HOLY CANNOLI!

Palermo ranks as one of the world’s top street­food des­ti­na­tions, which means it’s time to give main­land Italy the boot and fly to Si­cily in­stead. Me­lanie van Zyl ate her way to the heart of cannoli coun­try

Woolworths TASTE - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS AND TEXT ME­LANIE VAN ZYL

From arancina to pizza and ice-cream sand­wiches, Palermo is one of the world’s top street­food des­ti­na­tions.

My first taste of Si­cily is

a palm-sized ball of deep-fried rice with a gooey pis­ta­chio pesto cen­tre.

It’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously soft and crunchy, per­fectly spher­i­cal … and also, fe­male. “Now pay at­ten­tion,” says Francesca In­cao, the fab­u­lously ex­pres­sive Ital­ian guide tak­ing me on a his­tor­i­cal walk­ing tour of Palermo. “For us, this food is a fe­male named arancina!” She em­pha­sises the “a” sound with a flour­ish of her slen­der hand, “and it is the shape of an or­ange. No aran­cino”. She al­most hisses the last word.

At the other end of Si­cily, in the east­ern town of Cata­nia – home to the foot­ball club that’s the Palermo team’s fiercest ri­val – these saf­fron-flavoured street snacks are deemed male and named aran­cino. And that makes per­fect sense when you ob­serve that they’re made with a more pointed tip.

Francesca con­tin­ues rat­tling off her in­sider’s info: “Here in the cap­i­tal, the toi­lets don’t smell like roses, we like to in­ter­rupt each other – it’s not impolite, just an at­ti­tude – and you should al­ways carry a Kleenex.” She doesn’t elab­o­rate on ex­actly why, but I have to agree that hav­ing a tis­sue is a good travel mantra wher­ever you go.

Palermo is not an im­me­di­ately en­chant­ing city. You can walk bliss­fully down a charm­ing cob­bled street only to be con­fronted by a pile of rub­bish, or step on one of many land­mines left by stray dogs. It’s mad and messy – all to be ex­pected in a city with a his­tory of in­va­sions that makes Game of Thrones seem tame. Si­cily has hosted the An­cient Greeks, fol­lowed by Arab set­tlers, then the Nor­mans, Spa­niards and most re­cently, the no­to­ri­ous mafia (the first rule of the street: do not ask the lo­cals about the mafia, un­less you know you’re talk­ing to a tour guide).

Be­cause it’s quite an over­whelm­ing des­ti­na­tion, I’d de­cided to en­list the help of Francesca, as well as Raf­faella Di Tra­pani, to help me find the true heart of Si­cily – one I hoped to find be­neath the grimy façade. And the way to any heart? Al­ways food.

Raf­faella grew up in Palermo, wears white pants with­out fear, rides a Vespa and is a Streaty food guide. In things Si­cil­ian, I know she can be trusted.

“Palermo is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from what it was five years ago.

You might not think so, but it’s much cleaner and now you see a lot of pedes­trian ar­eas. Via Roma and Via Maqueda are pedes­trian-only streets full of peo­ple en­joy­ing the space. The mayor who changed the city, Le­oluca Or­lando, showed us a way to stand up against

“IN THE CAP­I­TAL, THE TOI­LETS DON’T SMELL LIKE ROSES, WE IN­TER­RUPT – IT’S NOT IMPOLITE, JUST AN AT­TI­TUDE – AND YOU SHOULD AL­WAYS CARRY A KLEENEX”

the mafia in our daily lives. It’s thanks to him that life in Palermo is now so en­joy­able.” So en­joy­able, in fact, that the city claimed the ti­tle Ital­ian cap­i­tal of cul­ture in 2018.

Tech­ni­cally, this is­land – the largest in the Mediter­ranean Sea – forms part of Italy, but Si­cil­ians speak their own lan­guage, have their own par­lia­ment and, thanks to its tur­bu­lent his­tory, they have their own distinct style of food.

Fast, easy and af­ford­able, the first item I stum­ble upon is the hum­ble sfin­cione. This tra­di­tional pizza is thick and spongy – more of a flat­tened fo­cac­ciastyle bread than the thin­ner, crustier Ro­man va­ri­ety most tourists know.

“It’s cov­ered in onion, tomato sauce, oregano and topped with a sin­gle slice of tomato”, says Raf­faella as I hand over two eu­ros. The ven­dor pulls it from the glass case and grills it. Oil seeps through my nap­kin as I hold the slab and bite off an umami-packed mouth­ful.

From here it’s a down­hill slope for my waist­line, but my senses soar in the eu­pho­ria of flavours I dis­cover next. A sesame-stud­ded bread roll loaded with pan­elle (chick­pea flour frit­ters) and croc­chè (potato cro­quettes flecked with mint) splashed with a squeeze of Si­cil­ian le­mon re­minds me that the is­land is closer in some places to the con­ti­nent of Africa than to Europe.

Boiled oc­to­pus with fresh gar­nish, in­salata di polpo, is a plate of pure colour and sum­mons me back to the ocean. There are more arancina hid­ing their glo­ri­ous dol­lop of ragù, molten cheese

or sim­ply but­ter, fol­lowed by the most ad­ven­tur­ous dish of all, pani ca meusa, a beef spleen sand­wich best found siz­zling in pots of oil at the vibey Vuc­ciria square on most evenings.

Along with the food, I dis­cover more his­tor­i­cal tid­bits, in­clud­ing how Si­cily’s con­querors left their sig­na­ture in the form of Palermo’s UNESCO World Her­itage-listed Arab-Nor­man ar­chi­tec­ture. A won­der­ful ex­am­ple of the mar­riage be­tween food and cul­ture that harks back to the Mid­dle Ages.

At the time, many of the Arab mosques had been con­verted into cathe­drals to fit the newly es­tab­lished Nor­man re­li­gion in Palermo. His­tory tells of an im­por­tant arch­bishop who was en route to visit a con­vent in the city. How­ever, the gar­den and trees in this con­vent, La Mar­torana, were bare of fruit. So, the nuns cre­ated their own us­ing marzi­pan in bright colours, hang­ing them from the branches for the hon­oured visit. You can still find these brightly coloured “fruit” sweets, called frutta Mar­torana, in some lo­cal cafés.

It’s been a short and sim­ple in­tro­duc­tion,

but Francesca and Raf­faella have given me the road map I need to un­der­stand Si­cily, one that I will use en­thu­si­as­ti­cally over the two weeks I plan to spend in Palermo on a dig­i­tal no­mad re­treat with Find Your Pack (find­y­our­pack.org).

My Airbnb apart­ment is sit­u­ated di­rectly above a typ­i­cal Ital­ian-style café and ev­ery morn­ing I smell the deadly aroma of bak­ing pas­tries. From my bal­cony, I watch the morn­ing com­mute on the street be­low be­fore the sweet scents lure me into join­ing the throng down­stairs. Lo­cals tap-tap tiny es­presso cups into saucers af­ter a speedy swig while stand­ing at the café counter. This, I dis­cover, is how Si­cily does cof­fee to go. No take­away cap­puc­ci­nos can be eas­ily found here. For the most part I’m a sucker for any­thing fea­tur­ing the read­ily avail­able pis­ta­chio that’s so ex­pen­sive back home and I in­evitably choose a sticky pas­try for break­fast.

Some Si­cil­ian streets are cer­tainly more scenic than oth­ers. Border­ing the bub­blegum-blue Tyrrhe­nian Sea, Mon­dello beach is Palermo’s clos­est week­end es­cape and the side­walks boast bright white cafés. When I step in­side, I find gelato so suc­cu­lent (suck-ulent is

“RAF­FAELLA GREW

UP IN PALERMO, WEARS WHITE PANTS

WITH­OUT FEAR, RIDES A VESPA AND IS A STREATY FOOD GUIDE. I KNOW SHE CAN BE TRUSTED”

Mon­dello Beach and the Tyrrhe­nian Sea seen from the topof Mount Pel­le­grino.

Above: Cioc­co­la­te­ria Lorenzo has a fairy-lit court­yard just off the street and is fa­mous for ar­ti­sanal choco­lates,mud pie and soul­ful ser­vice. Be­low: The rules of the road are pretty re­laxed in Palermo.

In sum­mer, these quaint beach houses are erected on Mon­dello Beach – a 30-minutebus ride from Palermo.

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