The world’s oldest – and best – “street food”? It’s that of Palermo where – for centuries – the piazzas have teemed with the carts and kiosks of the mensari (“street vendors” in dialect) shouting out their wares in palermitano while frying in great vats, then seasoning the many delicacies of the cucina povera. You simply can’t miss the sensorial/cultural experience of street food while in Sicily.
On a recent visit from our Sicilian relatives, the goodness of the Palermo streets entered our Umbrian farmhouse: sister-in-law Marilena had slipped into her suitcase a kilo of farina di ceci (chickpea flour). No better gift to bring! Our kitchen turned into a friggitoria Palermitana one day as Marilena made us pane e panelle.
Diffuse in the Mediterranean area, the chickpea stars in many a culinary specialty of the Arabs, dominating Sicily from the ninth to eleventh centuries. On every trip to our relatives in Palermo, the first outing is in search of pane con panelle. While wandering Isola delle Femmine last summer (a neighborhood of greater Palermo, not an island) we spotted a newly-opened friggitoria (fry shop). I remember young Mariarosa inside, browning the chickpea “little breads” in steaming vats of hot oil, ignoring the steaming August heat.
She fried crocche (potato croquettes) too, since Palermitani had long ago married a food from the New World – the potato – to this Middle Eastern chickpea goodness. Many a customer squeezes a couple sizzling crocche (called cazzilli in palermitano, for their phallic shape… ahem) into the sesame roll holding the panelle.
A dish of lemon wedges perches on the counter of every frigittoria: a lemon juice drizzle enhances the panelle goodness.
Using a schiumarola (skimmer), Mariarosa would deftly slide the sizzling panelle out of the vat of boiling oil, dropping them onto a slotted stainless steel wrack to drain. She’d then slip the drained steamy panelle into a split sesame roll, wrap the hot bundle in brown paper, before handing it over the counter to eager customers.
Sister-in-law Marilena came without a schiumarola… but her pane e panelle brought the incomparable goodness of Palermo’s street food right into our Umbrian kitchen.