We had landed in Palermo on a late flight from Rome, and were greeted by the balmy air of a summer night filled with humidity and a faint smell of the ocean. Cab drivers lazily hung around their cars, smoking cigarettes and motioning us to get into a taxi that belonged to an old man whose face was wrinkled up from too much sun and cigarettes. He was polite and spoke no English, and drove a stubborn 50k/h on the fast highway that leads into the city, at times slowing down to a mere 30k/h, which prompted other drivers to honk at us violently.
We drove past endless rows of houses in various states of disrepair, with laundry hanging from the windows and balconies, and giant oleander trees in full bloom. When we got to our hotel, the old man took our luggage out of the car and with an inviting gesture asked us in slurry Italian if we wanted to have some “vino” from his trunk. I knew I was going to like it there.
Palermo is like the cacti that grow in abundance all over the island. Rough and prickly, but not without its charm. Most of the historic sites are shamefully decrepit, and yet alluring in their baroque opulence. Blight, trash, and graffiti make for a crazy chaotic scene, but we never felt unwelcome, in danger, or repulsed. It was all far too fascinating, partly because Palermo’s inhabitants seem incredibly proud of their city, despite its very obvious shortcomings.
We had our first introduction to caponata in Palermo – a wonderfully aromatic dish made with deep fried eggplants, tomatoes, celery, raisins, pine nuts, and red vine vinegar. And we ate copious amounts of arancini, deep fried breaded rice balls that come in two versions. “Al ragu” with meat sauce and peas, and “al burro” with mozzarella and prosciutto cotto. One was never enough, no matter how big.
What we really had come for though were cannoli and cassata – only to find out that both were way too sweet for our taste. So instead, we turned our attention to the wonderfully refreshing granita that are served on every corner. The trick was to get the old fashioned version consisting of shaved ice and freshly squeezed fruit juice, rather than the machine churned slushy mess. Soon enough we gave in to another Palermitan culinary institution- gelato served in a brioche bun. It might sound weird, but it tasted incredibly delicious, especially with watermelon or almond ice cream.
Watermelon made another appearance in pastry shops all over Palermo in the form of a jello (gelo di anguria) that is flavored with clove and either eaten by itself or used as a filling in little pies. The jello is usually sprinkled with chocolate chips, symbolizing watermelon seeds. But our favorite sweet treat (aside from ice cream) hands down was latte di mandorla, which is made from locally produced marzipan (made from almonds grown on the island) and served chilled.
Once we had our fill of baroque churches and crumbling neighborhoods, we drove west to Marsala, from where we explored the surrounding sites, including trips to the magnificent ruins of the ancient Greek town of Selinunte, picturesque Erice, Lo Zingaro, Sicily’s oldest nature reserve, and the very Tunisian town of Mazara del Vallo with its Kasba. The whole area has a vague northern African look to it, with Tunisia being closer than mainland Italy. It’s all decidedly Italian, but seems very, very far from Rome.
The landscape is dotted with olive trees, vineyards, cacti, oleander, aloe vera, and bougainvillea, and everything is bathed in the most magnificent light, against the backdrop of a deep blue sky. People are proud of the land and its products – capers, salt from the salt flats between Marsala and Trapani, tuna, sword fish, Bronte pistachios, almonds, couscous (reflecting the proximity to northern Africa), an array of cheeses and cured hams, and of course, lemons. We sampled melt-in-your-mouth smoked sword fish, tuna, Busiate (a local pasta) with Pesto alla Trapanese (made with tomatoes, almonds, and basil), fantastically lively Grillo (a local white wine) and fruity Malvasia, and we went on a hunt to chase down the best sweet wine I have ever tasted, Donnafugata’s Passito di Pantelleria . It is made from Zibibbo grapes that are grown on the tiny island of Pantelleria (south of Sicily) and are left on the vine to dry in the sun. The resulting wine is beyond description. One night at a well stocked and cool Enoteca in Marsala, our waiter brought us his favorite Marsala with a small bowl of local almond cookies, and the intense taste of the dry wine was the perfect way to end yet another beautiful day.
When our last day on the island came all too soon, we felt like we were not quite ready yet to give up la dolce vita, but parting was made a little bit easier knowing that several bottles of wine, olive oil, salted capers, orange flower honey, and other goodies were coming home with us in our suitcases. And we’ll be back for more, hopefully next spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.