The myriad walks around the streets of Palermo can stir up a variety of feelings – curiosity, awe, wonder. Strolling around the centro storico, the historic city center, one can’t help but feel that the city is drenched in history. The area is dotted with miracles; Phoenician and Roman vestiges, buildings dating from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Arab-Norman-Byzantine eras.
Palermo’s oldest street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, was once called Via del Cassaro. The name Cassaro, which means castle, derives from the Arabic noun Al-qasr, becoming U Cassaru in the Palermitan dialect. The castle was the original city center and this street, connecting it to the seashore, was one of Palermo’s main arteries.
Carlo Gionti opened Caffè del Kassaro on the middle of this street in 1957. Its name was a nod to the rich history of the city, but the café was anything but stuck in the past. “We were the first caffè on the street that organized concerts, we had multicultural bands coming to perform,” says Lucio Gionti, current owner of the café. Carlo, Lucio’s father, used to work in the neighboring bakery before he bought the place and set up his coffee shop. Its beginnings were difficult; they were barely able to pay the bills and would not have survived without a helping hand from Carlo’s brother. But “the real miracle” – as it often is, in Sicily – “that saved the place is the Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of Tears), the virgin of Syracuse,” says Lucio. Laughing, he adds, “They paid tribute to her here in Palermo and the street suddenly lined up with customers.” Problem solved.
Since then, Caffè del Kassaro has been consistently busy. In 1995, shortly after he graduated with a degree in architecture, Lucio decided to take over the caffè. “I had a little moment of emotional crisis – my mother passed away and I split up with my wife,” he recounts. “So I decided to shake things up. That’s how I started: alone and without money.”
The caffè worked its magic, perfumed by the smell of the pizze coming out of the oven, accompanied by the beat of local musicians coming to play – quite innovative for that time. But success tends to breed envy, and after several complaints from neighbors, Lucio was prohibited from hosting bands, forcing him to switch to a quieter concept. From then on, the rhythm was provided only by the clattering of the pans, the roar of the furnaces and the chat of customers. The caffè added some more dishes to its menu, all of which are family recipes from Lucio’s grandmother. Simple, family-oriented and reasonably priced, these days, the place is never empty.
The mornings here are generally quiet, giving employees some room to breathe in preparation for the hectic lunch rush. Workers, students, tourists and retirees come for coffee and the pastries prepared by Emanuele, one of the Kassaro team. His hit? The cassata cotta al forno (oven-baked cassata), a delectable Sicilian classic: sweet pastry filled with the creamiest ricotta cheese and garnished with a generous peppering of chocolate chips. The cassata was already on the menu when Lucio’s father was running the caffè, and its continued presence lends a sense of history, memory and tradition to the place, synonymous with the character of the city around it.
Tipo – a member of the kitchen staff – invites us to accompany him to the Ballarò market, located in the next neighborhood over. This is where the caffé sources its ingredients. The morning rush at the market is well under way and we arrive in the middle of the commotion. Tipo comes every day to buy products for the recipes for the primi, the seasonal pasta dishes. Today, we found some broccoli to make pasta e broccoli alla Siciliana, artichokes for pasta con carciofi e ricotta and, of course, tomatoes – a key ingredient of Italian cuisine, they’ll be used for various “sugo” (pasta sauce), pizza base and filling for pastries.
Depending on what the market offers, the menu might take a totally different form, and that spontaneity and creativity is what keeps the caffè fresh and innovative to this day (despite the music ban).
Back in the caffè, regulars have gathered for their daily coffee or for a chat with Lucio or one of the other employees. Frequent patrons Claudia and Lia sit outside discussing a book before heading off to work at a laundry at the end of the street. The scene on the terrace mirrors the spirit of exchange and conviviality found inside.
When the midday rush starts, a line forms and the restaurant is crawling with people. This is no problem for the experienced staff, a small team of six: Tipo, Totò and Emanuele in the kitchen and Katia, Claudia and Aurelia in the dining room. Lucio’s kind manner and the jovial atmosphere of the caffè has generated a good deal of loyalty and respect among the employees, all who have been working there for years.
We are about to leave when Carlo, Lucio’s son, enters. Carlo is also involved in running the caffè and comes regularly to assist his father. He has seen the evolution of the place throughout the years and will eventually carry on the family business. He sums up the caffè for us: “It’s very simple and recalls the atemporality of the city, offering timeless recipes at affordable prices.” Caffè del Kassaro merges both to serve everyone: locals looking for something fresh as well as visitors curious to discover authentic Palermitan places.
Published on March 09, 2023