There is a small black edged, mourning style, sticker affixed to the mirror of the lift in my apartment building.  It reads:   Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo e’ un popolo senza dignita –  ‘A population that pays protection money is a population without dignity’.  

In a city where, it seems, close to 80% of businesses are paying protection money to the Mafia, this is a serious message – and one that challenges not just shopkeepers and business owners, but every member of the community.

Everyone who buys bread from a pizzo-paying baker, or fruit from a pizzo-paying fruit vendor,  is himself, indirectly, making a contribution to the Mafia.  The responsibility for the situation that exists here does not rest only with the shop owner.  Everyone is responsible; everyone is part of the system.  Nothing will change until the people themselves change.   If Sicilians were to really take to heart the principle, ‘A population that pays protection money is a population without dignity’ , they would rediscover their self respect and, ultimately, be liberated from the Mafia.  That was the  realisation that prompted a young and idealistic group of Palermitani to take action one night in the summer of 2004.  Read the rest of this entry »

I was recently asked by a visiting friend, as we made our way through a once grand, but now sadly neglected, piazza in the historic centre, why I had chosen to live in Palermo; what it was, in particular, about the city that appealed to me.  I answered as best I could, but I knew at the time that the answer I was giving was inadequate.  I talked about the fascination of exploring the city’s past: whereas in other places I often feel alienated from the past because it’s been beautified, turned into a show-piece, here I’m constantly being drawn into the past.  And that is important, but its only part of the city’s appeal.  Being able to shop in markets and small shops, where people know what they are selling and are willing to talk, is a real source of pleasure.  I also get great pleasure from visiting the small workshops that exist in the historical centre, where artisans and craftsmen work away quietly to produce goods – often, but not always, traditional goods – that they sell direct to their customers.  You can chat to them, watch them work, see how their products are made – and you can make a purchase, usually for not a lot of money.  In a world of mass production, where profit is God, these little workshops are oases in the desert.   

One of my favourites is Cittacotte, a tiny space, little more than a small room opening onto Palermo’s oldest street, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.  Here Vincenzo (Enzo for short) Vizzari, a former architect, has been working since 1993 to produce scale terracotta miniatures of Palermo’s buildings and monuments – the Norman Palace, the old city gates, the Porta Nuova and the Porta Felice, the church of S. Francesco and many more.  He also makes miniatures of less important buildings such as the little houses you find in the laneways that wind their way through the old centre .   The models are unpainted terracotta, intricate, but at the same time simple, and beautifully made.  As soon as you talk to Enzo Vizzari, you realise that he is both passionate about what he does and extremely focused. Read the rest of this entry »

Tucked away in an unprepossessing side street (via Colonna Rotta, or the street of the broken column) near Palermo’s famed Norman Palace, you will find the Pasticceria Cappello.  It may be one of the city’s lesser known jewels, but a jewel it is nonetheless.  In Sicily, where sweet-making is an art form and everyone a connoisseur, the Pasticceria Cappello has become something of a legend.      

 Not only will you find perfect examples of all the traditional Sicilian sweets behind its shiny glass counters: cassata (which is not an ice cream, but a baroque looking cake made of sponge cake and ricotta and decorated with brightly coloured candied fruits), cannoli (which should be well-known to anyone who has watched Godfather III lately) and sfinge (a sort of doughnut filled with ricotta), you will also discover some wonderful new creations including the famous seven layer chocolate cake.  Sicily’s sweet making tradition is rich, and closely linked with the island’s colourful past, but here at the Pasticceria Cappello, in the hands of Salvatore Cappello, one of Italy’s master pastry chefs, it is very much alive and continuing to develop.       Read the rest of this entry »

Anyone with even the slightest interest in haberdashery will be entranced by Carieri – and even those without any interest at all in needle and thread are likely to find it well worth a visit.  Carieri is a little treasure trove located in the former stables of one of Palermo’s grandest palaces,  Palazzo Scordia Mazzarino, a large space with high vaulted ceilings supported by tall columns.  The horses of Palermo’s aristocracy, or at least those at Palazzo Scordia Mazzarino, obviously lived very well indeed. 

As soon as you enter Carieri from the street, you are in a large white space, divided down each side by seven or eight grey columns and filled to the rafters with all manner of merchandise: rack upon rack of ribbons of every colour and pattern; row upon row of buttons of every type and shape – jewelled, pearl, mother of pearl, bone, gold, round, square, diamond, heart or tear shaped, some even in the shape of teapots, flowers or pencil sharpeners;  artificial flowers, fur trim, lace, beads, materials, braids, and padding.  Tucked away between stacks of materials and strands of sequins I even noticed a large pair of silver fairy wings, and on top of a set of shelves, two leather and brass vests that might look well on a Roman soldier.    Read the rest of this entry »

Pantelleria is a small, remote and windswept black volcanic island; part of Sicily, but closer to Africa – only about 70km from the African coast. It often gets publicity as a favourite hideaway for celebrities – many, including Giorgio Armani , Gerard Depardieu and the well-known Italian conductor Riccardo Muti , have houses there. But the island is perhaps most famous for its world-class dessert wines, Passito di Pantelleria and Moscato di Pantelleria , golden or light amber in colour and, depending on your palate and powers of description, tasting of apricots, nectarines, white and yellow peaches or tangerines, and perfumed with orange blossom, honey and dried fruit. 

 The versions I have been getting a taste for are commercially produced and relatively inexpensive. They probably wouldn’t satisfy the connoisseur, but for me, they’ve been the perfect introduction – and I’ve been finding them absolutely delicious!

Both Passito di Pantelleria and Moscato di Pantelleria are DOC classified(Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which means that they must be made on the island of Pantelleria, according to a specific traditional method. Both wines are made from a particular type of Muscat grape, the Moscato d’Alessandria. It is the method of production that creates the difference between them.  Read the rest of this entry »

Getting started again has not been so easy!  I’ve been back in Palermo for several weeks, wandering through the old city, lured from one thing to the next, unable to stop and consolidate.  One day, with a great sense of excitement,  I discover a little arabo-norman pavilion in an overgrown garden, the next  a faded, seemingly abandoned 18th century villa, and then a tiny public garden with short quotations from classical texts incised into little metal plaques placed here and there along the footpath.   Each day I come home keen to learn more about what I have found; one thing pulls me on to the next.   I need to stop and reflect, but it’s not possible.  I feel like a guest at a sumptuous feast who knows he should stop and savour what he is eating, but finds that each mouthful makes the next inevitable.     

Long zucchini

Then, gradually, my daily visits to the local food market , like a recurring theme, force me to slow down and focus.  I stop and admire the abundant Spring produce: huge piles of broad beans,  glossy dark purple aubergines,  rich red tomatoes, bunches of asparagus, and baskets of loquats, and on almost every stall a pile of long, thin pale green zucchini – often more than a metre long – and, beside them, a large box  of  zucchini leaves with curling tendrils and closed buds.  These long zucchini, sometimes called snake zucchini, are a speciality of Sicily and apparently very difficult to find anywhere else –  although I am told you see them in Naples, where they are called cucuzzella longa.  Each year I have seen these zucchini in the markets, but not known what to do with them.  I decided it was time to find out.       

It seems that the leaves of the long zucchini, known here as tenerumi, are more highly prized than the zucchini itself.  They form the basis of one of Palermo’s best loved dishes: a summer soup known as la minestra con i tenerumi or pasta con i tenerumi – pasta and zucchini leaf soup.   

   Read the rest of this entry »

See you at the Kahlesa! …

23 February, 2010

Not very much remains of Palermo’s old city walls: several 16th century gates and some short stretches of  wall; nothing more.  But inside part of the remaining wall that faces the sea you will find the Kursaal Kahlesa – bar, bookshop, restaurant, music venue, and general meeting place.  Palermo is good at turning the ruins of its past into magical entertainment venues; nowhere has it done it better than at the Kahlesa. 

On my first trip to Palermo, I stayed in a hotel built on the site of the demolished wall, next door to the Kahlesa.  One night I was driven back to the hotel after dinner with friends in a restaurant in the old city.  As we stopped beside the wall, they said: “The Kahlesa will still be open – if you haven’t been there, you must go in!”  I hadn’t been there – in fact, I hadn’t even heard of the Kahlesa – but of course I went in.  The door is unobtrusive, set into the wall without any signage at all.  I didn’t know what to expect, and I was surprised.  The space is impressive  – stylish and modern, but at the same time suggestive of Palermo’s exotic past.  Read the rest of this entry »

There are a number of tiny workshops scattered through Palermo’s historic centre – for the most part  humble little premises where you can watch traditional papier mache’ toys being made and painted, or wood being turned to produce spinning tops or candlesticks.  Then there is Andrea de Cesare’s ‘I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea’ (which translates as something like ‘Mamma Andrea’s delicious little sins’), a little shop which is now more upmarket, but has the same origins: a little workshop established in the centre of the city.      

At ‘I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea’, you will find, all beautifully presented, new versions of traditional Sicilian sweets, as well as jams, honeys, preserved fruits and liquors.   

For me, the name ‘Mamma Andrea’ conjured up an image of an elderly Sicilian woman, rotund and aproned,  who spent most of her time in the kitchen.  Not at all an apt image for Andrea, I have discovered!  She became a ‘mamma’ for the first time when she was only 16, and is now a stylish and successful entrepreneur.   

Andrea started life working in the theatre designing sets and costumes, hence her interest in, and concentration on, the presentation of her products.  In 1989, she changed careers and set up a small workshop in the centre of Palermo, making traditional Sicilian confectionery.  Gradually, she was given more and more traditional recipes that had been handed down by people’s mothers  and grandmothers .  She worked with these  recipes to create new products that embodied the cultural richness of Sicily and made use of the raw ingredients that are available here. 

‘I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea’ is now a stylish little shop in the centre of town, looking onto the gardens of Piazza Ignazio Florio.  It is full of ‘homemade’ sweet morsels and chocolates, including my favourite candied oranges coated in dark chocolate.  Rows of jams, some without added sugar and sweetened only with agave juice; a range of honeys, including thyme, lemon, red clover and chestnut; various fruits preserved in wine without any artificial preservatives; and a range of traditional Sicilian liquors, from rose or lemon to prickly pear.  “A small sip of one of these liquors after lunch”, says Andrea “will help the digestion”.  The products are all beautifully labelled and presented – and difficult to resist!

Finding a perfect cappuccino here is not as easy as you might imagine.  In Rome, every bar, even the most unprepossessing, seems able to achieve it.   Here, for some reason, they don’t.  This morning’s discovery of a perfect cappuccino is, therefore, worthy of note.    

The bar is  Bar Bruno, a simple little bar on the ground floor of Palazzo Petrulla, a 17th century rococo confection in via Torremuzza.  In the courtyard of the palace, you will find a tiny, vibrant Sicilian theatre, Teatro Ditirammu, the smallest theatre in Italy and well worth a visit.  More about it another time.  

It’s true I asked for a strong cappuccino this morning, un po’ scuro – something I would never have to do in Rome, but here it often helps.  But this morning the cappuccino that arrived was perfection – a rich coffee flavour with smooth, dense and creamy foam.  When I complimented the barista I was told “Ah, it’s the milk.  We use only the freshest milk”.  Whether or not that is the reason it was so good I have no idea, but I will be back.