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Markets of Sicily--Catania, Palermo

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By far, the best market was not the famed Viccuria market of Palermo, but the central Catania market just off the main square with the elephant statue. An unreal display of fresh fish, with everything from squirting bivalves, gleaming 6' long swordfish and tunas, still-moving crustaceans of a type we've never ween before that looked vaguely like orange centipedes with paddle-shaped legs, many types of small fresh oily fish, mid-sized fish, octopi, squid, cuttlefish, I could go on and on. All perfectly fresh, with no-nonsense displays where they always kept the huge swordfish or tuna heads around so buyers could judge freshness more readily. A huge variety of land-animals was also for sale, from hares and castrati (small lambs castrated at an early age) to huge sides of beef being disassembled right on streetside tables. Vegetables were also very fresh, but every farmer seemed to have the same exact set of 6 locally grown vegetables, with absolutely no variation in subspecies. You want broccoli? They all grow the exact same type, with the only variation being in the individual farmer's ability to apply fertilizer. Artichokes? Same story. No cardoons in evidence. The same story of no experimentation between hybrids was repeated everywhere we went in Italy, and was in stark contrast to the variety farmers produce in France and California to try to differentiate their wares from the neighboring stands at markets.

In Palermo, we found 3 markets. The grandpa of them all, much touted in guidebooks, was the Viccuria market, but it seems to have had a fatal loss of energy. Perhaps that's due to the section of town where it is, which seems to be light on residents of the sort who would shop at street markets. Much better was the Capo market, reachable from Sant'Agostino or Via Porta Carini. This is in an old residential section of town, a dense warren of narrow streets crowded by slightly rundown apartment buildings, and seems to be a very functional working-class market but nevertheless had much more going on than the Viccuria. The best by far was the Ballaro market, running along via Ballaro from Piazza Ballaro to Via delle Pergole, with my favorite part centered around Via Giovanni Grasso at Piazza del Carmine. We purchased an excellent smoked ricotta puck that was heavily spiced with herbs and spicy pepper, which satisfied a desperate craving for strong flavor.

In terms of ready to eat food, we found spleen sandwiches on one of the big streets near the Capo, I think Corso Alberto Amedeo at Via Costantino Lascaris from a little corner stand. The famous panelle (stamped tablets of chickpea flour fried in olive oil) were in evidence at the Ballaro market, in the Piazza del Carmine section, but only available before lunch, and the stand was shut down in the afternoon when we returned to the market for radishes and some prepared artichoke antipasti for a vegetable picnic in our hotel room.

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  1. We had the same experience with the markets. In fact I was so gobsmacked at how poor the Vucciria market was that I kept returning to it because I thought I must have missed something or that it was the wrong time of day. We arrived on the ferry from Naples at 6:30 a.m. and ended up in the market for a coffee before checking into our hotel. It was dead to non-existent. How odd.

    Ballaro was great. We got some wonderful sardine sandwiches at the food stand in the middle of the market maze which were gigantic and delicious for 1 euro! And also the panelle which, to be perfectly frank, were sort of lost on me. Might be one of those things you had to grow up with.

    And Catania was unreal. Did you manage to get to the other Catania market - the one that also has lots of clothing and stuff? There was some pretty good food there also. But I agree about the fish market - I've never seen anything like it anywhere. My computer desktop is a closeup of one of the stalls. I'll attach it here!

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    1. re: Nyleve

      I sort of like fried chickpeas in any form, so I liked the panelles. It probably also helped that we were there early in the day, so I'm sure the oil was fresh.

      We didn't go to the other Catania market...we lost much of a day due to Italian-style scheduling on our TTT lines ferry from Napoli, which I can't recommend due to arriving 12 hours late from a 12 hour trip.

      I have lots of market pictures...I'll try to upload some later when I've finished doing the text-based reporting while I still remember it.