To put the tiniest scratch in Palermo’s gastronomic surface, you’re going to need at least a week. Nevermind the fact that most people devote less than 24 hours. They are missing everything. And don’t go planning a million day trips (a half-day in Monreale is a must, however). Stay put, get into the groove, and live Palermo. And do yourself a favor and book a tour with Linda Sarris! Of course you can’t do or eat everything on a single trip, but here is my advice for a crash course in Palermo’s cuisine.
- It’s impossible to beat the Convento di Santa Caterina for sweets. The convent housed cloistered nuns from 1311 to 2014. Since 2017, the cloister has been taken over by a group of professional baking women who make the most spectacular cassate and fill cannoli studded with ground pistachios. GO TO THERE.
- Visit the Capo and Ballaro’ markets: While the Vucciria is home to the most famous market in Palermo, it's pretty touristy. I prefer the Capo and Ballaro’, two of my favorite places on earth. They are large, rambling affairs where vendors sell produce, meat, and fish. Butcher shops display the skinned heads of recently slaughtered animals in the manner of North African and Middle Eastern bazaars; fish are stiff with rigor; produce is ripe and (mainly) local. You’ll also find stalls selling Palermo’s street food there (see below).
- Quattro Mani: Since opening in the Kalsa in 2017, Quattro Mani has brought super fresh fish and produce and traditional flavors to Palermo’s well-heeled locals and visitors.
- Trattoria Corona is a good, slightly contemporary place for fish.
- Osteria Alivaru serves soulful, honest, seasonal food in the Kalsa. The caponata is legendary.
- Bottega Monteleone and Dal Barone are fun places to drink Sicilian vino. Bocum does nice cocktails and has a great wine list. Bar Botanico serves up fresh herbal cocktails and sweaty dance parties.
- Piccolo Napoli: This family run establishment serves nice fish dishes in Borgo Vecchio. It is open Monday to Saturday for lunch and Thursday to Saturday for dinner. Booking is essential on the weekends, as palermitani flock for polpo bollito (boiled octopus), spaghetti con i ricci (with sea urchin roe), and involtini di spatola (filets of scabbard fish rolled around breadcrumbs, pine nuts and currants). Save room for a few buccellati (the original fig newton!) and cassata brought in from Pasticceria Oscar.
- My favorite place for breakfast pastry or a quick slice of cake in the afternoon–plus excellent coffee any time of day–is Casa Stagnitta near San Cataldo. They don't have granita in the winter but it never hurts to ask!
- Cappadonia Gelati and Roro do nice gelato on brioche.
- FUD: The place for a Sicilian pub food, ie horse and donkey burgers. Great wine list and beer, too.
- I love ricotta in all its forms: as stuffing in ravioli, in its salted and grateable version, and especially as the sweetened filling of desserts. When I visit Palermo, I usually stay near Mazzara, which does delectable ricotta-filled cornetti (as well as every other imaginable pasty), but I have been known to travel across town to Oscar on Via Migliaccio for my cassata. Costa is also quite awesome and I would’t turn down a cannolo from Alba.
- When visiting Monreale with public transport, take bus from Via Calatafimi so you can work in a detour to two nearby pastry shops, Cappello and Massaro. Their setteveli, seven-layer cakes, are insane.
- Eat whatever’s in that basket: In Capo and Ballaro’, as well as on random street corners and in alleys, you will see men with wicker baskets. These baskets are draped with fabric to keep their contents warm-ish and relatively fly-free. Walk up to the basket man and order frittola, a sandwich made with the meat bits (cartlidge, fat and tendons, too) he plucks from his container and stuffs into a roll. If you are watching your carbs, you can get the chunks in a paper cone. There is just one rule: don’t look too closely at the frittolaru’s fingernails. Nothing good can come from that.
- Stigghiola: Stigghiole are lamb or calf intestines that are charcoal grilled on the street at night. Starting at around 5pm, the stigghiolaru will set up shop, dropping a slab of fat over the smoldering charcoal to make smoke, which will attract customers. He will then prepare the innards, placing them on wooden chopping blocks to skewer them before they go on the grill. He will then chop the cooked stigghiole on the same chopping block in what is just one of the many wonderful examples of cross-contamination Palermo’s streetfood scene has to offer. Stigghiola stalls are everywhere.
- Pane ca’ Meusa: Sliced sesame seed rolls are filled with slices of spleen cooked in lard. Even if you are squeamish, please give this sandwich a chance. Pane ca’ meusa is served all over town but the place that does it best is aptly names Pani ca’ Meusa di Porta Carbone. It is located on Via Cala and you can grab a sandwich and a beer and sit at the tables on the sidewalk that look across the street to the port and beyond to Monte Pellegrino. I also love Nino U Ballerino and Nni Franco U Vastiddaru!
- Pane con panelle: This is another classic streetfood that you can find absolutely everywhere. I am partial to the stall in Piazza Ballaro’, where the vendors (a husband and wife team, I believe) drop panelle into a bubbling cauldron of oil to order. They stuff each sesame seeded roll with 5-6 of the piping hot chick pea fritters and can even add stuff a few crocche’ (potato croquettes) in there with them. Pani ca’ Meusa di Porta Carbone, Nino U Ballerino, and Nni Franco U Vastiddaru are all good for panelle, too.
- Street Fish: Not far from Teatro Politeama lies Borgo Vecchio, one of the liveliest parts of central Palermo. Here there is commerce day and night, and the zone is constantly abuzz activity–howling street vendors touting their goods, kids playing in the street (a bit unsettling), and whole families whipping by on scooters (minus the muffler). I wouldn't say the hygienic standards of the street fish vendors are comforting, but it's fun to have a look and if your G.I. system can handle it, order a couple of grilled fish.
- Crudi: For crudi (raw fish), take Foro Umberto, the long road that follows the coast southeast, past the Orto Botanico where fishermen sell ricci di mare (sea urchins) and cozze (mussels) straight out of the sea. Magic.
- San Francesco Sucks: Not the Saint. I don't really have an opinion on him. I'm talking about Antica Focacceria di San Francesco. This place is as boring and awful as it is famous. I won’t bore you with all the reasons AFSF sucks, but let’s suffice it to say that you can eat better
out of a guttereverywhere else. I’ve dedicated a brief post to my disdain.