Beyond White Lotus: Palermo, Sicily

The city of Palermo is one of contrast—it’s both picturesque and gritty. Parts of the city are flat-out filthy while other parts take your breath away with the grandiose architecture and vibrant art and culture. Personally, I loved finding the pockets of beauty and feeling the sense of pride from locals despite not being a quintessential pristine Italian city.

Sicily has been conquered by pretty much everyone and is shows most in Palermo. Many of the street signs are in Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew! It's truly a melting pot. The ancient and the modern worlds all roll together as you walk through narrow streets built by Arabs (close walls only an arms length apart to protect from the scorching heat) that converge with the wider streets of a more modern era. 


Shopping 

I didn't do much shopping while there but there are lots of cute shops all along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The closer you get to the water the larger more well-known the stores get. The only things I bought were a cute watercolor painting from a local artist, some Sicilian sea salt, and a jar of pistachio pesto. For bringing back food, our guides said anything that is vacuum seeled can be brought back to the states. There are a lot of vendors in the market (and at Fud if you go) that sell preserved foods, spices, and nuts that are vaccum seeled—I didn’t buy any but I wish I did. The capers that they use to make capanota are very specific and I haven’t been able to find anything half as good in the states.


Market

The market was absolutely incredible for its breadth of ingredients and the specificity of what was on offer. Over 80% of the food consumed in Sicily is grown in Sicily, and so, the diet changes on a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis to match whatever is in season at that exact moment. This even extends to the fishermen who don’t work on Sundays, so there is no fish in the market on Monday. You have to go on Tuesday. Coming from a culture that eats strawberries year-round regardless of season, it was magical to be so connected to the availability of ingredients and the growing season.

Sicily is known particularly for the minerality of the soil in the regions around Mt. Etna, one of the most active volcanos in the world. This results in a distinctive flavor in the wine, pistachios, tomatoes, and everything grown in the region. In the market, each vendor is an absolute expert but few speak English so I recommend going with a guide.

 

Restaurants

Fud - $$ à la carte 

We started our street food tour here with a charcuterie plate with wine and cheese. They are known for their dedication to local ingredients and focus on sourcing. They make some traditional Sicilian dishes but their specialty is making food that’s known all over the world with hyper local ingredients. We went there twice, once with our tour group and another time for a pre-dinner snack/aperitif. The panella was the best we had other than what we made ourselves in our cooking class.


Gagini - $$$$ Prix Fix and à la carte offered

Currently, the only restaurant in Palermo with a Michelin star. Very inventive and interesting stylistically. We very much enjoyed our experience however it wasn’t our favorite meal. I remember the bread being delicious, and an Amberjack pasta dish with currents and saffron was very memorable. I paired wine with a couple dishes, they had a fantastic selection of Sicilian wine, many unusual, biodynamic wines. Service is everything you’d expect from a Michelin rated restaurant. I’m glad we went but don’t feel the need to go back. 


Sardinia PastaBar - $$$ à la carte

This was one of my favorite meals on the trip! The menu changes seasonally but check their instagram to get an insight into what may be on offer at the time of your visit. Sicily is famous for their Gambero Rosso di Sicilia (Sicilian red prawns) served raw, get these if they have them. They are sweet and incredibly flavorful. The way they were served when got them was the diced raw shrimp with diced raw salmon on top of an oyster all served in the oyster shell—it was amazing! I got a fettuccine with mushrooms and clams and baby shrimp and my partner Kevin got a spaghetti topped with raw tuna and in a light lemon sauce. Both pastas were spectacular. The executive chef is a woman and is wonderfully talented. We will 100% go back.


Osteria Nonna Dora - $ à la carte 

This was Kevin’s favorite meal. The portions are huge and the prices are so affordable, not usually what I look for but the quality of the food was fantastic. Very traditional Sicilian staples, Pasta alla Norma (spaghetti in tomato sauce with roasted eggplant and shaved ricotta salata) Pistachio Pesto topped with burrata—you can’t go wrong here. We will 100% go back.


Tours

Anti-Mafia Tour - $31 per ticket

I highly recommend this tour. You'll learn so much about Sicilian history and the tortured past and present situation with the Mafia. The activist group that puts on the tour has been working for 20 years to irradicate the Mafia and they are incredibly passionate. I felt very connected to their mission, grateful to learn from them, sad for the damage that’s been done but hopeful for the future. Everyone should take this tour when visiting Sicily.


Street Food - $57 per ticket

I loved this tour because you learn a lot about the culture and history of Sicily throughout it as well. I enjoyed most of the food, the spleen sandwich was not for me but definitely glad I tried everything, although there is no pressure to do so. Most of the food is very tasty and the group that puts on the tour is very passionate about what they do. Our tour guide was Frederica, a Palermo native, she was kind, funny, smart, and savvy. I loved learning from her and she was honest and very knowledgeable. We took the tour our first night and saw her at least four other times throughout the week guiding other tours, with friends, and even at restaurants we went to. She even offered to send me her mother’s Caponata recipe!


Sicilian Cooking - $80 per ticket

We spent the morning and afternoon with Michael, our chef guide. First touring the market then preparing a meal together. We learned about Sicilian cuisine and culture as well as cooking techniques. I can't recommend this experience enough, especially if you like to cook. Michael is knowledgeable and passionate about Sicilian food. If you're visiting in the summer, the days are very hot so this is a great indoor activity for a brief break from the sun's rays. If you can, schedule this tour on a Tuesday morning. Michael taught us that Tuesdays are the best day at the markets because fishermen don’t work on Sundays so while produce is fresh on Monday, you can’t get any fish, so Tuesdays are the best! I enjoyed this tour so much I will book it again on my next visit.



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