THE FOODIE FILES: Street Food Sensibilities

By on October 18, 2016

Transporting a taste of Italy’s food-crazed island to Jackson Hole.

Left: Fresh seafood and organ meats on display in the streets of Palermo. Middle: Making arancine with Chef Massimo in Palermo. Right: The fruits of cooking class labor: Sicily’s most popular street food, arancine. (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

Left: Fresh seafood and organ meats on display in the streets of Palermo. Middle: Making arancine with Chef Massimo in Palermo. Right: The fruits of cooking class labor: Sicily’s most popular street food, arancine. (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last month I traveled six thousand miles to the island off the toe of Italy’s boot intent on tasting every delicious thing under the Sicilian sun. I arrived with three friends and a long bucket list of foods to eat, wines to discover and recipes to track down. Our first objective: Palermo, Sicily’s frenetic capital city and home to one of the most distinctive street food cultures in the world.

Imagine piazza after piazza in an ancient part of Palermo filled with makeshift restaurants and ersatz bars. Smoke plumes from huge grills covered with seafood and meat, and teenage boys on street corners ready to alert the arrival of the polizia who would shut the whole scene down.

Street food may be having a trendy moment in the States, but Sicilians have been taking it to the streets for millennia. Influenced by all those who have invaded and occupied Sicily—the Greeks, Normans, Arabs, Romans and Phoenicians, to name a few—street cooks turn humble ingredients like chickpeas and organ meats into the stuff of dreams.

Before diving into our culinary adventure, we took a few tips from Giuseppe, a local guy who was showing us around. Street food vendors are scattered throughout the city, but Giuseppe knew to take us to Piazza Caracciolo, the hidden corner of the city where tourists rarely wander.

Sicilian street food is designed to provide maximum calories at minimum cost. “All you need is a few euros,” he told us. Giuseppe advised that we not be put off by the disrepair of the street vendor’s cart. Sicilian street cooks can do wonders with just a grill, a battered metal cart and a vat of boiling fat.

There’s no place for squeamishness when perusing the street food scene. This food is not for the faint of heart—think spleen and lung sandwiches, brined and skewered goat intestines, and babbaluci, miniature snails barely seared on the grill before they’re doused with lemon and salt.

Sicilians consider themselves to be Sicilian first, Italian second, with a unique language that’s as colorful as the food itself. You might as well throw away the Italian dictionary—it won’t help you down here.

Potato croquettes, with their short cylindrical form, are affectionately nicknamed cazzilli (little penises). Arancine, rice balls known on the mainland as arancini, are given the feminine “e” ending in Palermo in recognition of their sensuously rounded form. And what could possibly be sexy about a sandwich made of spleen and lung simmered in lard? When ordering a pani ca meusa, your vendor will ask if you want it schietta (single, or spleen only) or maritata (married), meaning topped with a white “bridal veil” of caciocavallo cheese to tone down the intense taste.

We eased into our foray with the comforting sfincione—Palermo’s focaccia-pizza hybrid topped with anchovies, tomatoes, oregano and breadcrumbs. It was luscious, salty, crispy and spongy and I vowed to start working on my sfincione recipe as soon as I got home.

Eating arancine is another easy way to cut your teeth on the street food culture. Named for the Italian word for orange, arancia, which they somewhat resemble in size and color, arancine are balls of saffron-flavored risotto, stuffed with meat or cheese, rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried. They are a beloved snack all over Sicily, and their fillings and shapes vary from region to region.

In Palermo we learned to make classic orange-shaped arancine (stuffed with soft cheese, peas and ragu) while taking a cooking class from Chef Massimo at the Ristorante Luci e Calici. But you’ll find them stuffed with chicken livers in the interior (where my grandparents are from), shaped like a cone rather than an orange in the south, and stuffed with sardines on the east coast. We even learned to make dolci versions of arancine— sweet rice balls rolled in pistachios, stuffed with candied orange and dusted with chocolate.

Another street food not to be missed is panelle, a fritter made with chickpea flour that tastes so much better than it sounds. The flour is beaten into a batter over heat, much like cooking polenta, and spread onto a slab of marble to dry. It’s cut into squares or triangles and fried until it puffs up crispy on the outside yet still soft in the middle. Panelle is served from a friggitorie (fried food stall) on a soft bun with a generous squeeze of lemon. Legend has it that the Arabs brought panelle to Sicily back in the 10th century, and locals have been eating it in one form or another ever since.

We were determined not to leave Palermo without trying the classic sandwich that can only be found there on the street: pani ca meusa, also known as pane con la milza (spleen on bread). Giuseppe helped me find just the right vendor, and I ordered it maritata, with a generous squeeze of lemon (recommended for a newbie).

I liked it, though not nearly as much as I liked my milza vendor, who reminded me of one of my uncles. The meat was supple and tasty, without any chewy mysterious bits, and my milza guy did a nice job draining off the lard so as not to make the bun soggy.

While enjoying my hot spleen sandwich and cold beer, the polizia rode in on their scooters, shutting the whole piazza down. Vendors scrambled to disassemble bars, fold up tables, chairs and sofas, and wheel grills away into the night.

I am still perfecting my technique for making panelle and will have a recipe for you soon. I did bring home a classic recipe for arancine courtesy of Chef Massimo, which you can find at jacksonholefoodie.com. Arancine are best made from leftover risotto and eaten promptly after frying. But they are also great portable snacks to serve as an appetizer, pack into a lunchbox, or eat after working out. If you love arancine but don’t feel like making them, check out Chef Matt Lombardo’s mini arancinette served at Bin22—as delicious as any I tasted in Sicily. PJH

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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