Palermo pizza and piazzas: Street food Sicilian-style

Sicily street food review

On a night tour of Palermo, High50's Caroline Phillips samples fast food Sicilian style. She tries balls of saffron rice with mozzarella, homemade pasta, and the local delicacy, calf's spleen.

It's hard to explain how enticing Sicily's street food is. Grilled cow's bowel appetisers don't sound too, well, appetising. How about spicy spleen sandwiches or griddled horsemeat? They don't immediately appeal. So, on a trip to Il Vignale, a rural villa near S. Stefano di Camastra on the north coast of Sicily, I don't head straight for these hardcore culinary experiences. Maria, the chef, breaks me in slowly.

First, she magics up feasts of zucchini flowers delicately stuffed with the freshest ricotta, melting pastry parcels of porcini, and homemade pasta with the spinach-like tenerumi. She feeds us tender black pig, a speciality from the nearby Nebrodi Mountains.

The villa's owner, Dario, lures us further into a false sense of dietary security by giving us bottles of his home-pressed virgin olive oil and baskets of the estate's organic aubergine and cucuzza (a long snake of a courgette). Only then does he say, "You must not meeees the Street Food Tour in Palermo. Izzz experience molto importanto eeen Sicily."

Food the locals eat
He packs us off to Palermo for a soloSicily Street Food Tour, promising us (deep breath) entrails. This may require a paper bag, and I don't mean for buying food.

teatro massimo

The tour begins at 8pm by the farmacia opposite Palermo's Teatro Massimo (pictured above), Italy's largest opera house and the first of many imposing buildings we see on our walking tour.

"What would you like to eat?" asks Fabrizia, our food Sherpa. "Tripe," replies my friend, throwing down the comestible gauntlet. "We're not vegan, vegetarian or faint-hearted." Not much.
Palermo is one of the world's best cities for street food, cooked and eaten standing or sitting by makeshift outdoor stalls and in market bars. This is how the locals eat. It's their version of McDonald's.

Street food has existed in Sicily for centuries. The island's history is revealed in the contents of its al fresco saucepans. In three millennia, the port city of Palermo has been invaded by the Carthaginians, Arabs and Normans. They didn't bring hamburgers and hot dogs with them.

Palermo piazza, pizza and Panelle

First stop is the Touring Café, sitting under pictures of the Pope, saints and the café founder. If you're a real wuss, you can try u' Sfinciuni, a thick, spongy Sicilian pizza.

Sicilian pizza

But they also make 1,000 arancine 'bombs' a week here: deep-fried saffron rice with mozzarella and prosciutto or spinach and ricotta (price €2 each). People are queuing excitedly for the cricket-ball-size explosions of taste wrapped in crispy perfection, which then they eat the Sicilian way: with their hands. We join in cheerily.

Palermo is handsome, decaying and poor. Through side streets no wider than my arms, and well-watered by cats, our next stop is in a piazza with a 16th-century church, under the gentle yellow glow of light from wall-mounted erstwhile gaslights on 18th-century houses.

Stigghiolaro, man roasting meat Palermo Sicily Italy

The outdoor tables are full of people eating Sicilian fast food: rolls filled with different types of meat. We try their speciality, Stigghiole (barbecued lambs' intestines, pictured above). Very tasty, if a little fatty.

We throw thoughts of "Horsegate" (the British scandal of adulterated burgers) to the wind and try you know what. It's as good as any decent steak.

We're introduced next to a kebab named Eat and Drink. "You eat the bacon," says Fabrizia, "and drink the juice from the spring onion cooked inside it." The warm evening air blows delightfully on our faces. The Vespas rev up beside our table.

La Vucciria Market fish stalls at Piazza Caracciolo in Taormina Messina province Sicily Italy

We move on. Each time we turn a corner or emerge from another cobbled alley, we see another beautiful building under the moonlight. In Piazza Caracciolo (pictued abobe) there's a stone fountain, a vendor who is busy boiling octopus and table football being played.

Nearby, a tattooed chef (known as The Mad Panelle Maker) is smoking cigarettes while frying Cazilli (potato croquettes with mint) and chickpea fritters (Panelle) in a pan of hot oil. We savour the Panelle discs – great peasant food – as crowds of young people tuck in, knocking back sweet local Zibibbo wine.

Boiled calf's spleen, anyone?
Next we find Rocky, the self-dubbed King of Spleen, on the corner of Via Pannieri. A crowd three-deep, with hungry eyes, is watching the king as he chops boiled calf's spleen and lung then warms it in a fast-melting lump of lard. The raw ingredients hang like wet chamois leathers in the markets. This is way outside my comfort zone.

"Eeez Rocky, eeez number one in Palermo," says a strong-stomached 50-something as he tucks rapturously into a Pane ca' Meusa spleen bun (€2). "Eee does it plain, not married. Married is topped with Caciocavallo cheese. Eez no original way."

Rocky has been making these filled baps all his life, he tells me in Italian with a thick Palermo dialect. He grins sweatily. "I was taught by my father and grandfather. My son is learning from me. I get my luck from S.ta Rosalia."

Reader, I did it. I took a bite. And the flavour is excellent, albeit with a texture like chewy liver.
We've been on a two-hour tour, full of characters, noise, fun and tastes. The street action finishes as late as you like: "They stay as long as people want to eat," says Fabrizia. "Sometimes 2am. Sometimes 3.30."

We are distracted by a fellow foodie, Erika Heynatz, the Australian actress, sprinting across the road, narrowly dodging traffic. "Jeeeez," she wails. "Don't let me be run over when the last thing I ate was bowel." Bowel? Let's not go there...

• Palermo Street Food Tours are available exclusively to guests staying in soloSicily villas. Prices start at €20 per person for a 90-minute daytime or night tour, rising to €35 per person for a half-day tour.

• For further information on Il Vignale, contact villa specialist soloSicily. Phone 020 7097 1413

For more strange food around the world, check out our slideshow below:

Weird food around the world. Picky eater? Look away now!
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Palermo pizza and piazzas: Street food Sicilian-style

If you happen to be visiting China's Zhejiang Province in the springtime, it's the delicate stench of young boys' urine, rather than daffodils, you'll be sniffing. It's not down to a regional problem with toilet training, rather the pee is used to soak and boil eggs to create a tasty street food snack. Aficionados claim they have 'the taste of spring', but we'll stick with chocolate Mini Eggs, thanks.

Look away if you're squeamish. Balut are boiled, fertilised duck eggs, the (usually) 17 day embryo almost fully developed, with fuzzy hair, bones, beak and all. Commonly sold as street food in the Philippines and other South East Asian countries, they're served with a little salt and or a chili and vinegar mixture and are thought to be an aphrodisiac. Er, yum.

If you like your cheese so 'ripe' that it's actually moving, then this Sardinian speciality is for you. Pecorino sheep's milk cheese is left in the open air until cheese fly larvae are laid, these then hatch and the acid from the digestive systems of the thousands of resulting maggots breaks down the cheese to a soft, seeping texture. To add to the fun and games, when disturbed, the larvae can launch themselves up to 15cm in the air.

Ah, the deep fried pizza – stuff of legends. Anyone in any doubt about the existence of this Scottish speciality need only visit a Glasgow chippy on a Saturday night to discover they are alive and well and causing the multiple heart attacks across the land. Any food snobs tempted to scoff should know that 'pizza fritta' is also a Neopolitan speciality (although admittedly they draw the line at stuffing the pizza with a poke of chips...)

Yes, the brain of the small tree climbing rodent is a delicacy in some parts of the US. You cook the head with the rest of the body (after cleaning of course), then, using your fingers and a fork, you crack the skull open and dig the brain out. Apparently, it tastes kind of like mushrooms.

As you probably know, the Scandies are very keen on herring. Fried, pickled, whatever. But in the north of Sweden, they go one further in the pursuit of herring heaven by leaving Baltic herring to ferment in their tin until they reach a level of putrefecation that demands the tin only ever be opened and eaten outside.

A dead tarantula's a good tarantula, so if you're passing through the Cambodian town of Skuon, give these deep fried delicacies a try. The legs are crispy and taste of the salt, sugar, oil and garlic in which they're fried, while the gooier abdomen, home to the spider's organs, eggs and excrement, is more of an, ahem, acquired taste.

Pity the poor puffin who happens to be born in Iceland, where he gets no legal protection and where his heart, still warm and eaten raw, is a national delicacy. In a country where other food favourites include fermented shark meat and cured ram scrota, looking cute, colourful and clumsy is no defence against being fished out of the sky with a large net.

Considered a Peruvian delicacy, guinea pig meat apparently tastes a bit like hare. Breeders recently bred a new 'super guinea pig' in the hope that they could export it to America and around the world. Hmmm. We're still waiting to see if it'll catch on...

Served up in street markets in Nanjing, guess who the the biggest purchasers of these crunchy little critters are? Tourists. Apparently, these taste slightly bitter. And they're very chewy. Which begs the question: why eat them at all?

The UK may be up in arms over unintentionally feasting on horse but it's a delicacy in Japan. Basashi is raw slices of horse traditionally served with ice, daikon pickles and soy sauce. If the idea of horse sashimi doesn't send you galloping to the nearest Japanese restaurant then maybe the news that it also comes in ice cream form will...minced horsemeat ice cream, pass the spoon!

Vietnam operates an 'if you can catch it you can eat it' ethos towards food, which is bad luck for these little birds. This dish recalls the more sinister edge of the nursery rhyme sing a song of sixpence, where four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie. These members of the sparrow family are roasted or grilled until crispy and eaten whole, head and all.

It comes to the table rolled up and looking like a cold flannel and, to be honest, doesn't taste that much more pleasant to eat. This thin, greyish, crepe-like pancake is a mealtime staple in Ethiopia and made from the fermented grain Teff, giving the injera its distinctive sour, tangy flavour.

Could you bring yourself to eat one of these cute, furry creatures? If you were in Bolivia you would probably be persuaded as tender Llama meat it served as steaks and burgers. This south American super food apparently tastes like a cross between lamb and beef but comes with far less cholesterol.

Is it a crustacean, a flower or a piece of coral? Actually Buddha's hands are citrus fruits from the Himalayas and, more recently, California. Use these floral-scented fingers as you would a lemon or lime, grating the peel and zest in salads, cakes and drinks or dried to fragrance a room. Buddha's hand margarita anyone?

In Iceland, svid - burned and boiled sheep head - graces many menus from restaurants to bus stops. Diners can eat every part of the head, from cheeks to tongue and eyes (although the latter is preferred by only the most hardcore locals). 

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