Pizza, tacos, sandwiches, fried and grilled snacks in every form, the street food of a city unifies its people. I think of the fresh-baked , warm, salty pretzels of my childhood in Pennsylvania. The foods enjoyed on the go by the local folks, regardless of their age or occupation, will tell you a lot about a place. Name any city, and certain “grab and go” foods immediately come to mind. The citizens are proud of these special foods, and will eagerly tell you their favorite place to enjoy them.
Often, the best places to find street food are in the bustling city centers, near markets an sport arenas where throngs of people gather. Busy people need food and do not have the luxury of time, and sometimes a budget, to sit for a long meal. They need foods that are fast, nourishing, cheap, and delicious. Although the street foods of a place are tied to its history, many may not know why foods originated in a certain place. What they are certain of is that these foods are good. Quickly satiating a sudden attack of hunger with a delicious morsel leads to a familiar comfort.
When I travel, I always immerse myself in the local cuisine, and that usually involves some sort of street food. On my recent trip to Sicily, I was eager to try the local offerings. I also wanted to visit the local markets, another connection to the local food scene. It’s great to have a guide in these adventures, and I was fortunate to discover Streaty, friendly folks who offer street food walking tours in several Italian cities. I arranged a tour in Palermo. The tour not only passes through the two busy markets of Palermo, allowing you the full sensory experience of the markets, it also offers great insight into the people, history (including un-repaired buildings bombed in WWII and the struggle to defeat the mafia), and architecture of the city (Teatro Massimo, Quattro Canti, Fontana Pretoria, and the Piazza Bellini to name a few of the highlights) and features numerous stops along the way to sample the street foods that Palermitans have perfected loved for years.
The first stop on our street food tour of Palermo featured fried delights and beer in the heart of the Capo market. Arancina are well known in Italy, and here they are made with saffron scented rice filled with savory meat and peas. There was also panelle, a fried slice of chick pea dough. (I’ll share my recipe for arancina and panelle below.) And there were cazzilli, (translated as “little pricks”, I assume due to the small cylindrical shape) which are potato and cheese croquettes.
Passing through the market, we visited a kiosk selling drinks, and learned of the Sicilian “Auto” a drink for designated drivers made from a selection of juices, dosed with rocks of sodium bicarbonate, given a brisk stir, and then meant to be guzzled for a good hearty burp!
Next, we sampled sfincionello, a pizza-like snack. This is a moist, oval-shaped dough topped with a coating of a tomato-onion sauce and sliced tomatoes. The vendor had an interesting oven to heat sfincione and drizzle a little oil and oregano on top to finish.
Then onto via Maqueda for the highly anticipated pani ca’ meusa, a sandwich of veal spleen and lung. We were told this originated hundreds of years ago with the Jewish population of Palermo. The vendor himself has been making the sandwiches at his cart for many years, and was very proud of his perfected product. A sauce is made with veal lungs and trachea. Slices of veal spleen are added and crisped a bit with veal tallow. A soft roll soaks up the juices with the meats, and they are finally dressed with a quick squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of salt. It might sound strange, but was delicious!
Similar sandwiches appear on street menus all through the market.
We browsed the shops, picking up cheese, bread, olives and other “schiticchio” to snack on while stopping into a small tavern for a drink of sweet Sicilian wine, sangue, zibibbo, and marsala in Vucciria market area.
The final food stop was for a dolce across from the Piazza Bellini. Cannoli and granita. I had a delicious mulberry granita to go with my cannolo.
Simplicity and quality of ingredients are the keys to excellent street foods. Wandering the markets of Palermo, the quality of the ingredients is never in question. Freshness abounds here. I set off to make a few of my own.
The arancini start with making risotto.
For the risotto, heat 3T olive oil in a flat bottomed pan. Add 2 cups Arborio rice and stir around in the oil to coat the grains and until they are toasty and translucent. Next, add about 1/2 cup of dry white wine and continue to stir until the wine evaporates. Stir in a nice pinch of saffron; I used some Sicilian saffron I bought in the Capo market. Begin to add water or stock (I prefer to use roast chicken or turkey stock) while continuing to stir the rice. The rice will take up the stock and become creamy in texture. When the rice is nearly complete (about 15-20 minutes), add a generous portion of finely grated pecorino cheese. Adjust the final texture with stock and seasonings as needed. Cool the risotto overnight when using for arancini. (Full disclosure, I served half of the batch of risotto for dinner and then saved the rest for my arancini.)
For the filling, use about 1/2 lb ground meat. I used some pasture raised goat meat for mine, but you can certainly use any meat you prefer. You can also use pieces of cheese or vegetables, whatever you like, for the filling. I browned the meat with a few cloves of minced garlic. Add 1/2 cup of tomato puree, oregano and black pepper to taste. Cook until the mixture is thick and then add a handful of peas near the end.
Separate 3 eggs, adding the yolks to the risotto and placing the whites in a bowl. Combine the yolks with the risotto. Whisk the whites with a fork. Place bread crumbs in a second bowl.
To form the arancini, take a small handful of risotto in one hand. Flatten the rice and place a spoonful of the meat filling in the center of the flattened rice. Place a spoonful of rice on top of the meat filling and then close your hand to form the rice around the filling and close all of the gaps. The arancini from this part of Sicily were all formed in a conical shape, but I have seen then elsewhere in a ball shape.
Roll the arancini in the egg whites, and then in the bread crumbs. Fry them in olive oil at 375F until golden brown.
Panelle reminded me of the cecina I make in my wood-fired pizza oven.
Weigh out one part chick pea flour to 3 parts water. I used 250g chick pea flour, a combination of regular and roasted chick pea flours to add a better flavor, and 750g water. Heat in a sauce pan until it comes to a boil. Add 2T minced parsley, salt and pepper. Stir constantly to prevent it from getting lumpy or sticking to the pan. It gets thick in a hurry!
Scoop the dough out of the pan onto a cold counter top or marble slab lightly oiled with olive oil. Roll out to about 1/4″ thick. Cut in 2-3″ squares and fry in a skillet in shallow olive oil until crisp and golden brown. Cool on a rack and salt.