I would never recommend to anyone to see the city of Palermo in a mere 4 hours. Luckily, I had already spent a full 3 days there on a previous trip, so when we were staying with friends in Sicily relatively near Palermo, I begged for the chance to go back, even for a few hours, to a city I fondly remembered.
We went back to the start of it all: Bar Touring in Palermo and my introduction to arancini, one of my favorite Sicilian specialties and another “meal replacement” favorite for me like the gelato in a brioche. An arancina (singular) is called thus since it clearly resembles an orange. The classic arancina has a ragu’ at the center (meat sauce) with peas and then saffron rice around it, then rolled in bread crumbs and fried. Other variations of the “center” can include prosciutto and cheese, pistachios, or anything depending on the imagination of the particular bar. Mondo Arancina in Rome (Metro Lepanto or Flaminia) gets very creative with their fillings and I usually try to make a stop there when I’m in town.
Bar Touring is known for the size of its arancini, or as it calls them, the “Arancina Bomba.” Their arancini weigh close to half a kilo all on its own, all for the low price of €1.30 (note: that’s an increase from when I was first there in 2003! It was only €1.10). Indeed, it’s so large that the Sicilian have taken to calling them “acapa picciriddi” – literally, the head of a child. I’m sure you’ve had better arancini, but probably not bigger.
One of my favorite new sights was the beautiful Santa Maria dello Spasimo, a church and convent that was bombed in World War II and remains with a roof, but is instead often used as a location for concerts and events. It’s hauntingly beautiful and I love the tree that grows where the floor of the church used to be.
They are also reinvesting money back into the area, La Kalsa, and you can see the dichotomy between some of the newly-redone buildings and their previous states. To the left there was a family sitting outside and playing cards in the street. Maybe they left the dent in the car of their more-fortunate neighbors.
I had all intentions of trying the U panu ca’ meusa – little Palermitano milza sandwiches stuffed with spleen and ricotta and grated parmigiano (you can see a picture of a milza panino here). I did. But cut me some slack. First I had a 3-course lunch at my friend’s mother’s house. Then after the Pasticceria Cappello, I split an arancina. But I did look and smell, and I have it on good authority that the Antica Focacceria San Francesco is a great place to try milza.
This man, apparently the original proprietor of the granita stand directly in front of the Teatro Massimo (opera house), had a whole display behind the cart of the hundreds of pictures that have been published of him in his time. I’ll add another to the bunch, and tell you I wouldn’t want to meet his friend standing near in a dark alley.
Unfortunately, it appears as though his “hands-off management” isn’t doing him any favors in the quality control department. Our lemon granita was critic acid with no signs of pulp anywhere. The worker, perhaps seeing our not-immediate satisfaction of the granita, asked, “Would you like more sugar?”
My friend replied yes immediately, and the worker proceeded to dump in a red liquid. Apparently in Palermitano sugar = cherry flavoring. So now we had a slightly-red, sour, citric acid cherry-lemon granita. I caught his reaction on film. What do you think each of these guys is thinking? I think it’s, “I hope he doesn’t hit me like the last guy” and “I’m going to hit him.”
So, we can’t recommend this place for good granita, but remember you can make it yourself (like my Watermelon Sorbetto-Granita) or visit several thousand bars in Sicily that make it better than this one.
We finished off our mini-giro in Palermo by going to the market in the small side streets (off Via Roma) for an aperitivo. This particular bar, while not known for its atmosphere, is known for its cheap zibibbo, a sweet wine that is often drank at aperitivo time, for a mere €1 euro a glass. I got the darker, Sangue di Sicilia which should have been called Cappelli di Sicilia since I’m sure I grew some hair on my chest after drinking it. Both were very sweet and very strong.
So was it worth it, just to spend four hours in Palermo??? Absolutely.