Going South #6 - East coast/West coast
Let's say you fell asleep on your way to Sicily and woke up, but you're not sure on which part of the island are you. How could you tell?
Well, get ASAP to the first street food stand you find and look at the Arancini, those golden rice balls you will sure to find there. What shape do they have?
If the rice balls are shaped like cones (yes, I'm aware of the oxymoron. It's like finding Flat-Earthers all around the world), it means you're still on Sicily's east coast. The reason is clear - people on the east side see in front of their eyes the dreadful Mount Etna.
On the contrary - and on the West coast of the island - the rice balls are actually balls. This time the reason is the oranges that the Portuguese seamen brought from the Far East in the 15th century. Others say that they were the Moors (Moops?) who controlled the island more than 500 years before that, who introduced sweet - and not savory, as it is well-known these days - to Sicily.
Of course, two sides of Sicily fight about the origins of Arancini, what it should be filled with, and even the proper name for it - should it be masculine or feminine? Oxford Dictionary, which recently accepted the word, turned the flames of this heated discussion even further after choosing the eastern version to represent the dish.
Now, East Coast/West Coast feud… Where have I heard it before…
When we took the ferry from Calabria to Sicily I got excited as a kid since it was the first time for me at the island. I got even more excited when I saw that the ferry's bar served Arancini - coney east-siders, obviously - and soft, heartily filled and so tasty. What a great start!
The first Arancina showed the way to many others…
Madonna della Lettera ("The Madonna of the Letter") who protects Messina
From Messina we continued straight to Sicily's capital - Palermo.
Our apartment was located in a tiny hidden square that hosted Santamarina Bistrot, a tranquil bar that worked up until late and served as a nightly stop on the way to bed. All accommodation facilities should come with such an amenity.
Another amenity I recommend to have is a Masonic lodge close to you. Surely no one will have the guts to mess up with the organization that runs the world, right? And if it's not true, it won't hurt.
Not only that the short walk to the port gave us the opportunity to take astonishing sunset photos (I reccomend you click them to open), but we also managed to find our place for dinner.
It's a common knowledge that when it comes to street food, a place is good as long as the line out of it. 'Nni Franco U' Vastiddaru is a real institute in the Palermitan street food realm, also after its founder Franco Valenti died in 2015. Apart from tables that take a large part of Piazza Marina, you could also act as Palermitans do and take your fix from the large window, where there will always be a long line of at least 10 people - and 1 dog, which earns you extra points. Always.
We waited for quite a while until we were seated, and I'm just guessing here that if we had said that one of us is "Antonio" we would have waited much less, since the guy who run things around is named Antonio, as about half of Sicily. Once we were sitting things started to roll fast.
Paper tablecloths, waiters running - literally running! - in and out of the kitchen, menus you probably won't use, a street band is in charge of the music, kids and dogs. Such great chaos!
Since we came for the street food we grabbed ordered the place's famous trio:
Tiny Arancini (round ones, obviously, we are in Palermo),
chickpea fritters (Panelle di Ceci), not rarely served in a bun, conceptually similar to hummus in pita bread;
potato croquettes (crocché).
But the main dish and the reason for which people gather in Piazza Marina is a small bun stuffed with lengthy cooked veal spleen which in Italian is called Milza, but in the Sicilian dialect gets a whole new name - Vastedda con Meusa. How should you pronounce it? The closest way to describe is to think of a Portuguese accent - but pulled back. Don't worry if you cannot imagine it, it only means you have to visit Palermo and hear it for yourself.
Origins of the dish go back to middle ages when the Jewish community of Palermo mastered the art of butchery, and as a reward got to keep the less prestigious parts of the beef. Since the Catholic laws back then forbade them from getting paid for their job, they found a way to cook the spleen (Meusa) and re-sale it to the novelty inside a bun (Vastedda). After the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Castile and Aragon in 1492, that back then included also Sicily, the task passed to the hands of the Christian butchers, who "upgraded" the spleen with cheese after soaking the bun in pork fat. No, not kosher
Today you can ask the vastedda to be "single" - only with spleen and a lemon squeeze, or even better "married", which refers to the same combo, but adding grated cheese, usually caciocavallo or ricotta. Or both.
Together with a cold beer, it's definitely a delight for all of you (me) fans of offal and interiors.
Apart from the ordinary places, let's say, like 'Nni Franco U' Vastiddaru, these street food delicacies can be found at many carts of Vastiddari, that are scattered all around the center of Palermo. They sure put the "street" in "street food".
We couldn't wait to get to the second day in Palermo…
Previously, on Going South: