In Langscape Magazine Articles

Nostalgia & Spleen: Feeding the Body, Rediscovering Self Through Sicilian Street Food

March 23, 2019

Text and Photos by Vincenzo Di Giorgi

Last fall I was sitting on a marble bench right next to the Cala, a U-shaped cove in the coast of Palermo, watching the boats nearby being rocked by the gentle wind, their masts swaying. I was focusing on the wall painting on the other side of the bay, representing Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two magistrates who fought against and were murdered by the Mafia. To these two men is dedicated a place of honor at the symbolic heart of Palermo, whose name literally means “all port.”

A few meters away from me, on the marina, I noticed a white “lapa,” a permanent art installation that pays homage to this motorized tricycle, a social vehicle, defined by the Palermitan anthropologist Franco La Cecla as “the dream of a moving city square made real.”

street vendor

A street vendor hands a piece of freshly-heated sfincione to a family of tourists. 2016

Suddenly a stentorian noise rose in the air of the cove, a recorded nasal voice, which started repeating from a loudspeaker: Uora uora usfuirnavu, “just taken out of the oven.” A street vendor, driving a real lapa, in this way made his presence known in the public space. He usually sells sfincione, a local kind of thick pizza with tomato sauce, anchovy, onions, and caciocavallo cheese. In the early morning he, like many other vendors, goes to a workshop in the city center and collects his stockpile of sfincione that he later peddles all around Palermo. His loyal customers are local people from different walks of life: young penniless students, office workers in a hurry, and so on. Even tourists, who descend from the cruise ships docked at the nearby port, approach the sfincionaro (sfincione vendor), timidly, to taste their first bite of the city.

Tourists descend from the cruise ships and approach the sfincionaro, timidly, to taste their first bite of the city.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that street food in Palermo nowadays plays an important role in the transformation of the international image of the city, once sadly recognized as the capital of the Cosa Nostra.

The worldwide success of local food is partly due its being promoted by Forbes magazine, which in 2013 published a ranking of the best cities in the world for street food; Palermo occupied the fifth position. Since the consumption of street food connects local people and foreigners, I began to question myself about the values and bonds that are at stake. Wandering around the city, going through the narrow, curving streets, I ended up confusing my nostrils in the chaos of smells of the popular markets, where it’s generally easier to find street food stalls.

Within the historic districts of Palermo, there are three major popular markets: Ballarò, Capo, and Vucciria. They suffer from the ever-increasing spread of supermarkets and shopping centers, yet they resist thanks to regular customers for whom the kiosks, unlike other alienating shops, often become a meeting point of the neighborhood. For example, in Ballarò I have often seen groups of men gather around a frittula stall. Here we find what is distinctive about the traditional consumption of street food and how it’s changing.

For regular customers, the kiosks, unlike other alienating shops, often become a meeting point of the neighborhood.

First of all, frittula is the emblem of the humble origin of Palermo’s street food. Frittula is nothing more than the result of the recycling of meat-slaughtering leftovers. The scraps, callosities, and cartilaginous parts are boiled and flavored with bay leaf, saffron, and pepper. Then, during the sale, the frittularo (frittula vendor) picks out different pieces with his bare hand from inside a wicker basket covered with a simple cloth. As I watched the gestures of the vendor, an unrefined but friendly man in his thirties, I heard his vernacular words confirming my impressions: A frittula nascìu vastàsa, “frittula was born rude,” he told me. Long ago the greasy frittula was served on fig leaves to avoid dirtying the hands, but today, given hygienic progress, greaseproof paper has replaced the old method. Frittula is also sold inside tasty sandwiches that Palermitans bite into voraciously.

frittula sandwiches

“Born rude,” frittula sandwiches are meant to be eaten with gusto. 2016

Therefore, if coarseness is the fundamental characteristic of this food, voracity is the most suitable mode for its consumption. Here an unwritten code requires devouring street food in just a few bites. It’s no coincidence that many consumers and sellers often assume, more or less consciously, poses in which their prominent belly is exhibited with pride. The fullness of the stomach reflects the fullness of the social body. Under this perspective, the act of eating has a political value and contributes to forging the ideal individual of this particular context. Frittula, just like quarume (boiled bovine entrails) or pani ca meusa (spleen sandwich), is a stinky and hard-to-digest meal.

Here an unwritten code requires devouring street food in just a few bites.

For many, this kind of food certainly is not, by appearance, taste, and smell, as palatable as a re-assuring, “maternal” hamburger. It’s food for men. Hence a third aspect connected to this street food emerges: masculinity. Obviously this does not exclude women from its consumption, but the kiosks are frequented mainly by men, predominantly dialect speakers with a medium- to low-level of schooling, who reciprocally transmit and strengthen their own vision of the world. These attitudes include, for the old people, a sort of resigned acceptance of the status quo and, especially in youngsters, actions of brash disregard for the rules and the authorities, namely the police. The fact that one of the major topics discussed by men at the kiosk is football also confirms the link between prevailing masculinity and violence, in its codified and controlled form, that is sport.

Street food vendors

Street food vendors are frequented mainly by men who reciprocally transmit and strengthen their own vision of the world. 2015

The clientele, far from being merely a passive part in the dynamics that develop around street food, plays a central role in determining not only economic success but also the authority of the kiosk and the vendor.

But growing tourism is destabilizing this balance of relationships. While visiting the city, curious tourists, less and less hesitant, approach the street food stalls. The food they buy loses its values of neighborly relations and takes on the flavor of an exotic journey, a photo to be published as soon as possible on social media. The language barrier discourages some tourists, the lack of familiarity blocks others. Thus, some tour operators have begun to work in this indistinct space of mediation, promising to make travelers live an authentic experience, as a true “native.” These tour operators select a series of places and sellers who, in a way, are “tamed” in order to obtain a mutual benefit. For their part, the vendors, especially the younger ones, understanding the possibilities that the trade with foreigners offers, have timidly begun to learn English.

Some tour operators have begun to work in this indistinct space of mediation, promising to make travelers live an authentic experience, as a true ‘native.’

At the same time, many enterprising sellers have recognized the fascination that street food can generate and have become spokespersons for a product promoted to culinary excellence.

This is the case of the “Antica Focacceria San Francesco,” founded in 1834 in the Tribunali District, which today exports pani ca meusa around the world to points of sale, including Milan and New York. Another example is the case of “Ke Palle,” a shop recently opened in the central Via Maqueda, which has focused on the appeal of arancine, stuffed rice balls, sold in forty gourmet variations. The customers who they turn to are demanding (the shop offers vegan options), informed, and willing to pay more for a quality product. But above all, the consumption that happens here is more related to leisure time, to the relaxed walk as an escape from the routine, rather than to the strengthening of local bonds.

Vucciria market

A street-food pantomime at the Vucciria market: The street vendor Peppuccio Basile poses with a tourist who imitates his gestures with pani ca meusa. 2016

One of the most striking cases is certainly Antonino Buffa, aka Nino u ballerinu, “the dancer.” This meusaru (vendor of pani ca meusa) has built fame around the spasmodic movements that he performs at the moment of the conza, the setting-up of the spleen sandwich. For his verve, he counts several prizes and television appearances, articles about which cover the walls of his shop.

Capo market

At the Capo market, a tourist, encouraged by his tour guide, takes a frittula from a street vendor in a moment that will become part of the family’s vacation photos. 2016

Many street vendors look at these examples of success with resentment, even contempt. This happens because in their view Palermo’s street food is inextricably linked to a context of informal commerce where legality and illegality blend with the need for daily survival. These traders don’t pay taxes and work at the limit, if not completely outside, of the hygiene rules imposed by law. Some even steal electricity through illegal connections, without any consequence. Finally, near some booths, especially those far from tourist routes and hidden from the gaze of prying eyes, it isn’t unusual to come across drug dealing and criminal control of the neighborhood.

Palermo’s street food is inextricably linked to a context of informal commerce where legality and illegality blend with the need for daily survival.

The city government of Palermo, recognizing the potential of street food, has organized several culinary festivals throughout the streets of the city center, also hosting vendors of street foods from foreign traditions. These events were very successful in terms of the number of participants. However, this kind of happening includes only some of the many varieties of street food—the ones willing to compromise with the rest of the world. Does this threaten a genuine street food experience?

Now that I am far from home, I think back with nostalgia to when I decided to investigate deeply this important facet of my hometown soul. I think back to the babbaluci, small snails usually cooked for the Festino, the sacred festival in honor of the city’s patron saint, Rosalia. During the Festino, thousands of people follow the religious procession from Palermo’s cathedral to the waterfront, the Foro Italico, where dozens of food stalls arranged symmetrically assume the attitude of secular altars.

Selling babbaluci

Selling babbaluci on the evening of the Festino along the street that connects the cathedral to the waterfront. 2016

I also think back to the panelle, chickpea flour pancakes, that I used to buy from a street vendor on his “lapa” after school. To lessen the feeling of distance from home, I’ve learned to cook them through tutorials on the Internet.

All these experiences are full of emotions, sometimes mutually conflicting. This is because the world that gravitates toward street food, even in the limited case of Palermo, is complex and constantly changing. Understanding how much this food, and its consumption, permeate and forge an individual’s life experience is essential for imagining future social and culinary scenarios.

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Vincenzo Di Giorgi was born in Palermo and received a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from Ca’ Foscari University (Venice). He presented the paper “The ‘Spleen’ of Palermo—The Transformation of Sicilian Street Food: Continuities and Change” at the 45th international conference of the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.


Further Reading

Giallombardo, F. (2003). La Tavola l’Altare la Strada. Scenari del Cibo in Sicilia. Palermo, Italy: Sellerio Editore.

La Cecla, F. (2009). L’Ape: Antropologia su Tre Ruote. Milano, Italy: Elèuthera.

La Cecla, F., & Minnella, M. (2000). Modi Bruschi. Antropologia del Maschio. Milano, Italy: Paravia Bruno Mondadori Editori.

Orsi, R. A. (1985). The Madonna of 115th Street. Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sutton, D. E. (2001). Remembrance of Repasts. An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Oxford, United Kingdom: Berg.


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