Street food in Palermo is deadly serious. ~ Anthony Bourdain
We have tried many different angles when approaching history through travel with the kids. Sicily is certainly not alone in Europe with its vast, rich and layered history of conquests. We knew to really understand the complexities of the largest region in Italy, we would need a filter to help us digest the antiquity and navigate the culture today. We discussed as a family what we all love to do in Italy and eat was at the top of the list. It just so happens that Palermo, Sicily is one of the top 10 street food cities in the world.
After a full day on the beaches in Cefalu, we headed to Palermo at dusk. The people at Palermo Street Food customized a tour for us that changed the way we see the world. They are professionals that want travelers to understand Sicily by breaking down stereotypes of Sicilian culture through the most tactile travel experience we have ever had.
Our guide met us in front of the Teatro Massimo (Opera House scene from The Godfather movies) at 5:30 PM and our culinary journey through the strategic crossroads of Europe began. He explained how Sicily is not a melting pot where many people come together to coexist at one time. Sicily, instead, is a trove of thousands of years of history, and the architecture, infrastructure and food of the many ruling cultures. As we wandered the ancient streets, he showed us places where the Arabian hydraulic systems are still in place and functioning today. We followed up that stroll with saffron laced arancini balls the Arabs brought to Sicily during their nearly 200 years of rule beginning in the 9th Century.
We sampled pane con panella (chickpea fritters) and croquettes (potato fritters) that were brightly finished with Sicilian lemon as we paced the dark streets of Palermo. Our guide spoke of the collective legacy of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, and even the British as we tasted our way through history. Our kids were brave enough to eat a pane cà muesa (spleen, tongue and lung of a cow sandwich)!
The tour finished with a sweetness we never could have imagined. An abundance of gelato smashed into a fresh brioche almost too big to hold in one hand was the grand finale in every way. Apparently it is the Sicilians idea of a perfect summer breakfast! The following day, we wound our way to the resort town of Taormina to try some of the best cannoli in the world. It was made with ricotta from goats milk only and stuffed into fresh crisp shells while we waited.
As we crossed the Strait of Messina on the way back to mainland Italy, the waves rocked us into silence as we chewed on the memories of the past week. The people of Sicily believe they are Sicilian first and Italian second but what we will remember most are the colorful individuals that graciously brought this island to life before our eyes.