Discovering Palermo’s World Renowned Street Food Scene

Street Food. That was on our mind from the moment we stepped off the bus in Palermo. Rated as the 5th best city in the world for street food, we knew we were in our element. However one of us wasn’t completely “on board” with some of Palermo’s more traditional delicacies – organ meat doesn’t make much of an appearance at our dinner table back home. While Calli nervously hummed and hawed, I booked us a walking tour of Palermo’s street food scene with StrEAT Palermo Tours to understand another, tastier side of the city.

A fish stall in one of Palermo's famous street markets - just one of many stops on our tour

A fish stall in one of Palermo’s famous street markets – just one of many stops on our tour

Octopus on ice at one of Palermo's fish markets

Octopus on ice at one of Palermo’s fish markets

What followed was a nearly 5 hour intensive dive into Palermo’s street food scene – with digestive (informational) breaks at some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks scattered in the mix. We tried foods we’d only read about at food stalls, closet-sized kiosks, and local restaurants we never ever would have found on our own.

Little did we know the tour also included stops at some of Palermo's prettiest (and most hidden) churches

Little did we know the tour also included stops at some of Palermo’s prettiest (and most hidden) churches

Some football themes street art from the tour

Some football themed street art from the tour

Today we both share our honest opinions on Palermo’s famous street food:


Risotto balled and fried - it doesn't get better than this

Beautifully flavoured rice balled and fried – it doesn’t get better than this

We thought we were familiar with these little balls from heaven. We were wrong. All of the arancine we had eaten during our first 2 weeks in Sicily couldn’t hold a flame to what we were in store for. Deep in the bustling Mercato di Capo we were given our real introduction to perhaps the most famous Sicilian street food. Saffron had replaced the mediocre ragu we were accustomed to, and the outside was crispy perfection. This is the epitome of a portable snack!

Calli: After stuffing ourselves with arancine for nearly a week, not the most waistline-friendly meal choice, I was growing a bit tired of their greasy exterior and oftentimes strong tomato flavour. However from the first glance I knew these arancine were different. With a delicate safron flavour and crispy, not greasy, shell they were absolutely delicious! I only wish we could have found this variety in other parts of Sicily.

Cazilli and Panelle

Fried mashed potatoes are the new crack

Fried mashed potatoes are the new crack

If deep fried rice balls weren’t enough, we were heading for deep-fry heaven with our next two snacks – Cazilli and Panelle. Cazilli are essentially Sicilian potato croquettes made with chopped parsley and mint and then deep fried. They are delicious. If tater tots tasted like this heart disease rates in North America would be 100%. Panelle are thin chick pea fritters seasoned with chopped parsley. They have distinctly chick pea flavour and are often eaten in a sandwich (Pane con panelle). I thought that while they were not quite as good as the Cazilli or Arancine, they were probably the best overall fried treat, and I’m sure my body agreed (at least a chick pea is close to a vegetable).

Calli: After falling hard for falaffel last fall, I was hoping the Panelle would rock my world this time around, unfortunately I was a bit underwhelmed. The flavour was bland, the texture a bit soggy, and they were so thin there wasn’t much to bite into. On the other hand, the Cazilli were delicious – although you’d have to work really hard to screw up deep-fried mashed potatoes.


This sfincione vendor knows what's up when it comes to street food in Palermo

This sfincione vendor knows what’s up when it comes to street food in Palermo

To call Sfincione “Sicilian pizza” would be a disservice to the effort that goes into making these fantastic carb-wonders. Soft leavened bread soaked with tomato, onions, and other spices is fired 5 times and sold from street carts around Palermo. It was absolutely fantastic – the flavours in the bread were amazing and the addition of the “almost-burnt” crispy crust just put it over the edge.

Calli: Pizza in Italy is already world-renowned so I was a bit worried the people of Palermo were messing around with perfection. Luckily this wasn’t the case, and although sfincione is different than the traditional, crispy thin-crust pizza we had grown accustomed to in Italy, it’s fluffy goodness reminded me of foccacia and ultimately won me over. It seems like the perfect meal to grab on the go.

Sicilian Sweet Wines

What do you get when a biker gang walks into a hole-in-the-wall bar in Palermo? We left too early to find out but the sweet wine was pretty tasty!

What do you get when a biker gang walks into a hole-in-the-wall bar in Palermo? We left too early to find out but the sweet wine was pretty tasty!

The wines of Sicily are undoubtedly world-renowned, so despite the fact that Calli and I don’t really drink wine (that’s why there’s a BEER section on the site), I was surprised by the fact that I didn’t hate this! In fact, it bordered on the good – the sweetness and “wine-ness” seeming to make a subtle compromise that was actually quite pleasing!

Calli: I am not a fan of wine – white, red, blush, sangria, anyway you serve it I cannot bring myself to drink wine. Perhaps there was some overindulgence in my youth, but every time I drink wine I find myself reaching for the nearest carb to chase it down. Therefore I didn’t really expect to like the Sicilian sweet wines. Of the three we tired, the port variety was probably to most difficult to swallow, while the other two were actually quite good. A bit sweet overall (duh) but probably quite delicious for all the wine fans out there.

Pani ca meusa

Spleen and lung and strong cheese - oh my!

Spleen and lung and strong cheese – oh my!

I knew that Calli would be hesitant about this one! But she is a trooper when it comes to trying new and weird delicacies pushed upon her by yours truly. Having grown up eating liver and tripe fairly regularly, and having tried and enjoyed delicacies like Lampredotto sandwiches in Florence and Kokoreç in Istanbul, I was fairly certain I would enjoy this one. And I did. The flavours of the meat were excellent and the addition of local Caciocavallo cheese (this is called maritatu,  aka ‘married’, if cheese is added) made it even better.

Calli: The beforehand knowledge that I would be eating this made me nervous all morning. It didn’t help when our guide Marco explained that only 30% of the sandwich filling is made of spleen… the other 70% being lung meat. Although I’m always willing to be adventurous and try something new, even if it’s outside my comfort zone, I was a bit apprehensive and really didn’t want to embarrass myself by getting sick all over the sidewalk.  However the flavour of the “meat” was surprisingly mild and the strong cheese overpowered any organ-taste. For me, the texture was actually the part I couldn’t get over. In the end Travis finished the last few bites of my sandwich, which only gained him more respect and acclaim from Marco who later referred to him as “the man of men”.


Travis' pasta sarde is a local specialty

Travis’ pasta sarde is a local specialty…

We were already beginning to feel stuffed – but we hadn’t experienced anything yet! It was lunchtime, and we found ourselves wandering down some ominous backstreets on our way to what Marco assured us was “real Sicilian food at a real Sicilian restaurant”. And he was spot on! We sat down in the small restaurant and Marco explained the menu. The staff brought over a plate of antipasti – complete with eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, and meat/cartilage from the jaw of a cow – all were outstanding. I ordered the Pasta Sarde and Calli got the squid. And guess what, they were awesome too. The flavours were all bold but delicate – true Sicilian style.

... but I think my grilled squid was better!

… but I think my grilled squid was better!

Calli: For lunch I played it safe and ordered grilled squid – little did I know there was a “test” before my main would arrive. As an appetizer, our group shared an antipasta plate that was made up of different types of mushrooms, eggplant Parmesan, peppers and the jaw and cartilage meat (if you can call it meat) from a young cow. Now I’m really against eating babies – of any variety – but in this situation I gave into the peer pressure and tried a very small bite. Although it didn’t taste bad, it didn’t taste like anything really, I don’t think it’s something I’ll be eating again any time soon. As for the grilled squid, it was enormous, easily a foot long, and grilled to perfection. Soft, not rubbery, with a generous portion of olive oil poured over the top and fresh lemon, this was a great lunch.

Canolli and Cassatina

Canolli and cassetina - This is how they served it, I swear!

Canolli and cassetina – This is how they served it, I swear!

Anyone that knows me knows that I am not a dessert person. Except for chocolate chip cookies, brownies, chocolate, or raspberry torte – but I loved our dessert. Just behind the restaurant was a small bakery where we sampled fresh cannoli (fried pasty dough filled with fresh, sweet ricotta) and cassatina (small Sicilian cakes consisting of Pan di Spagna, ricotta, dried fruits, and marzipan).

Calli: I’m sure Travis has just tried to explain how he doesn’t “do” dessert, only to riffle off a list of confections he does like – it’s all very contradictory. Unlike Travis, I have no issue disclosing that this part of the itinerary is what convinced me to join the tour in the first place – a food tour without dessert just isn’t worth it in my books. After sampling a wide range of food throughout the day, I was really looking forward to getting my hands on some sweets and when Marco lead us to a tiny bakery tucked away down a deserted side street I was not disappointed! The fresh cannoli were stuffed with creamy ricotta while we waited and the cassatina was sugary and sweet and everything I’d been waiting for. This really was the perfect way to end our tour.

Marco was so proud of Travis by the end of the tour - he insisted on taking a photo together

Marco was so proud of Travis by the end of the tour – he insisted on taking a photo together

Your imagination is the limit at Palermo's fish markets

Your imagination is the limit at Palermo’s fish markets

With our bellies bursting and our minds slowly shutting off from the sugar, we made a final stop at the sublime Palermo Cathedral – a strange and wonderful mixture of architectural styles that perfectly summed up both the city, and the food, of Palermo.

Logistics: First off, you can immediately go and book your tour by visiting Marco/StrEAT Palermo’s website…OK, good, now on to the logistics. The tour costs 35 Euro/person and is one of the best value tours we’ve had in a long time. It lasts just over 4.5 hours, includes lunch and all the foods we talked about, and as a bonus you get to learn LOTS about all aspects of Palermo and Sicilian culture. Marco is a fantastic guide and really loves teaching people about Palermo’s food. Seriously, just do it!

We’re sharing this post over at Sunday Traveler today – check it out for some great travel inspiration!

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