My report about where I went to eat for a week in Palermo in January
Sorry this is so long, but I am in a rush to get it posted. We eat seasonally, so you might not find the same food when you go. And BIG DISCLAIMER: We picked all but one of these eateries on the basis of their being close to cultural sights or the apartment we rented.
OSTERIA PARADISO (sign says Vini del Paradiso), via Serradifalco 23 (at via Dante Alghieri) Ten minute walk from La Zisa, or 20 mins from the Politeama.
This spartan white-tiled osteria decorated with pictures of popes has maybe 10 tables and seems to cycle on and off the Slow Food guide list. No written menu and minimal English spoken. Probably the restaurant most tourists are looking for when they are looking for a non-tpuristy place to eat local cuisine. Our lunch began with one gorgeous whole artichoke for each of us, steamed and lightly dressed with garlic and oil. It was soon joined by a slightly warm insalata di mare, composed of octopus, tiny red shrimp, mussles and clams, bathed in the same good olive oil and with a healthy zing of black pepper. Every single element retained its own distinct taste and texture--- in short, minor masterpiece for a melange like this. For pasta, those same elements of the sea (minus the octopus) were transformed into aspicy tomato-based spaghetti sauce. The spaghetti was al dente (not necessarily the norm in Palermo) and perfectly portioned. (Confession: Spaghetti is NOT my favorite pasta.) My husband at this point declared himself full (he ate a lot of the tasty bread). I could not resist the jewel-eyed fish staring out from a case nearby. I picked the smallest one -- a pagello -- and chose to have it poached (in water that was laced with garlic, oil and parsley). Perfectly cooked!. Such clean taste. Normally I don't swoon for mild tasting fish (this was more in the direction of egg white than fishy). I could have eaten this every day of my life. No dessert, wine or coffee, just a large bottle of water. Tab was 55e for two. We paid cash. I doubt they take cards.
PICCOLO NAPOLI (Piazzetta Mulino a Vento, 4 (corso Scinà) -- Less than a 15 minute walk from Politeama
This is a Slow Food restaurant, so many food pilgrims pass through its door. We ate absolutely stellar bucatini with broccoli, with toasted breadcrumbs served on the side, which I really appreciated since other places will ladle on the breadcrumbs in the kitchen, turning the dish into glop. I am not sure you could find a better rendition of this dish, the broccoli reduced to a silky essence and that IS the flavor of the dish. My husband ate an involitini of spatola (scabbard), a fish with a beautiful strong taste not far from mackerel. I could not walk past the iced pink shrimp in the doorway without wanting them, and they were just as gorgeous to eat as to look at, outstandingly clean and pure. During our meal, the son of the proprietor arrived carrying a plastic paint bucket (also cleaned!) overflowing with mandarini from the family garden. That was dessert. When I ordered a decaffinated coffee, they went out and bought a can to make some for me. I cannot recommend this place too highly if you appreciate the pure taste of natural local food. A very nice Grillo wine as well and the bill was 57e.
OSTERIA DEI VESPRI (Piazza Croce dei Vespri, 6, across from the modern art museum)
I had no intention of going to this Michelin-y creative gourmet restaurant until I stumbled across the information that in wintertime, they abandon their gourmet menus and offer only a traditional menu (although it is pan-Italian rather than strictly local). We so enjoyed everything about eating here we ended up doing it twice. Flavors were unapologetically strong for dishes like a bacala on good bread and anelletti in an almost funky and definitely super winey octopus ragu. Bucatini with sardines was exemplary. What made me instantly want to go back was -- mamma mia! -- pasta with chicken livers and red peppers. How I have been missing this dish from American menus! We had an absolutely outstanding lentil soup with mussels that included a very strong flavor of fennel. Secondi were more prosaic (roasted mahi mahi livened up with very piquant capers from Salina) or sweet sausages of finely ground meat. Dessert was pure Palermo in winter: slices of oranges and bananas, swimming in an excellent Marsala syrup, sliced almonds scattered over. Like I said, I loved eating here, especially antipasti and pasta. Very nice red house wine, but they offer an extensive list. Lunch was around 40e -- one of out best bargains -- dinner at 60e (we ate more).
CASA DEL BRODO DAL DOTTORE (Corso V. Emmanuele, 175) central to everything
I chose the historic Casa del Brodo over the nearby historic Maestro del Brodo based on descriptions I found online that Casa del Brodo had an outstanding cold antipasti buffet., but I have no reason to believe Maestro del Brodo isn't just as good if Casa del Brodo is closed. I especially enjoyed slices of pickled pumpkin, stuffed peppers, braised radicchio, bright green spinach. There were many, many items on the wall-length buffet I did not try to squeeze onto my plate (including several types of gorgeous olives.) For a main course I ate a delicious vegetable soup, whose underlying thick liquid was wonderfully flavored by artichoke, onion, green bean and potato, but which contained a wealth of chopped vegetables of the season (particularly impressive were the brilliant bits of carrot, not overcooked). It felt as health-giving as local lore has it. My husband had a generous serving of homey tortellini in a tomatoey-broth followed by a half dozen really fabulous red shrimp and calamari rings, both lightly fried (with no apparent batter). Those shrimp were memorable. . A quarto of wine, two coffees, water but no dessert was 50e.
ANTICA TRATTORIA DEL MONSU (via Volturno 41) Five minute walk from either the Teatro Massimo and the Porta Carini entryway to the Capo market,
Bluefish! I wanted to jump for joy when I ordered the mixed fish of the day and what arrived on the sizzling iron plate was a mountain of sea foods that included 2 well charred filets of bluefish (along with calamari, swordfish, shrimps and octopus). I would go again for the bluefish alone (and the other meaty seafood), but they also do a hairy chested bucatini with sardines. (Ask for the breadcrumbs on the side). This is very much a locals restaurant with low prices (a lot of people come in for pizza) so adjust expectations accordingly. This is not a destination restaurant. It's a nabe joint. Very sweet service. 40e.
PERCIA SACCHI (piazza Monte del Pieta 5/7) Five minutes from Teatro Massimo or the Quarto Canti if you know where you are going
If we hadn't been staying in right the Capo every night, I am not sure we would have braved this nearby haunt of the legendary Beati Paoli on a Sunday night -- when everything is shuttered and deserted save for whizzing motorini and very hard -faced cats. But I am really glad we went, This serene 10-table pizzeria is manned by a couple of young women (unusual in itself) and pizza dough is made from an heirloom Sicilian grain (perciasacchi) that maybe a form of Kamut. Organic products are used for toppings (and most of the wine list). The ricotta in particular was a complex treat, but all the veg were bright and good. I had a vegetarian pizza covered in very flavorful mushrooms, pumpkin, broccoli rabe, fennel, onions and tuma while my husband went for bottarga and grated cedro on his sfincione-like, stuffed with that fab ricotta. I thought his was improved by the excellent organic olive oil brought to the table, but mine was just all around best.. For dessert we split a wedge of dark and not-too-dense chocolate torte that was quite good. Two glasses of organic wine plus water, and the bill was 43. Popular, so you need a reservation and don't go if your idea of pizza in Sicily isn't about eating something good for you instead of something fried in lard.
KURSAAL KALHESA (Umberto 1 in the Foro Italico)
For a Sunday lunch near the seafront, probably most tourists join the locals in the nearby via Torremuzza eating from sidewalk grills. We kept walking instead to Kursaal Kalhesa, drawn by the chance to see the beauty of its renovated space, but we ended up quite happy with the quality of its food. We began with a Tunisian brik, which was very tasty if slightly too oily. I had a hearty and strongly flavored macco di fave while my husband had a very nice ravioli filled with grouper. The champion dish was stuffed calamari, light and tender, accompanied by a wonderful saffron sauce .. Least successful was the "cannolo" of beef that was thin slices of meat rolled around a filling that included a stick of provola, then everything rolled again in a coating of crushed pistachios. A good old fashioned braciole from a propane-fired sidewalk griddle would have been simpler and maybe more successful. Two glasses of wine, two coffee, water, no dessert. 67e.
LO BIONDO (Via Giosuè Carducci, 15) central to everything
My husband really liked this attractively warm restaurant -- as well he might because he ordered an utterly delicious fettucine with frutta di mare, probably the single best seafood pasta dish of our trip. I can't blame the restaurant for my mistake in ordering a taglioni with porcini mushroom that also had black truffles from Umbria shaved over it. I don't like them, and I should have asked for them to be left off. (They actually have just that option on the regular menu!) My husband absolutely enjoyed his filet of beef in a rich porcini sauce. I wished my filet of tuna (which I could barely taste from the aftereffects of the truffle) had been taken off the heat half a minute sooner. My husband was delighted with his fat slab of ricotta cheese cake. An apple baked in wine with wine-soaked prunes actually was my favorite of all the things I ordered. It was what every New York coffee shop baked apple really ought to be. 2 glasses of wine + water and the bill was 100e.
TRATTORIA SUPRA I MURA (piazza Porta Carini 5) In the Capo Market
This super friendly casual trattoria is a stone's throw from our apartment rental and it attracts a steady clientele of lawyers from the nearby courts complex, many of whom we saw devouring giant red.clawed lobsters (turns out they're from Canada). The antipasta buffet I tried is limited but with tasty market-fresh items (I wished I had known to stop them from heating up my involitini of eggplant in the micorwave). My husband liked his octopus salad even thought it was rubbery. For primi we opted for the house pasta special, a pasta with seafoods (on this day, spagehetti with clams, mussels, swordfish plus olives, capers, breadcrumbs) and the too-big portion sort of ended up an indistinguishable mass. No secondi or dessert for us, but a half bottle of a commercial Sicilan white wine, water and 2 coffees. About 50 euros.
IL MIRTO E LA ROSA (via Principe di Granatelli, 30) near Politeama
There must have been a time when Il Mirto e La Rosa was pathbreaking -- or something. Or maybe it was just an off night (a huge party of 30 was there.) It has been lovingly recommended in many serious, quality guides. What we ate was an exceptionally disappointing meal, especially for me, since I head read that Il Mirto e La Rosa began its life as a sophisticated Sicilian vegetarian restaurant, and I guess I was hoping their food might have some point of relationship to the work of Enrico Alliata, one of the dukes of closeby Salaparuta, who wrote was perhaps Italy's first vegetarian cookbook, But instead of cooking that made the most of Sicily's exceptional vegetable bounty, we got pre-fab panelle crisps with a cumin heavy sweet ketchup, my husband got a dull and heavy fettucine tossed with pumpkin and pancetta (the organic pumpkin was good!). My compacted disk of couscous accompanied by a soup of mushy vegetables, all overwhelmed by yet more cumin, could have been the fare of college campus health food restaurants the world over. The waitress never asked us if we wanted secondi (we didn't really, it was such a struggle to find anything tempting on the menu). A dessert "mousse" -- supposedly perfumed with citrus and pistachio -- was a rubbery dome that reminded me of gummy Turkish "gelato", no scent of citrus (amazing, since you could walk outside the door into polluted Palermo and find that in abundance in January). The topping of chopped pistachios had no crunch or flavor from spending so much time in the fridge. Best of the meal was a half bottle of mouth-puckeringly dry Firriato Santagostino Baglio-Soria Rosso 2011 from Trapani that came to life and mellowed out with the food. Can't remember what we paid.
One overall observation I'd like to make is that is there a lot of wonderful dense bread in Sicily, crusted with extremely tasty sesame seeds, and I would go for bread sooner than I would go for pasta. Ditto the simple sweet yeast breads rolled in granulated sugar in lieu of the sugar.bomb creamy desserts. At least in my book.
It's not that I don't eat street food but I have come to detest the juvenile American tourist culture of hyping fatty snack food, and maybe that colored my view of not seeing any street food in Palermo I wanted to put in my mouth. My loss, I'm sure (I hope around my waist.)
One last rant: please don't pay attention to guides or blogs or trip reports that severely warning tourists that they will not find in Italy restaurants with red-checkered tablecloths, wine bottles in baskets, fat-sesame coated breadsticks on the table or giant meatballs in red sauce. All those "guides" are really telling you is that they have never set foot in Sicily. There is more than all that to food in Palermo (and Sicily) because it is a deeply civilized place of taste and sophistication (that various barbarian bullies from the north continuously do their best to bad mouth and destroy even today) but Sicilians food is food in some ways you already know and love eating. I ate in Palermo what looks EXACTLY like Spaghetti-0s (anelletti) and I ate it in a Michelin starred restaurant and Dean Martin was at one point on the restaurant's playlist. So there.
ALso, please see my recommendation for Home Food in Palermo.
Thanks so much for this terrific report; it'll now be the heart of our restaurant list if we do get to Palermo this fall--we're planning on Sicily to go along with our regular trip to Calabria to visit family. Not sure if we can get that far from Messina, tho. But now we might have to.
We thought January was a great time. It was cool but sunny. We don't like being sightseers in the heat or eating a lot in the eat. We walked all over Palermo and it would have been much harder for us to do that if it was hot. There were no crowds of tourists anywhere and prices were low. Even in winter everybody is out strolling in the evening and there are outdoor wine bars and caffes, and the sidewalk grills along the via Torremuzza were in full swing. Only downside was that apparently people get so tired of seeing marzipan during the long christmas holiday season, it disappears entirely in January. I never saw an ounce of it. Maybe this winter was particularly mild, but there were tiny strawberries (from Marsala) in the market.
We'd been in places like Taormina and Agrigento before but never Palermo. The city is very noticeably a whole lot cleaner than other port cities we've visited, but I wondered if I would have enjoyed living in the market in hot weather with all its ripe produce and fish. It was fascinating to me that there was NEVER any stink in the market (or rodents) despite huge piles of refuse accumulating each day. Just wonderful smells, especially from the spice vendors and bakers, but even the fish stands, which are constantly iced and washed down. The apartment we were in appeared to have air conditioning and it would have been impossible to have open windows and get any sleep with all the singing and shouting going on outside and the garbage pick up all night.
One curiosity I noticed is that people in Palermo don't smoke very much, so outdoor dining in the evening is probably a lot more enjoyable, but we didn't get a chance for that in January. Still, places like Piccolo Napoli are sunshiney and airy, Kursaal Kalhesa is spacious with a garden feel. Palermo with all its orange trees and date palms lining the street feels very open and outdoorsy in winter.