Palermo: where being poor does not mean you have to eat poorly

Sicily: where the "kitchen of the poor" means everyone eats well

Welcome to the capital of deep-fried leftovers
June 17, 2018

In April I went to Palermo. It was my first time in the city and I walked and walked, exploring the streets and alleys that opened into unexpected piazzas overhung with baroque façades, wondering and marvelling at the disregarded, casual, astonishing beauty of the stones and pillars and cupolae and marble nymphs cavorting in the fountains.

Sunlight slanted through flags of washing strung along the balconies and shone on a blissful Madonna looking down on a scrim of graffiti, overflowing rubbish bins and a grandmother in black stockings hefting a plastic bag of tomatoes. Joy: I had arrived at peak artichoke season, the plant piled up abundantly in acanthus mountains on flatbed trucks, in shopping trolleys, on trestle tables.

In the market that runs like a spine through Ballarò—possibly the coolest neighbourhood in the world, with its mix of Mafia, migrant and hipster—I bought artichokes still hot from the grill and crunched through their charred leaves into the squishy khaki heart. A slab of sfincione, thick spongy pizza with a smear of tomato on top, made a very good breakfast. Mid-morning snack stop at the friggitoria cart for panelle, a square of deep-fried chickpea batter or perhaps a potato crocchè, sparked up with mint.

The frying vendors stood beside big tubs of hot oil ready to refry any combination of zucchini, calamari and splayed sardines, to be eaten from a paper wrapper. Palermo is full of street food: paper plates of marinated anchovies, purple boiled octopus, snails with garlic, vats of beef spleen swimming in lakes of lard and spooned into soft hamburger buns for an unctuous belly-patting sandwich.

I bought a bunch of dried oregano, two kilos of tomatoes, a plastic basket of warm fresh ricotta, a loaf of ciabatta, a bottle of olive oil and a jar of salted capers. Picnic on the balcony of my Airbnb apartment watching the mountains glow sapphire in the dusk, listening to the shouts and cheers echoing along the alley every time a goal was scored in a football match on television. Soft curd clouds of ricotta, sublime, infinitesimally salty-sweet-funky-sour. The acid pulp of tomato crackled with salty-salt bitter caper. The olive oil trickled green astringency. It was an entirely perfect supper.

The next evening, still full after a giant lunch of sarde e beccafico—sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, raisins and pine nuts followed by a rich black swirl of pasta alla seppia, with cuttlefish and ink, I went to my balcony again. The bread was stale and so I poured a little water on it, sloshed with oil, brightened the tomato with a few drops of vinegar and threw in capers. I realised I had unwittingly made panzanella. If Italian cuisine is simplicity, then in Sicily the principle is pared down further, frugality.

Cucina povera translates literally as “kitchen of the poor.” As much as Sicilian cuisine is rich with the eastern Mediterranean flavours of sweet and sour agro dolce—raisins, apricot, almond and pistachio—its dishes are also influenced by the fact that it is the poorest region of Italy where rural feudalism persisted well into the 20th century and unemployment stands at 22 per cent. Pesto Trapanese is made with almonds instead of expensive pine nuts and filled out with crushed tomato; dried chili is routinely used instead of exotic black pepper from Asia, fried breadcrumbs, pangrattato, are sprinkled on a pasta in lieu of pricy parmesan.

I made my humble bread and tomato salad again and again. The balance between salt and acid was different every time I tinkered, never boring, always soundly delicious. I drank the dregs like soup, reminded of tiger milk at the bottom of a ceviche. The addition of plain water seemed to bring everything together with a clean brightness, far less oily than salad dressing.

Water, we forget sometimes, is an essential ingredient and the simplest and cheapest of all. Neapolitan fishermen cooked their catch in seawater with a few tomatoes, the precursor of the dish called aquapazza,  or crazy water. Think how the addition of starchy pasta water makes a sauce creamy without cream. And what is more refreshing than a lemon granita—essentially nothing much more than flavoured ice?

Palermo reminded me that being poor does not mean you need to eat poorly. Local, seasonal, fresh is the obvious triumvirate of cheap and good. Sicilians eat lots of grains—spaghetti, bread—and dishes that are heavy on the veg, with just a very little fish or meat added for savour. The best pasta I ate in Sicily was tossed with a single flaked-apart sardine and tangled through with strands of wild fennel that grows freely over road verges in springtime.

And Palermo must be the capital of fried leftovers: arancine, (Sicilians like to point out the distinction from the Italian arancina) are big balls of rice stuffed with whatever can be scrounged: provolone cheese, peas, the tail end of a ragù. A Senegalese cook I met had even made them with mafea, the African spicy peanut sauce. Nothing is wasted, yesterday’s spaghetti mixed with beaten egg makes a pasta frittata, morsels of leftover crocchè and panelle dough is scraped off the hot griddle and refried into rascatura.

Back home I am still eating bread and tomato salad for lunch every day instead of buying a sushi box. Old limp broccoli, a frozen cube of chicken stock, a sludge of tomato sauce from last week’s pasta, a handful of pastatini makes minestrone in minutes. I treasure odds and ends and especially the delicate lacy nibble of the crispy-hot frying-pan edge of anything refried.

The most celebrated dish at Osteria Francescana in Modena, several times at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, is “the crunchy part of the lasagna” an elevated deconstructed version of this homely culinary moment that will cost you €250 as part of the tasting menu.