Descend the steps of Discesa del Caracciolo, leaving Via Roma behind, and you will find yourself in the heart of Palermo’s old Vucciria market, a micro-universe unto itself in which nostalgia hovers in the air and in the eyes of the locals.
Typical Sicilian fatalism translates into the saying: “When the balàte of the Vucciria dry out.” The balàte are the typical stones that make up the floor on which the market stands: legend has it that – precisely because of the presence of merchants of all kinds who wash their workbenches at the end of each day – the floor of the Vucciria never fully dries. Therefore, to say “When the balàte of the Vucciria dries” is to indicate an event that will never take place.
But to find out if this saying is still relevant, we visited the market to meet a man who, since he was a child, has been responsible for wetting the famous stones every day.
Mr. Andrea Vattiato is a fishmonger in his sixties who, from behind his counter, has seen half a century of changes at the Vucciria market. “I started working here as a kid because my uncle worked here. This fish market has been open for a good 130 years,” Andrea tells us. “My father, on the other hand, used to work there across the street,” he says, pointing to the steps of Discesa del Caracciolo. “He was the purparu [a peddler of boiled octopus] of the Vucciria; he started in the 1950s with his pot in which he boiled octopus. In fact, to this day everyone in the neighborhood knows me as Andrea, the son of the Vucciria purparu.”
(If we had any doubts to this claim, behind him stands a colorful sign that reads “From Andrea, the son of the Vucciria’s Purparu.”)
Raised among fish and shellfish, after 25 years as an employee, Andrea became a partner in the fish market along with the old owner, who, as we chat, passes by on his morning walk. He is 91 years old; when he sees us he waves his cane and insists on showing us an old picture of the market.
Afterward, Andrea’s helper, a man named Tanino, leads us to the office located in the back. Here, behind the desk, we see an illustration of what the Vucciria must have looked like at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a place crowded with people and goods on display, with layers of curtains hung for shade.
“It was like that when I was a child,” Tanino recalls, “Full of tents and merchandise, full of people…”
A symbol of a certain urban decadence, surrounded by buildings destroyed by the Allied bombings of World War II, the district was home for centuries to one of the city’s richest and most prosperous markets – partly because of its proximity to the port – which has been reduced to the bone in recent years.
We find the same nostalgia in the words of Andrea, who recalls a vibrant and deafening market: “Vucciria is a muddled word: it comes from the French ‘Boucherie’ meaning ‘butcher’s shop,’ until it became Vucciria. Then, because it was full of hollering merchants, shouting to advertise their products, there was so much noise that people started using the word Vucciria to mean chaos.”
Nowadays, it’s still loud, but nothing compared to the past.
To adapt to the times, for about the last seven years Andrea has also been preparing the fish he sells on site, turning his corner of the fish market into an unpretentious outdoor restaurant. With a fryer in which to fry the catch of the day, a grill on which he prepares swordfish, and a pot in which to station an octopus ready to be seasoned with lemon, Da Andrea offers its customers the opportunity not only to buy fresh fish, but also to eat it on the spot, accompanying the dish with a glass of white wine served by the tavern across the street.
While Andrea guides you through the selection of squid, prawns, swordfish, sardines, anchovies, mullet, sea bass, cuttlefish, and octopus, Tanino breads and fries the fresh fish before your eyes and serves it to you just a few minutes later.
After seating a couple from Turin vacationing in the city, and serving a table sharing a boiled octopus under the February sun, Andrea tells us more anecdotes about the market – about movies shot in it, about the writers and artists who frequented the place. “I even saw Tom Cruise; I didn’t even know him, he was here with his wife,” he tells us, then adds with a mixture of disappointment and surprise: “He was shorter than me… Tom Cruise was shorter than me,” he repeats, pointing with his palm at chest height to indicate the height of the Hollywood star.
A customer passes by, a resident of the neighborhood, who explains his dinner plan to Andrea and gets advice on the type of fish and the right cooking technique. After serving and thanking him, Andrea wipes his hands with water and splashes some on the fish on display. When he comes back to us, we ask him about the balàte of the Vucciria: is it true that they never dry out? He smiles and remembers nostalgically, “The market was once surrounded by fishmongers – there were forty-eight of them. The square was full of fishmongers and water flowed all over the place. Beautiful…” he says as his gaze is lost in an image relegated to a past that no longer exists or that has at least changed its essence.
“Those times are over: now, the balàte are drying,” he adds.
Andrea leaves us for a moment to make sure the Turin couple enjoyed their lunch. They both compliment Andrea: while she expresses wonder at the goodness of the catch, he takes advantage of the water pump that Tanino used to clean the counter and cleans his hands.
It is 2:30 p.m., and for Andrea and Tanino, who have been here since dawn, it’s time to take down the shack. In doing so, they use gallons and gallons of water to clean the bench and equipment, which spills onto the floor of the Vucciria. A drop in the ocean compared to the forty-eight fishmongers who alone kept the floor of the Vucciria perpetually wet and slippery, sure. Because the market may not be what it once was – everybody says so – but Mr. Andrea, as an unwitting guardian of tradition, tries to keep it wet as long as possible.
Francesco CiprianoFrancesco Cipriano
Published on March 07, 2023
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