Thursday, June 03, 2010

In Praise of Street Food ~ La Milza

Palermo ~ La Vucciria - Then and Now

Palermo - La Vucciria - August 1971

Once upon a time I went to Sicily as a young man. My family lived in the historic center of Palermo, and that was my base. My uncle, Peppino, was a tall man who walked fast. And I would follow him on his daily walks through Palermo, going to the bank, the post office, the market. When we walked though La Vucciria, the open aired market, we would arrive through the small vicolo (think piccolo + via = small streets) where barely a Vespa could make it through. But one day, I ventured out by myself, alone with my camera. I didn’t know it but that day would make me a fan of street food for the rest of my life.

Prior to that day, I had known fast food as maybe McDonald’s, or Taco Bell. In the 1960’s it might not have been as processed as it is today. But no matter, the fast street food of Palermo 40 years ago and today are more similar than not. The famous sandwich, known as the spleen sandwich, has many names. According to Roberta Gangi, “the old Sicilian word was vastedda or vastidda.”This humble panino also goes by the name Pane con la Milza or Pane cà Muesa. Gangi writes "It has been suggested that spleen was first popularised by Palermo's Jewish community, but this is not known with certainty." Could this have been an ancient precursor to the modern-day deli sandwich?

Palermo - Centro Storico - May 2010

Last week, I went down a staircase in my hotel room and found myself in a sealed courtyard. At one end (it was a Sunday) there was a private dining room with some sort of reception. The room was “guarded’ and I wasn’t going to ask them for directions. I headed towards the street, past rusting cars and feral cats. I found a door, but it was locked. After a few minutes I figured out the code to open the door. Finally escaping, I came upon the Antica Focacceria S. Francesco, famous for elevating and restoring the prestige of Palermo’s street foods. Their menu has an homage to the “Cibo del Strada” with items such as Arancine (sfera di riso, ragù di carne, piselli) , Caponata (melanzane, salsa di pomodoro, capperi, sedano, olive, aceto, zucchero, olio e. vd oliva Mandranova, mandorle tostate), Focaccia Maritata (pane, milza, polmone, strutto, ricotta fresca, trucioli di cacio cavallo), Panelle (frittelle di farina di ceci), La Vecchia Palermo (moffoletta, pomodorini, acciughe, caciocavallo, oregano), Crocchè, Quarume, Sarde a Beccafico, Stigghiole and Zucca in Agrodolce- foods that I saw on my grandmothers table, alongside the menu alla Monzù that she also prepared.

I never made to the Antica Focacceria S. Francesco this time (interesting story about the place, here). Our itinerary was complete. But I heard wonderful jazz floating out the windows on a late night back from an evening out, and I saw a wine bar that I’d like to try (word to Anthony: this might be a place to check out when you are there).

Still I have wonderful memories of walking Palermo under the hot August sun, photographing in the streets, writing poetry on a typewriter with only 22 letters and sneaking the occasional Pane cà Muesa, while my aunt and uncle napped and dreamt their Sicilian dreams.

Pane ca' Meusa - the preparation

And yes, this still occasionally being a wine blog, what wine would I have with this sandwich? I would have whatever cold white wine is available nearby, likely made from Catarratto or Inzolia or Grillo. Nothing "important."

If pressed I would gladly reach for a Zibibbo secco, like the Gibelê, from Carlo Pellegrino's Duca di Castelmonte. We had it on Favignana Island and it was beyond lovely.

Two good videos showing the philosophy
and the preparations of Pane ca' Meusa


Samantha Dugan said...

I used to think, "I would love to go to Italy with Alfonso" and each time I read a piece like this....well I feel like I have.

Anonymous said...

Nice one Alfonso!
Here a couple of links you might want to check out:
my friend valerio's blog: and a and a cool site all'about Palermo.

Marco Catarratto said...

Dolce ancora!

Marco Milza said...

I imagine La Vucceria was larger in 1971 than 2010 or am I wrong? In 2000, it was sizeable, but I had read than it was once much larger.

Tracie P. said...

i love zibibbo secco! moscato non si smentisce mai.

don't we need a group trip to sicilia? followed by my food tour of napoli?

but the spleen, i have to pass.

Alfonso Cevola said...

group trip to sicilia? followed by your food tour of napoli? Hell, yes!

Jennifer Galatioto said...

this is a great article. the photo at top from 1971 is amazing!

planiiadmissions said...

so evocative
now I want to go back to Palermo just to eat a sandwich (and maybe marry that sandwich man)

obwnknobe said...

Ciao Alfonso- my grandmother was born on the old Via Roma in Sicily close to the Church of San Francesco and the restaurant of the same name. She would make all of these "street foods" for me when I was young.I have been to the markets in in Palermo
a number of times and it always reminds me of her

Alfonso Cevola said...

you must have grown up a very loved child...thanks for your comment...great memories, eh?

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