caciocavallo ragusano cheese and oregano, but you can find some variants as well.
You can buy sfincione in bakeries and market stalls.
In my opinion, stigghiole are the oddest street food in Palermo. It’s a meat skewer made of grilled lamb intestines. Also, the recipe has different variants, from the simplest one, seasoned with parsley to the version with spring onion.
It has a strong taste, and it’s cooked only outdoors because of its sharp smell. It’s served during local fairs or in market areas in the evening. Follow the smoke, and you find it.
I have a passion for chickpeas in any form, and Palermo’s street food has one of my favorite recipe with chickpeas flour. Panelle are a parsley-flavored chickpeas fritter. They are often consumed with crocché (potato croquettes) or seasoned with black pepper and lemon juice and served in a sandwich.
Arancine (aka Arancini)
It’s Sunday. I’m waking up. I still haven’t opened the window. A shaft of light under the door suggests it’s late. I hear noises coming from the kitchen: fuzzy voices, the clanging and clinking sound of dishes, a vague rustling. I get out of the bed and open the door. Now the rustle has the clear shape of sizzling oil. A warm and delicious smell fills my nostrils. My grandmother is cooking arancini, according to the recipe her old Sicilian friend gave her during the war.
The “Arancino” is the distinctive product of Sicily’s street food, and it’s popular all over the region.
I always thought of “Arancino” as a male term, until I discovered it isn’t always the case.
In the Palermo area, they use the word “Arancina”, which is female, to emphasize their version is special compared to the others you find in the rest of Sicily. Both terms come from the word “orange”, for the similarity in the color and the shape, but a pear-like shape is also adopted.
It’s is a fried rice ball stuffed with ragu and sometimes green peas, but there’s also the variant known as burro (prosciutto, mozzarella, and béchamel), with spinaches, pistachios or eggplant (the arancino Catanese).
Recently, someone introduced an oven-baked version, which I have to say it’s not bad, but you can’t compare it to the original fried version.
You’re in South Italy, where if don’t eat fried food or meat, at the very least they think you’re sick.