Sampling some of the Vucciria’s ‘fast food’ specialities …

16 February, 2011

 The colourful abundance of Palermo’s Vucciria market was already a dream when Renato Guttoso created his famous painting, La Vucciria, in 1974.  By then, Guttoso had been living in Rome for years and was painting largely from memory.  He was painting a market he had known well and was dreaming of still; and the work he created has helped  keep the dream alive for others.   Although these days the  market itself is much diminished, in many ways a sad reminder of days long gone, the Vucciria has acquired an almost iconic significance in the city: despite everything, something of its old magic and distinctive character remain.      

Other food markets in Palermo’s historic centre, such as the nearby Ballaro’ and Capo markets, may now be bigger, more vibrant and exciting, but there is still nowhere better than the Vucciria to sample some of Palermo’s famous ‘fast food’.  The Vucciria is, in fact, famous for two in particular:  polpo bollito (boiled octopus)  and panini con milza (bread rolls filled with spleen of veal). 

Polpo bollito (boiled octopus)

At the centre of the market is a large square, the Piazza Caracciola.  In the past it was covered in market stalls and brightly covered awnings; now, a few stalls hug the edges, the rest is almost empty – almost, but not quite.  Here, you will always find the stand selling boiled octopus – a trestle table with a large steaming vat beside it, an umbrella above it and, almost always, a group of local men surrounding it. 

It took me some time to work out exactly what went on at this table, and even longer to sample the wares, but recently, fortified by the presence of several friends, I joined the group of men and placed my order. 

At the end of the table, octopus of varying sizes and shapes were piled up in two boxes in readiness.  The man behind the counter, who was engaging in a continuous stream of banter with his customers, hovered over a large steaming pot, from time to time pulling out an octopus and cutting it expertly and quickly with a huge knife onto glistening white plates.   The ordering process turned out to be very simple: you just ask for however many servings you want and  are given a white plate, shining and wet from being just rinsed.  The man then takes an octopus and deftly cuts it into pieces directly onto the plate.  He offered us something he said was  particularly delicious: pieces of octopus head.  It didn’t look particularly delicious, but we decided to try it as well.    

If you are there with one or two others, you will all share the one plate. Most people seem to eat with their fingers, but there is a little bowl of water containing some small forks which you can use if you wish.  We opted for forks, and so did some of the locals.    

I must admit that most of the octopus pieces I tried seemed rather rubbery, but that could have been because we had been given a rather large octopus.  I noticed smaller, paler ones and I suspect they would have been more tender.  As for the octopus head – I think it’s something of an acquired taste.  To me, it tasted of the sea, but not a lot else.

Eating boiled octopus at the Vucciria has been something of a challenge for me, and now that I’ve finally done it, I really am beginning to feel like a local!  I’ll definitely make a return visit – and next time I won’t feel I have to wait to be accompanied.   


  Panini con milza (bread rolls with spleen of veal)

Another regular in the market, located in the square just across from the boiled octopus table, is a stand with a stack of bread rolls and a large aluminium vat of what look like thin slices of dark meat.  In fact, it’s milza, or spleen.  It may sound off-putting, but it’s surprisingly good – particularly here at the Vucciria. 

The milza stand has been run by the Basile family for many years – and Rocky, one of the brothers who mans the stand, seems to have become something of a local celebrity. 

The spleen is first boiled, then thinly sliced and lightly fried in lard in a big vat along with some other offal, like lung and trachea.  When you place your order, Rocky will halve a bread roll, stir the milza round with a two pronged fork, put a pile of it onto the bread roll,  press down with a spatula to remove any excess lard, add a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt and wrap the roll in a piece of brown paper.   Traditionally, people would  stand around to eat their roll so that they could be given some more milza if they had bread to spare at the end.       

There is another verson of panini con milza in which a slice of ricotta is placed on the bread, then a pile of milza, and finally some shavings of a local hard cheese, cacciocavallo.  This version is also traditional, but, for me, too rich.  Nothing beats the simple version produced by Rocky in the Vucciria.

At night, Rocky, or one of  the other Basile brothers, wheels the stand up to the entrance to the Vucciria in nearby Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.  There, under bright lights suspended above the stand, they seem to do a roaring trade.  In fact, a local author writing about the Vucciria recently commented that the Basile milza stand is more bank (banca) than food stand (bancerella).    

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These traditional ‘fast foods’ of the Vucciria are closely linked to the city and its past.  You really haven’t experienced Palermo to the full until you’ve tried them!

8 Responses to “Sampling some of the Vucciria’s ‘fast food’ specialities …”

  1. Antonio Says:

    Trying the Vucciria specialties certainly sounds exciting Kate – as does visiting the market itself even if it does not revel in its past glory. (Guttoso’s painting is beautiful). You certainly are a local now!

    Not being a local, I think I would go for the panini senza milza!

  2. jan Says:

    so you are back in palermo!
    as usual a fascinating insight into the city you have grown to love
    i note however that it took you a few years to brave the octopus (head – not for me)
    so now you are a true local

    • kateludlow Says:

      I’m afraid I’ve made a slow start to 2011! I’m glad you enjoyed the note on the Vucciria. It did take me a long time to brave the octopus – but I think it was more the usual crowd around the table than the octopus itself that daunted me.

  3. Cate Says:

    I’m very impressed that you have sampled both of these Vucciria ‘fast foods’! I like the idea of sampling them in order to truly experience the Vucciria, but I’m not sure I’m so brave! I also love Guttoso’s painting. Where does it reside?

    • kateludlow Says:

      You really should give them a go! Guttoso’s painting, which now belongs to the University of Palermo, is on display in Palazzo Steri in Piazza Marina. Thank you for your comment.

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