Your favorite culinary experience in Palermo might just be from the back of a 3-wheeled truck or a sidewalk street food vendor.
Palermo is full of great restaurants, from five star gourmand experiences to mom & pop hole in the wall joints making grandma’s recipes. And, the street food scene is the best in all of Italy.
Look for the little 3-wheeled Piaggio Ape trucks parked wherever people are gathered. They’ll have a sign advertising whatever little treat they’re frying up to sell to hungry customers. Or, get in line at one of the sidewalk vendors who set up shop in busy parts of the city.
There’s lots of different kinds of street food to try in Palermo. Here are three you can’t miss.
If you’ve been to Rhode Island, Philadelphia, or Utica, NY, you might’ve seen something called a Pizza Strip (Rhode Island) or a Tomato Pie (Philly & Utica). Pizza Strips and Tomato Pies aren’t exactly the same, but they are quite similar. They have a focaccia-like crust covered in marinara and topped with oregano and, sometimes, a little cheese.
Both Pizza Strips and Tomato Pies are served at room temperature and are great for parties because you don’t have to worry about heating them up and they serve a bunch of your friends. Utica is so proud of their Tomato Pie tradition that they have an annual festival to celebrate the local dish.
The Pizza Strip/Tomato Pie is similar to Palermo’s Sfincione in concept, but in reality, it’s not even close. That’s not to disparage the Sfincione’s American cousin, I’ve had loads of Pizza Strips in my day and enjoyed them. But, the Sfincione in Palermo is something special.
The base of the Sfincione is the bread. The texture of the crust is somewhere close to focaccia, but spongier because of the tomato sauce on top. The tomato sauce has seeped into the crust, it doesn’t sit on top like a pizza.
Some olive oil, oregano, onions, and Caciocavallo Cheese (an aged Sicilian cheese, similar to Provolone) is added. Vegetarians beware, Sfincione usually has anchovies. Even if you can’t see the anchovies, they’re added as a paste.
It’s interesting that most of the Sfincione (at least the crust) is made at a single factory in Palermo near the Cathedral. The vendors pick up the bread fresh each morning and head out on their way.
There’s a great Sfincione vendor who sets up most days on Via Maqueda. He adds the toppings, cuts the bread, and hands out Sfincione to hungry customers. But, if you’re looking for a place that makes their own Sfincione from scratch, Panificio Graziano does a magnificent job. For vegetarians, Spinno makes Sfincione without anchovies.
Arancina (Arancino in Catania and eastern Sicily) are rice balls that are covered in bread crumbs and deep fried.
While Arancina have become very popular in the States with lots of fancy restaurants putting them on their tasting menu, they really are a street food; portable and rustic by design.
Traditionally, Arancina are filled with a pork (ragu) or a butter (burro). Vegetarians should be aware that the burro sometimes has ham as well.
Countless other fillings are available these days. Arancina with pistachios, eggplant, mushrooms; almost anything you can imagine.
Several creative Arancina shops have opened in Palermo in the last few years. KaPalle has a spinach Arancina and one called Norma with salted ricotta, eggplant and tomato sauce. Yum! Sfrigola has a couple dozen kinds of Arancina, too, including one based on the Caprese salad with tomato, mozzarella, and basil.
Street food lovers should check out one of Palermo’s famous markets for Arancina. Ask for one fresh out of the fryer!
So simple, yet so delicious, Panelle is one of the most popular street foods in Palermo. Chickpea flour, salt, pepper, and water are heated in a saucepan until smooth (like Polenta). Herbs (usually parsley) are added and the mixture is spread into a cookie sheet and cooled. The dough is often cut into triangles and fried.
These little strips of fried goodness are sometimes served on a bun, called Panini con Panelle.
Street vendors and Friggitoria (fry shops) sell Panelle along with other fried delights like Crocchè. I wrote a piece about what to get at the Friggitoria in my Naples Foodie Travel Guide. Some of the best places in Palermo are Panineria Friggitoria Chiluzzo, ‘Nni Franco U’Vastiddaru, and Nino U’ Ballerino.
Or, you could just look for your friendly neighborhood Piaggio Ape who’s selling Panelle.
Bonus – Panino con La Milza
Palermo and Sicily were very poor for a very long time. Since the unification of Italy (1861), Sicily has been left to rot by the central government. That’s why many of the traditional dishes in Palermo are cheap and simple to make. Households simply didn’t have the money to spend.
Think about it. To make a Panini con Panelle all you need are chickpeas, oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and bread. Very inexpensive. Same goes for Arancina and Sfincione. Cheap.
So, when it comes to meat, the Palermitani used the whatever they could get their hands on. And, often that wasn’t much more than offal, the lungs and spleen and other internal organs of the animal.
If you have a strong constitution, look for a vendor at one of Palermo’s markets selling Panino con La Milza. This sandwich is made mostly of the spleen and lung of a veal calf. The meat is chopped and fried in lard and served on a soft sesame seed roll.
But, now you won’t have the excuse that you didn’t know what you were eating.