Palermo was the final destination on our trip – en route from Piazza Armerina we stopped for a few hours and lunch in Cefalu, an attractive town rightly appealing to and full of tourists. We only had time for a quick lunch so we walked a little out of the crowded town to IL FARO (at the lighthouse) It was just fine, with good pasta dishes, and outdoor seating overlooking a beautiful coastline, just what the doctor ordered.
When we finally arrived at our fine Airbnb in the Albergheria neighborhood of Palermo, after dropping the car at the airport, we ready after two weeks to eat some simple home meals. The Ballaro market stalls nearby were closing for the day , but I was able to pick up some tasty cheese, crusty semolina bread and good salumi at a friendly little bakery cum gastronomia on Via Porto di Castro – a container of fresh sheep milk ricotta was particularly wonderful, also some baked ricotta they offered the following night, ANTICO FORNO DI VERCIO PIETRO is its name – and tomatoes and fruit at a late opening Bengali store. This Forno offers different items throughout the day and we returned several times during our stay. Note, the market area is dark, funky and lively at night with groups of men hanging out around small fires, etc . Not too many unaccompanied women around. We went back in the morning to do more extensive shopping and it was a wonderful market – we enjoyed fresh cherries, strawberries, fresh fava pods and bought wine, additional cheese and the large packets of capers which I had been looking for the entire trip. It was lovely to be able to eat (more lightly) and cook with these ingredients for the remainder of our stay.
After a morning at the nearby Norman Cathedral we headed to TRATTORIA AI CASCINARI, a 10 minute walk away. This was another serendipitous, enjoyable experience, when we found they had room for us without a res. The ample mixed appetizer offering (including delicate panelles, fried vegetables and mint-scented potato fritters as well as sardines and delicious fried eggplant balls in fresh tomato sauce) was a great start which we followed with another good version of pasta with swordfish and eggplant, and spaghetti in squid ink with fresh wild fennel, and finally, grilled seafood. They served a lovely contorni with this, fresh green beans with tomatoes, potato and olives, in good olive oil. Service was cordial, house wine was good in this well run unpretentious slowfood classic. Highly recommend!
Our second day featured a meal at slowfood listed OSTERIA BALLARO, in the Kalsa neighborhood after several hours of walking, many churches and time in the wonderful museum at Palazzo Albertellis. It’s a very attractive space but unfortunately it was spoiled due to poor service (the waiter clearly didn’t like serving non-italian speaking tourists) and a few misfires with our dishes, think, a pasta dressed with salty bottarga shards with a couple of sweet-ish red shrimp “quenelles” (reminiscent of Chinese dim sum). It was a bizarre discordant combination. However this kitchen CAN cook and the “street food” appetizer combo (including a mini vastedda sandwich) and fried pasta dish Jim ordered were all very tasty. Panelle not as good as Ai Cascinari, though.
We had made it to our last day in Sicily without eating a cannolo, so we researched a bit and took the easiest course of going the PASTICCERIA COSTA which fairly recently opened a convenient and elegant shop right near the Quattro Canti. This followed mass (for Jim at the cathedral and visits to a whole string of churches including part of a Greek rite service at the Martorana , as well as a promenade of very dressed up Bengali ladies nearby. Anyway, the Costa shop has very nice martorana (the almond pastries named after the church), and many pastries including Genovese in two kinds (pastry cream and ricotta filled) and the cannoli. Rather than buying a freshly filled cannolo the two of us bought and shared a single mini-cannolo, very good bite or two and a lovely buccellato (a decorated ring pastry filled with figs and nuts) to take home to NY. All these things were very good!! I recommend this shop if you are in the area.
In case you want want to see how crazy the sicilians are about cannoli see
For our last restaurant meal in Sicily (a Sunday lunch) w decided to try to return to Ai Cascinari, but our luck didn’t hold; there were others with the same idea, and we weren’t the only folks turned away. Turning disappointment into a good meal we walked into MAMMA CICCINA, an unheralded family trattoria on the same rather unprepossessing block. Although we thought it was not open, we walked in and found the dining room in the back – the place was totally slammed for the next two hours, so we had plenty of time to watch how the single waiter (assisted by other family members when it got too crazy) handled such a large room full of patrons. The mixed appetizers were again excellent including a fine caponata, a cold salad with I think nervetti,, two very good pasta dishes and a platter of roasted meats cooked on a wood fire outside the restaurant made for a tasty homestyle meal to end our trip.
Some parting thoughts:
• Answer to most often asked question “Is Sicily safe?” – YES.
• There seems to be a high standard for cooking in Sicily. You can eat very well in Sicilian trattorias, in general (maybe less so in the most highly tourist impacted neighbornoods)
• Mixed antipasti are a good way to get many tastes of the region, including street food type items and vegetables. As we understand it, there is not an antipasto tradition as such in Sicily, so this is away the restaurants cover this. We were always pleasantly surprised.
• If you want vegetables with your meal and there is not a good veg antipasto on offer, ask about the contorni – they are often not even mentioned on the menu and salad offerings were scant but once we started asking we were pleased.
• Sicilians are great at frying ; also breaded dishes – panate – or dishes using bread crumbs inlieu of cheese (con mollica) can be excellent.
• Dishes to look out for - Caponata – so many variations; Orange salad; local pastas with pesto, often involving almonds; dessert “geli”
• Favorite dishes – pasta with swordfish and melanzane; dishes with wild fennel, especially pasta con la sarde
• Biggest surprise, mint is the favorite culinary herb, found in many fish and other savory dishes
• We generally stuck with the most local wine and were satisfied, Nero d’Avola, Cattaratto and Griilo (especially the Erice wines) Cerasuola blend from Vittoria area, Usually get a nice bottle for 13E or so, local carafe wine (typically nero d’avola, inzolia, grillo or such, zibibbo after the meal) were just fine also. Etna wines of which we have had a few bottles here and in Sicily have not been as impressive as we have hoped and are pricier. We also paid more for the Planeta and Regaleali wines than most others – they were well made but we were not more impressed. We are currently tasting through the Sicilian wines we can find here as well as the bottles we brought home. It is interesting that they are priced about the same here as in Sicily. It made us feel that these bottled wines are pretty much all being made for the export and restaurant market. They are mostly very enjoyable