If you want to know the true soul of Sicily you have to take a trip in its “street food”. Moving from one coast to another, you will discover totally different dishes, places and unique people.
by Gianna Bozzali
Ph Barbara Conti, Lorenzo Mercurio
No knives, forks or spoons, just fingers. Only those are needed to eat and taste certain foods in Sicily! They are not just any food because they, the so-called street foods, belong to a gastronomic world of their own. They are not found in trattorias or restaurants, but along roads. A triumph of fries, boiled or roasted meats that conquer the taste buds even of the most squeamish that in every bite can discover the true soul of the Sicilian people, imaginative and always able to make do. The people of street food are really colorful: there are panellari, meusari, stigghiolari, people who have resisted social progress and, in some cases, have even evolved so much that they have succeeded in transforming foods originally belonging to the poor cuisine with gourmet dishes offering them in modern style focaccia and bakeries. There are many street foods in Sicily, often depending on the province.
Palermo is home of street food, there is bread with the spleen called pani ca’ meusa or vastedda (even if the heart and lung are also used). In some places like the Antica Focacceria San Francesco it is possible to observe the whole that browns cheerfully in abundant lard in the large cauldrons. The vastedda can be plain or married, that is without or with ricotta and grated caciocavallo. The basic ingredients of some street foods are offal. In Palermo there is, for example, the frittola that is obtained from calf slaughter waste. These are fried, then left to rest in cold water and finally boiled. Covered by a cloth to keep it warm, it is sold outside the inns in the historic markets of Capo Ballarò. If the stalls are the altars, the fry shop is the temple of street food. The capital of the island is the kingdom of panelle and crocchè. The first are prepared with chickpea flour: a fashion introduced and propagated by the Arabs in the Middle Ages during their expansion. More generally, it can be added that with the Arabs came the habit of frying and selling on the street, a costume then moved to the chip shops. Other street delicacies are: the musso (snout of beef), the feet, the scannaruzzatu (esophagus), strifizzi, the head of quail and centopelli, all parts of the soft intestine and of the upper part of the stomach that constitute the so-called quarume. Walking through the streets of Palermo, the attention can be captivated by a very soft and tasty “pizza”, seasoned with onion sauce, anchovies and
caciocavallo cheese. It is the sfincione.
But if we move to Eastern Sicily, we will discover other flavors. In the kiosks of Via Catania and near the Giostra torrent, the Messinese love, in the evening, to taste the tagghiuni, beef entrails cooked on the grill, while in Catania, where the barbecue has always had many lovers, horse and donkey meat they are very appreciated. They are sold on the street in the area near the Castello Ursino.
In Catania, at the Piscarìa market you can find stigghiole of lamb, prepared by weaving after having cleaned a part of the intestine called zirenu around a spit.
In Sicily, finally, the arancine/i, fried rice chests stuffed in a thousand ways dominate. The most traditional are those with ragù, but they exist in a other version. Their recipe has been so much discussed and contended to start from the genus, female in Palermo because the roundness reminds a rounded breast, male in Catania because produced with a tip that refers to Etna so much so that removed the top would remember with the vapor released and the red of the Vulcano sauce.
Although the shape, color and size are reminiscent of a small orange and as such the diminutive would imply the feminine gender, however the first attestation of the word is given by some Sicilian dictionaries of the 800 that favor the masculine gender.
Finally, in Ragusa there are the scacce, a kind of thin-filled focaccia stuffed and folded several times with a stuffing of various types, from the classic filling with tomato and cheese, to the one with aubergines, with onion or with sausage. Today, as in the past, perfumes and atmospheres that surround street food attract gourmets. No tourist can resist the fascination not only of these foods, but also of these places, rich in colors and voices. This is confirmed by Rosario Ribbene, a journalist-writer who writes about this world of street vendors and small children in his work entitled “Pani ca Meusa”.
Sicilian street food tells about a dimension of island gastronomy that has only partially disappeared. It conquers tourists because “The authenticity of these dishes is linked to those who prepared them, to those street cooks capable of publicizing the unsuspecting customers with the delicious qualities of their preparations through those features that together with the colorful stations even on wheels, to the inviting smoke swirls, helped to create scenic scenes of rare beauty, today still partly traceable in some historical markets of Palermo or in via Plebiscito in Catania. What used to be a poor and discarded gastronomy is today a niche economic-tourist driving force, but capable of captivating and capturing thousands of tourists who discover our island starting from a curious bite to a slice of sfincione, rather than to a scaccia”.
Despite the proliferation of gourmet restaurants, those traveling to discover Sicily cannot fail to taste croquettes, panelle or arancine/i. “Sicilian street food has been able to resist the powerful gastronomic attacks of American fast food over the past few decades. Street and not fast is a gastronomic dynamic capable of marrying even with the menus of starred restaurants. In fact, it is not difficult to trace even in the trendy bars or in those recommended by the best arancine guides, panelle, pani cunzato. New travelers know that they have to make a trip to one of the island’s vending machines or indulge in the sfincionaro, meusaro and all that immense universe of new street cooks, often sons of art, who are the beating heart of a gastronomic tradition thousand years”.