To properly introduce Palermo, CB’s newest location, we turned to our local experts: correspondent and photographer Francesco Cipriano and walk leader Maria Luisa. In celebration of the launch, we spoke with them about Palermo’s gastronomic scene, the special Sicilian relationship with food, and their favorite places in the city.
Francesco is a writer and photographer born in New York to a family of Sicilian immigrants who then moved to Switzerland before finally returning to Sicily – the place, he says, that feels the most like home. Maria Luisa is a native Sicilian and a professional culinary guide. She got her culinary start from her grandmother, who taught her how to knead dough to make bread, how to forage for wild plants and how to appreciate a good glass of wine.
An edited version of our Q&A is below.
What do you think makes Palermo such an exciting culinary capital?
Francesco: First and foremost, the endless stories behind each dish. Because of its geographical location, Palermo has been a crossroads of cultures and influences that have mingled, giving rise to a unique culinary tradition. Behind every dish lies a piece of history that takes us back to Arab or Norman rule, a 19th-century legend or a contemporary anecdote. Here you don’t just eat, you feed on history.
Maria Luisa: Ever since childhood, I have noticed Sicilians’ special relationship with food. In understanding this particular attitude toward food preparation, I have tried to go beyond the cliché of “food is culture.” All peoples have their own culinary culture, which makes their dishes and recipes unique. I wondered what the peculiarity of the Sicilian people was. Then one day, I realized that food in Palermo and Sicily generally has a soul. It is not prepared to nourish only the body but to nourish souls as well. Food becomes an extension and manifestation of Palermo’s layered and multiethnic culture, and its spirit and the deep-rootedness to the land with which every Sicilian is born.
Within this framework, Palermo can tell an important story that, through a journey into the heart of the city and its cuisine, reveals the humanity behind frying, baking, kneading and eating.
What’s the story you hope to tell with the walk you developed for CB, Maria Luisa?
Maria Luisa: I want to tell a story about the people and all that remains hidden in a city as fascinating and mysterious as Palermo. The monuments, the streets, and the squares are only the stage for a city of strong contrasts and a changing face. What is Palermo? The answer lies precisely in food, and only through this will it be possible to understand the profound nature of a city that has only now begun to show itself to the world. The main thing, however, that I want to tell is the deep connection of Sicilians with food and how this connection has become survival – the cuisine as an entire world where everything was made possible.
Compared to other cities you’ve been to, what sets Palermo’s food scene apart?
Francesco: The variety and completeness of the culinary culture here sets the city apart from others. Palermo’s cuisine is very rich and varied, from the endless appetizers to first courses of all kinds, from meat of which no cuts or innards are thrown away to the fish and seafood of which our sea is rich, from street food to typical desserts. A short vacation here would not enough to taste all the dishes of Sicilian cuisine. What characterizes Palermo compared to other cities are the human relationships and sharing: chatting with the street vendor as he makes you a sandwich and then sharing the food with someone is an experience within the experience that gives more flavor to the dish.
Maria Luisa: Palermo offers many culinary choices resulting from a troubled and complicated history. Sicilian cuisine results from emotions: never from the head but rather directly from the heart. The other peculiarity is its relationship with the “street.” Sicilian food was born in the streets from the stories of people who had little or nothing to eat and sought expedients to survive, trying not to be outdone by the nobles, who could afford French chefs and enjoy imported dishes. The imagination of the people birthed true culinary masterpieces. Another distinguishing feature of Sicilian cuisine is its relationship with religion. Most recipes find their place within one or more religious festivals which helped establish their fame.
If you were to describe a thread that runs through all of the city’s cooking, what would it be?
Maria Luisa: The common thread that runs through the history of Sicilian cuisine is joy. No dish in Sicily is cooked to feed oneself – it’s about the joy of sharing, the joy of the food itself and the pleasure of cooking. It is quite impossible to find someone in Sicily who does not love to cook or who does not love to cook for someone. The other common thread is, in fact, love for people. When we love someone, our first question is: have you eaten? Or: shall we eat together?
Love and joy make food preparation a real celebration. This also attracts people visiting Palermo – the vibrant energy of a food-lovers city.
How did COVID impact the city’s food scene? Did something positive come out of the crisis?
Francesco: COVID has had a very negative impact on the city and especially on the restaurant scene. Palermo is a city that lives not only on tourism, but also and especially on the vitality of its people who populate the streets. With the lockdown first and the security measures imposed later, many establishments were forced to close. But if we want to see a positive aspect, there has undoubtedly been the need and desire to return to life and work: the events of the last few years have not stopped a new generation of young people who are investing in the restaurant industry, from those who carry on a family tradition to those who try to innovate that tradition by adapting it to new times.
You have just returned to Palermo from a long trip away: what’s the first place in the city that you dream about going to?
Maria Luisa: I would definitely take a walk to the sea to sit and look at the Cala, Palermo’s ancient harbor – now a marina – and Monte Pellegrino. It is one of the most striking landscapes in the city at any time of day. It makes me think of all the people who have landed there and of Palermo’s glorious history. I would walk through the Loggia district and stroll down Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo dei Normanni and enjoy the light of the golden mosaics of the Palatine Chapel. When I don’t see those mosaics for a while, I need to go back. And, undoubtedly, the cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, to enjoy that peace that only in these places can one find in a chaotic city like Palermo
Francesco: I don’t think there is a specific place, but the first thing I love to do upon returning to the city is to walk around the historic center, to get lost in its narrow streets, to pass by the Vucciria market, the Ballarò market, to drop by Piazza Sant’Anna or to catch some sun at the Piazza Magione, to enter a church I haven’t been in before, to meet a friend by chance, to make friends with a complete stranger, to eat a sandwich on the street or to share some panelle – fried chickpea flour fritters – with someone. What I love most about Palermo is the sharing and the human relationships – and that’s what I miss the most when I’m away.
Published on February 27, 2023
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