Posted on Thursday, 6th August 2009
Like any big city, there is much to see in Palermo, a place that’s sultry and sensuous, but sliced with an edginess. One moment you’re walking down a street filled with designer shops, the next, wandering through rubble built up after years of gun fighting. The architecture is fascinating given its influences which include that of the Arabs and the Spanish, and with military precision, I went from one tourist spot to another to try and take it all in. I visited many a church, as one is prone to do while in Italy, and on a couple of occasions, I found myself walking in on a wedding ceremony. From what I could gather, these are not off limits to the general public. What I found most fascinating about walking in on one was the people watching – the guests, all dressed to the nines, and fanning themselves simultaneously to provide some respite from the heat.
As ever, I tried to seek out some local food specialities by asking for some advice, but my first attempt was ill-fated. I made my inquiries with the people who ran the B&B that I stayed at. “Do you like spicy?”, they ask. (Hmmm, this was not a promising start.) “We know a delicious Chinese”, they continued. (Clearly not foodies). “No, thanks”, I replied, but they were pretty persistent, insisting that it was really yummy. But honestly, how good could Chinese food in Sicily possibly be?
My second attempt yielded a better result. This time, I asked another kindly Sicilian guy at the tourism office and he pointed me to Antica Focacceria San Francisco for what he assured me would be traditional Sicilian food. Opened in 1834, Antica Focacceria has a long standing tradition in Palermo, and I suspect that it is the kind of place that has left an indelible mark as a food ‘destination’ given its history and longevity. At lunchtimes, it’s more of a fast food place than a sit-in restaurant. You must first order and pay at the cash register, then collect your food which is served on plastic plates, and then find a spot where you can eat. There are various ‘a la carte’ options, but there are also 5 set menus priced from €6 to €12. Obviously, the higher the price, the more food you get.
I settled for the €9 menu and came away with a plate of panelle (fritters made from chickpea flour) and potato croquettes, some caponata (aubergine stew), a tomato based pasta, a cannolo and a drink, which was a generous amount of food given the price. Both the panelle and the caponata are very traditional Sicilian staples. The panelle (the flat yellow item in the picture), tasted slightly floury and was a little bland in my opinion. I really enjoyed the potato croquettes, which had a waxy, rather than floury texture, and the caponata was delicious. Other than aubergine, the stew also contained vinegar, capers, celery, olives and olive oil, and was really flavoursome, but not too vinegary.
The tomato sauce in the pasta was also excellent, with a real deep tomato flavour, although the pasta itself was too overcooked to be al dente. All the food had been served at room temperature, which is quite common practice with antipastas, although I wasn’t sure that the pasta shouldn’t have been served hot. But it was fast food after all.
As for the cannolo – it was very tasty as usual. This one was particularly big and fat too. I finished it, and afterwards, I could only curse myself for being so greedy as it made for a rather difficult session of afternoon sightseeing, seeing as I was so stuffed and it was so hot.
The food here is simple, but very good. It was reassuring to note that despite the fact that it attracts a certain amount of foreign clientele, the locals seem to favour it too for I heard many Italian voices in the eatery. Its cheap, and a good, fast choice for lunch. Sicilians eat lunch late, around 1.30pm, so the trick is to go before then if you want to nab a seat.
Antica Focacceria San Francisco at:
Via Paternostro 58,
Tel: +39 091 32 02 64