Culture and Cuisine in Palermo, Sicily
Like a refined cocktail in which the ingredients leave a subtle, evasive trace, so also Palermo is a smooth tasting blend of historical and cultural elements. Testimonies of its early inhabitants – Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines – are intertwined in the city scenes with Arab influence from the period between 831 to 1072 when Palermo became the capital of the island. The apex of the cultural and artistic splendor dates back to the Norman occupation that lasted until the end of the 13th century. The 1400s is visible in the Gothic-Catalan architecture, whereas the baroque buildings testify to the interlude when Palermo was under the Spanish rule (the 17th and 18th centuries). Thus, Palermo is like a delicious cocktail – a pleasant cultural fusion of different epochs and influences.
The best way to explore Palermo is by foot. A convenient starting point is “Le Cremolose” where you can taste the mouthwatering cremolose, something in-between ice cream and granita. The most typical Sicilian taste is the almond (mandorla), although pistachio and fruit flavors are equally refreshing. With some almond ice in the body, the walking tour becomes brisk and zesty.
Most of Palermo’s cultural sites are along the street Via della Libertà that leads from “Le Cremolose” to the city center. Immediately to the right is the enchanting English garden (giardino inglese).
Soon after, when the street changes names into Via Ruggero Settimo, is Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s opera house that opened its doors in 1897. It is among the biggest theaters in Italy and the largest opera houses of Europe. Continuing along the same street (now called Via Maqueda), you reach the Quattro Canti, an opening with baroque fountains and statues. A few more steps to reach the impressive Pretoria fountain and La Martorana church. Backtracking to Quattro Quanti, Corso Vittorio Emanuele leads you to the Cathedral.
The Cathedral (Duomo) of Palermo is a synthesis of the city’s history. The architectural collage is a harmonious combination of different styles representative of the various historical periods and the city’s conquerors. The Cathedral was built in 1185 to take the place of a 9th-century mosque. Signs of the Arab influence are still detectable in the complex mix of Norman, Byzantine, Gothic-Catalan, Renaissance, and Baroque styles in the choir, crypt, and astounding façade of Palermo’s main place of worship.
Further along Corso Vittorio Emanuele is Palazzo dei Normanni with the magnificent Cappella Palatina. Close by, on Via dei Benedittini, is the entrance to San Giovanni degli Eremiti where the Arab influence is visible in the rests of an antique mosque blended within the walls of the Norman church.
A great way to end the day is to have an authentically unique pizza – served only at Pizzeria Sciusià – that has borders filled with such ingredients as mushrooms, ham, salmon sauce…. These special pizzas are called ‘mbuttunate (in Italian abbottonate, “buttoned”). Remember to make a reservation as the restaurant is full every single evening. If you are unable to find a table at “Sciusià,” try “La Corte dei Mangioni” in via Sammartino. They have excellent meat dishes, but also tasty fish. You may want to try their bomba (the bomb) that will knock your socks off. Please note: their portions are huge! For a dessert, try Sicilian pastries made of almonds and pistachios that you can taste the following day also at Pasticceria Cappello or the historical Antico Caffé Spinnato.
If you have an extra day in Sicily, you may wish to do a one-day trip to the picturesque Cefalù. After visiting the Cathedral there, a beach walk with a refreshing granita of almond or gelsi (mulberry) taste will make your pause from Palermo’s hustle perfection!
I am grateful to my Sicilian hosts, Francesca Alberghina and Salvatore Schiavone, for sharing their insider’s knowledge of Palermo and Cefalù!
Antico Caffè Spinnato, Via Principe di Belmonte 111-115, phone: 091-329220
Pasticceria Cappello, Via Colonna Rotta 68, phone: 091-489601
Le Cremolose, Piazza Alberigo Gentili 12, phone: 091-8430037
La Corte dei Mangioni, Via Sammartino 97, phone: 091-6255360
Pizzeria Sciusià, via Dante 212, phone: 091-6822700