Sicily in general and Palermo in particular is famous for its Street Food: Fried balls of rice with tasty sauce in the middle, rich and creamy cannoli and a gutsy sandwich, that will challenge any foodie coming to town. Not only are they rich, tasty and cheap, they also tell a story about the island’s rich heritage. Street Food is the legacy of many different cultures, that influenced Sicily, and the different foods still tell their own story.
While it’s easy to visit Il Capo market by yourself or walk down Via Marqueda and nibble yourself through the selection of food, we recommend taking a guided tour to learn the background of the tasty treats – and they know who has the best cannoli and the most authentic Pane con milza.
So, let’s eat ourselves through the history of Sicily:
The arancina is shaped like the fruit it’s named after: the orange. It’s basically a deep fried ball of rice but with different fillings. The classic filling is ragù: meat sauce, and another classic is ham and peas. After the filling is enclosed with the sticky rice, breaded and then deep fried, it can actually stay fresh for quite a while.
The texture of crisp surface meets filling rice meets tasty sauce is highly addictive. So are the prices at approx 2€ for at basic arancina al ragù.
While some say that the arancina originates from Sicily’s Arab past more that 1000 years ago, others argue that it was the court of Frederick II in the 13th century, that came up with the idea of breading and frying the rice balls, so the emperor could carry it with him when hunting.
FunFact: In Palermo (Plus in most of Sicily and the rest of Italy) the arancini are round. In the city of Catania, that lies in the shadow of the volcano Mount Etna, the arancini are cone-shaped (or volcano-shaped, if you capisce) and they say the the ragù filling symbolises the lava coming out of Etna!
Deep-fried from the market
Where better to eat street food than in a street market! The best is Il Capo, where you can find a guy deep-frying practically anything: cod, courgette flowers, sardines, shrimps – you name it! The fresh ingredients, which are all around him, are dipped in a batter and then deep-fried.
This means that it’s very fresh, very hot, and very greasy. It’s certainly filling for its size and a great way to nibble away while taking in the colours of the market. The prices vary from 0,5€ to 2€ for a small portion.
These so-called Friggitoria – places where they deep-fry food – are characteristic for the south of Italy and can range from traditional restaurants to street vendors.
Panelle & Crocchè
While fish and vegetables are a must in a market, there’s another Street Food that’s typical for Palermo; the Panelle. They are small deep-fried pancakes made from chickpea flour. Oftentimes you can find them in a soft sesame bun, as a vegan sandwich (pane e panelle), but they are best in company with Crocchè: deep-fried potato croquettes with a hint of mint, seasoned with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
It’s the Palermitano version of Fish & Chips, and in poor times a cheap source of proteins and carbohydrates, thanks to the chickpea flour. These golden nuggets can be bought anywhere in Palermo, but the guys at Palermo Street Food will show you the best place to taste them. It’s only 2€ for a paper cone with 5 panelle and 5 crocchè and will qualify for lunch.
The panelle have over a thousand years of history. It was the Arabs, expert gastronomers and rulers of of Sicily until the year 1091, that experimented with mincing chickpeas to get a flour that, mixed with water and cooked, gave life to a mixture similar to polenta. A great source of protein with extended shelf life.
You have to ask yourself the question: “Do I really want to die without ever having tasted spleen?” If you’re a curious traveller, the answer is “No” and you should go for it! The most authentic place to try the Spleen Sandwich is at the street vendor Rocky Basile in the Vucciria market. Not only is he the King of Vucciria market, he has also served Pane con milza (or pani ca’ meusa in Sicilian) for many years.
The spleen, together with other guts such as lung and trachea, are slow cooked in a broth and looks like a moist kebab. The taste is a cross between kebab meat and liver. Share it with a mate if you’re unsure that you can handle one by yourself.
The origin of this gutsy sandwich dates back to the Middle Ages, when local Jews engaged as butchers couldn’t get paid due to religious precept and instead retained the entrails as payment, which they sold as a filling together with bread and cheese.
Very rich and highly addictive, you may have tasted these confections before – but you’ve never had them better than in Sicily! You can buy them everywhere, but the guides at Palermo Street Food know exactly the place to take you. This is where the locals go themselves, and that’s always a seal of approval for you!
A creamy, sweet ricotta filling is scooped into a crunchy roll of fried pastry. The combination of crispy bite and creamy texture is intoxicating and the best cannoli are prepared just before they’re served, to keep the roll firm and crisp.
These little rolls of delight originate from the Arab kitchen, that’s famous for their super-sweet pastries, and can probably trace their origin back to before year 1000, when the Emirate of Sicily was under Arab rule. And something that can survive for so long is definitely worth a taste. There’s a reason why we don’t call cannoli by their singular conollo: it’s because you always want more!
If you want to discover more about the many faces of Sicily, check out why we think that Sicily is an Opera.
- Palermo official Tourism Website (in Italian)
- Sicily official tourism website
- Palermo Street Food Tour