Ferro di Cavallo is a side street trattoria with bright red walls and a maître d sporting a James Murphy beard. Its clientele was reflective of what we had seen elsewhere: the odd young group of friends, but mostly older families – and large families they were too.
As with everywhere else on our whistle stop tour of Palermo, the atmosphere was buzzing. Music filled the room when we entered but soon conversation from the dozens of tables took over all else.
A conversation was struck up with a lone diner on the adjacent table around the time we’d finished our main courses. It soon emerged that our new friend was a Provencal who had grown up in Aix-en-Provence. Excitedly, I began to declare my love for my favourite region of France. And of course, my opinion that Provence is home to the greatest food in the world.
“Why?” he asked. “I think the English look to the south and see French food, in the same way we look to the south and see Italian and Sicilian food. As something better than our own.”
* * * *
We decided to embark on this adventure almost on whim. For a long time, I had promised old former Sicilian and Italian colleagues that I would visit one day to taste the food which they had described with such love and abandon. The timing was last-minute: a desire to escape a much colder winter in London than the last, with a wish to discover something new.
Palermo is beautiful city and one that in many ways reminded me of London. For every awe-inspiring sight such as the Teatro Massimo, there is – usually just a few hundred metres away – something less majestic, grittier, where real life is happening around you.
Take the Ballaro market for example. There’s meat, veg, and seafood but also stallholders selling mobile phone holders, jewellery, knock-off designer bags, clothes. Adults, teenagers and children as young as nine or ten zip by on mopeds, expertly weaving between pedestrians. At the bottom of via Ballaro sits a piazza with bars facing onto it that could easily be in Hackney Wick.
People stop in the street and converse. They meet, they shop, they sit and drink beer, they smoke cigarettes and hashish, which perfumes the air. Yet five minutes away is one of the most humbling and astounding churches I have ever visited.
Yet our first experience of Palermo wasn’t when we landed, but on the plane.
During our flight over, we met a couple of Sicilians who were quick to offer their recommendations (full list included below) and help us learn some much needed Italian and Sicilian to get us by. Enthralled in conversation, we wondered whether every encounter with a Sicilian would be the same.
From that moment on, it was. Taxi drivers, waitresses, barman, the people we drank alongside, met in restaurants, or asked for help in the street. They all were incredibly friendly. All were quick to give us advice of places to visit, of wines to try, and of things to see.
* * * *
On Friday night, keen to try out one of these plane recommendations we headed towards Piazza Magione and, frankly, were disappointed when we arrived. We realised later that arriving at 9pm to a place in Palermo was a foolish mistake. Nightlife rarely begins until much later.
Our first destination for food was Le Pergamene. The owners and locals no doubt thought we were mad when we opted to eat outside in February, but compared to London we were practically in late spring.
I ate papperdelle with a wild boar sauce. Nothing was over complicated. Everything was finely balanced with delicious cherry tomatoes sitting on top that provided a zesty and light contrast to the rest of the food. It was exactly the sort of unfussy but perfectly executed dish that I had looked forward to. It goes without saying the pasta was better than any I had tasted before.
The note I made for wine read “Local wine. Not amazing, but great value. Quaffable – main downside is a jammy bitter/tart/dry aftertaste.”
Truth be told, it sums up most house reds we drank. As with France, this comes with the proviso that while there are faults, for the price (typically 10 euros for a bottle or litre), you could not get wine of this quality in London.
The shining star when it came to the red wine was in Champagneria on Via S. Spinuzza 59. Here, after a long conversation with the proprietor about what we loved and looked for in wines, we were recommended a Feudo Montoni Perricone Vigna Del Core from 2013. The perriocne, which is native to Sicily, is an exceptional grape indeed.
“I find on most holidays, there is one wine that really defines the trip – and this is that wine,” I declared, as the two housemates rolled their eyes. But as with the excellent local organic red I drank in Avignon last year, this really stood out. A strong, punchy, earthy, deeply fruity bouquet, that followed through – as the best wines do – in taste as it did on the nose. If I had been able to bring back a few cases of wine, it certainly would have been this one.
* * * *
Two hours later and we were many drinks deep around Vucciria. “It reminds me so much of Lisbon,” the flatmate said, while I could only allude to the street party feel of Notting Hill carnival. There were thousands of young Palermitans getting drunk, eating street food of oysters, sandwiches and ice cream, while dancing to the many sound systems that lined this isolated selection of streets.
* * * *
The following morning – none of us anywhere close to our best – we found ourselves in Mondello. If there is one place that really soothes a hungover head, it’s a place by the sea.
Here we ate at Al Gabbiano, a recommendation from our taxi driver.
I started with a caponata, a Sicilian stew of aubergines and celery in a vinegar and caper sauce. A Palermo version of this dish reportedly adds octopus, with the upscale version adding lobster or swordfish. Both were absent in this more classic variety.
For the first few mouthfuls, the local aubergines and celeries came together to make a delicious combination. Yet almost immediately the sauce that covered the dish became overpowering. It will not be a plate that I revisit again.
But if I was disappointed at the caponata sauce that detracted from the natural taste of the aubergine, the same could not be said for our shared sea bream we had for the main. After choosing the bream from a display, it was grilled and brought back to us on a serving platter that would have made Keith Floyd happy.
It was deboned and filleted in front of us and then presented to us while we sipped prosecco, just metres from the sea. As far as hangovers go, they don’t get much better than this. A special note should be added for the potatoes, which from what we could work out were sauted heavily in olive oil – certainly a change for a British palette.
* * * *
Being situated as it is in the med, Sicily is privy to some incredible natural ingredients. From the fish on its shores, to the veg it grows inland. The less cluttered and less busy their dishes are, the better. Though there seems to be an aversion to salt that could have brought some life to the more average dishes we had along the way.
Sicilians, like the Provencals, have a love for their food.
Yet what I can’t quite shake is the comment from our new friend at Ferro di Cavallo. Is my palette less sophisticated than his for not understanding why Italian or Sicilian cuisine overtakes that of Provence, or indeed the rest of France?
Or is simply the desire for the unknown that gastronauts all the world over share, which drives his attentions further south into Sicily?
Whatever it is, his search – like ours – was met with some beautiful food, breathtaking scenery, but I think mostly, incredible company. Everyone has a story to tell, something to share and a passion they want to convey to you.
It so happens that the people of Palermo we met and those drawn to it, seem to share our passion for wine, food and gastronomy. And so when you are placed together, it produces something quite wonderful indeed.