Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country in the world. Sicily has the most UNESCO sites in Italy so Palermo, the capital, is ground zero for World Heritage Sites. The city itself is like a cultural amusement park with its winding alleyways, ornate decaying palaces, street markets with the strangest vegetables I’ve ever seen, cathedrals with atypical architecture, religious street processions. It’s all a little bizarre and surreal…like a Fellini movie.
The prime examples of Palermo’s unique Arab-Norman architectural style are Palazzo de Normani with its golden Cappella Palatina and the city’s cathedral.
STREETS AND MARKETS
As impressive as Palermo’s architectural gems are, the real Palermo is experienced in its streets, markets and food. During our three-day stay our street was closed for an ice-cream festival. The pedestrianized streets made it easy to wander around the ornate palaces some of which have been turned into museums. Palermo’s plazas function as the city’s living rooms filled with little cafes, music venues, art exhibits and strolling citizens. Street food in Palermo can be found all over town in little stalls selling tasty snacks for about €1 – €2. Try as many as you can especially the “arancini” little fried rice balls.
We were lucky enough to be in town the night of a religious street procession. A crowd was singing religious hymns and carrying a statue of Mary down a major street accompanied by priests and musicians. I felt like I was in the original Godfather movie.
The Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan immigrants to Sicily seem to have taken over the small vendors markets selling jewelry and the ubiquitous Indian garments. I got into a conversation with Dileep, one of the Sri Lankan immigrant vendors. He told me he had really wanted to go to the States but it was easier to get to Italy. He had family in Manhattan and would try to get there. I wondered if he would make it to the U.S. Probably. He was a young, outgoing, engaging hustler. He spoke English, Italian, his own language, and had family in New York. Odds are I’ll bump into him on Lexington and 23rd street in New York someday.
At the Ballaro market, one of three major markets in Palermo, we saw some very strange looking vegetables. Looks were deceiving. When we tasted them at a nearby food stall and they were delicious.
Although we didn’t have one even mediocre meal in Palermo, two restaurants that stood out are Il Maestro del Brodo and Palazzo Sambuca, both specializing in Sicilian cuisine. As soon as I returned home I attempted to recreate some of their dishes…so far unsuccessfully, but I’ll keep trying!
What local food have you loved on a trip?
Read the other installments of the series: Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy.