Garbage sprouted from every ancient nook and cranny; aromas of horse dung, piss and ocean brine awakened my senses. Palermo’s early morning air was already dense with a heavy, relentless heat. My freshly pressed cotton dress wilted and immediately stuck to my body, still bloated from the previous day’s many indulgences: creamy pistachio gelato the color of aged green linen, crisp Reggionella cookies studded with sesame seeds and baked in a wood fired oven, freshly cut pasta topped with mountains of shaved tuna bottarga, and bottles of mature Sicilian wines produced from unfamiliar varietals.
And yet I was already in search of my next meal.
A glance down one end of Palermo’s archaic boulevard yielded views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, its vivid aquamarine waters beckoning, while the other end revealed mountain ranges, trapping the humid air.
The capital of Sicily dates back more than 2,700 years, and is revered for its architecture, history and gastronomy. Palermo’s name is derived from the Greek, meaning ‘always fit for landing in’ and indeed, we had landed to absorb every bit of its shabby grandeur.
Palermo boasts many outdoor markets held in the city’s historic, crumbling quarters, and I was determined to wander through several of them. Operating year round, six days a week, I imagine very little had changed in the markets over hundreds of years.
On its outskirts, Africans and Sri Lankans set up folding tables loaded with precious junk, while the markets’ interiors reveal the true jewels: stall after stall of vendors offered the most appealing eye-candy. Royal purple eggplants and cauliflower the size of Mussolini’s head vie for space against bushels of tomatoes, tomatoes, and more varieties of tomatoes. Massive tins of salted sardines were haggled over by men wearing dirty tee shirts embellished with American slang. Dried fruits, nuts, and salted capers, all beloved products of Sicily, are piled high awaiting Nonnas in housedresses to arrive on their daily shopping expeditions.
Creaky wooden tables leaned precariously under the weight of shaved ice piled high with hundreds of fish hauled in each day from Palermo’s waters. My sandaled feet waded through small pools of grimy water, slick with fish guts and market detritus, to inspect the enormous head of a swordfish, Italy’s workhorse, while the wide, unblinking, black eyes of a squid stared back at me.
Butchers in bloody aprons sharpened knives in front of gigantic butcher blocks, their dark patina burnished from the blood of hundreds of years of slaughter. Burly men with bald heads and scraggly beards, cigarettes hanging from the sides of their mouths, hauled shaven pigs and lamb through the markets, while cows’ heads dangled from black iron meat hooks, their eyes bulging menacingly. Vendors barked prices and inducements and one swarthy produce seller even shared a very decent rendition of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as I lustfully eyed his torpedo onions.
Renowned for its street foods, I succumbed to a breakfast of swordfish Caponata and eggplant Parmesan washed down with an icy cold Moretti beer served at a tiny table by a sweet old man who repeatedly asked if everything was tasty. Never much of a grazer, I nonetheless followed up with a bag of succulent cubes of chickpea flour and green onion fried in lard and topped with a good shake of coarse Sicilian salt handed to me by a huge man without a tooth in his head. And I couldn’t resist a hunk of Sfincione, an authentic Palermo pizza made from a thick dough topped with herbs, onions, tomato sauce, strong mountain cheese, and anchovies made by a charming woman with a dusting of flour in her jet black hair.
I skipped the spleen sandwich.
Awnings in red and blue, burnt into dreamy Mediterranean shades by the indefatigable Sicilian sun, protected the decrepit stands, while bells from the market’s dozens of small chapels noted the passing hours, blessing the entire circus.