There is something for everyone in Palermo – for the architecture lovers there are plenty of samples of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Arabic and Norman art, of the Gothic art and the Baroque in all their splendor. For the fans of the sea the beaches near the Sicilian capital provide for a divine holiday with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. The theatre-goers can visit the largest opera house in Italy – the Teatro Massimo, as well as the no less significant Teatro Politeama. But perhaps the most attractive is the Palermo to the ones who love the noise and the chaos. To enjoy cities like Naples, Genoa, or Palermo, you need to have a special setting. The clamour of the crowds, the diverse people who live there, the light taste of danger (which is a bit exaggerated, in my opinion), of “mafia”, of “underground” are factors that influence differently different people. To me, in any case, it is far more appealing than, say, a more sterile Germany. The rich and vibrant markets of Ballaro and Vucciria are places where I can spend whole days without getting tired. And when you add to the incredible food the most warm and well-intentioned people in all of Italy, you get a mix, which can be hardly resisted.
The history of the city is long and saturated with significant events, but I will not bother you in detail with it. Suffice it to know that for Palermo fought, won and lost one after the other Phoenicians, Carthaginians, the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Arabs, the Normans, the Germans, the Spaniards and the Frenchmen. Each of them touched the city with their magic wand and left something of their own. Perhaps the best example of this is the Palermo Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which shows traces of dozens of reconstructions and upgrades, the last of which – in the not so distant 19th century. Despite the prevailing Gothic style of the Normans, on one of the pillars at the main entrance to this day can be seen preserved a verse from the Quran from the time when the building was a mosque.
One of my favorite places in Palermo is the intersection where via Vittorio Emanuele crosses via Maqueda – the so-called Quatro Canti. At the four corners are located four baroque palaces, each with a fountain at the base, and in height divided into three parts, crowned with columns in the three main styles of antiquity – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. I think one should spend hours here if one wants to look at every detail. The intersection is illuminated by pleasant old lamps, and street musicians add to the artistic spirit and atmosphere.
Turning on via Maqueda, one immediately gets to the Pretoria Fountain Square, depicted on every post card, which does not have on Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. When the statues, a work of a Florentine master, were brought and placed on the fountain, their nakedness outraged the local nuns to such extent that they broke the noses of many of them just because they did not dare to touch other visible and protruding parts of their anatomy.
But to really feel Palermo is not just architecture, however impressive it may be. The truth is that most of my memories of staying there are related to food. Especially the first lunch when we had trippa at the Ballaro market. Imagine a food place, that is a mix between a bar and a small supermarket. Two starving Bulgarian women walk in and sit at the tables where elderly men who look like your grandfather are drinking something from ordinary glasses, no food, and watching mesmerized the TV in the corner. From the walls of the otherwise ascetically furnished place are the welcoming photos of Sophia Loren in her 30s, having spaghetti around her fork, of Fidel Castro with a cigar in his mouth and a “revolution” look, and of Charlie Chaplin and the kid with sad look in their eyes – apparently hungry just like us. As we drink beer, waiting to get the tripe warmed up, we see how, besides the grandpas, whose attention we have definitely attracted, there are other 7-8 men who are walking in one after the other, get something to drink and are sitting around us, giving us playful looks and lines that we do not understand. Every newcomer first goes through a lengthy procedure of kissing all who are present (us excluded), and then sits down to join the talk. When we leave, everyone gets up, they express their regrets of us leaving, or so it looks like from their gestures, and they see us off with “Bellissimi”.
My other memory is how we were looking for that one cowboy diner next to the port, where they offer sandwiches with spleen (Pani ca Meusa). And how afterwards, well-fed, and yet still thirsty for more gastronomic experiences, we find ourselves at the Vucciria market, where swarthy tattoos-covered Sicilians grill sizzling meat titbits and white clouds flood the small square. Here, of course, one must try the goat innards, even if it is not yet time for lunch.
Or how exhausted from all the tours around the city, we sit in a café on a busy street to take in the colorful crowd with its numerous faces and we order the famous Sicilian pastries Cassatta and Canolli with a killer espresso.
The canolli are a tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, which are filled in front of the customer with a mixture of ricotta cheese, chocolate, liqueur and nuts. You get to choose the final touch of dried fruit, pistachios or chocolate chips. Yum!
Today, however, I have prepared for you the recipe of Gordon Ramsay for another typical Sicilian specialty – the Arancini. They are especially popular on the island and can be found in many sorts – with mozzarella, with meat, with seafood.
– 25g mixed dried wild mushrooms
– Frying oil
– 1 small onion, finely diced
– 1 garlic clove, crushed
– 250g risotto rice
– 125ml dry white wine
– 500ml vegetable or chicken stock
– 25g Parmesan cheese, grated
– 9 mini mozzarella cheese balls or ½ a large ball
– 1–2 eggs, beaten
– About 100g plain flour
– 125g breadcrumbs
– Sea salt and ground black pepper
Soak the mushrooms in 250ml hot water for 20 minutes. Sauté the onion and garlic for about 5 minutes, add the rice and stir around the pan for a couple of minutes until the grains start to turn slightly translucent. Pour in the wine, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for a minute or two. Meanwhile, heat the stock and add the soaking liquor from the mushrooms. Add a ladleful of the hot stock mixture to the rice and stir over a medium heat until absorbed, then add another ladleful. Repeat until all the stock is used up or the rice is tender but still al dente. Make sure to stir regularly to create a creamy risotto. (This should take about 20 minutes.)
Chop the rehydrated mushrooms into small pieces and gently stir into the cooked risotto. Add a knob of butter and the Parmesan, then stir to mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then leave the risotto to cool.
If using mini mozzarella balls, halve them; if using part of a large ball, cut it into 1.5–2cm cubes. Once the risotto is cooled, roll it into balls the size of golf balls. Push a piece of mozzarella into the middle of each ball, ensuring that the cheese is completely enclosed. Leave to set in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Heat a frying pan to 170°C. Dip a rice ball into the flour, then dip into the egg, and finish by coating completely in the breadcrumbs. Deep-fry the balls for 2–3 minutes until golden brown all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Serve while hot.
I am just going to add that between every two meals, I was looking for an arancina to enjoy. They are unique!