Palermo is a tough city and has a turbulent history that lives in the not so distant past. It is also an impossibly romantic location. I am mainly speaking of "romantic" in the poetic understanding of the word, although it would not disappoint in the star-crossed sense as well. I have learned through travel that a place can be both messy and remarkable.
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
This phrase kept passing through my head as I made my way from the Palermo airport on the short bus ride along the coast to the city center. The security agent when I boarded my flight in Greece took one glimpse at my ultimate destination on the boarding pass and offered a smirking, “Cosa Nostra, eh?”
Among popular Western culture, the fullest awareness of Sicily’s place in history is that of the Sicilian mafia of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather - locally identified as Cosa Nostra. This history is unavoidable immediately upon arrival at the Falcone Borsellino Airport - named for two anti-mafia Sicilian judges killed in two separate bombings in 1992.
Admittedly, I did a little background research before adding Palermo to my destinations. I appreciated that other travelers had made their way through the city and had rave things to say about the beauty, the people and cuisine it afforded.
All indications were that the country had rounded a corner on the violent nature of the mafia in the early 2000s and strongly pushed back against their blackmail over local politics and businesses. The country was reaping the bounties of incoming travelers seeking to get away from the Italian mainland.
Sicily was quick to chart a decidedly strong impression early in my stay. Although a part of Italy, there is a rich pride and autonomous spirit here that often reminded me of the dynamic between the always independence seeking Catalan people, Barcelona specifically, to the rest of Spain. They speak Italian here but sprinkle it with uniquely Sicilian phrases and slang.
Regional specialties of all manner satisfy the tastebuds and originated here with great pride behind them. A strong reputation exists for street food. They are quick to remind you here when a stereotypical mainland reference appears that “you are in Sicily.”
My accommodations during this leg were two Airbnb’s on the old side of Palermo. The city splits into a more contemporary business-heavy district to the north, and the much more picturesque and historic old city to the south.
I have always loved Italy for the spirit of community and hospitality the locals offer guests. The Italian way of life brims with equal parts ease and emotion. One of my favorite diversions is to grab an espresso, a pastry, and relax out in a piazza mid-day and watch Italian women carry on a discussion over their spritz or with the day’s market haul in tow. The superbly crafted sentences fly fast with hand gestures to match. It is like a dialog symphony with charismatic and outlandish conductors at the helm.
Sicily features these types of interactions in spades, along with delectable pastries for appreciating this highly engaging theater. Being the birthplace of cannoli, they have truly mastered the craft.
An all-encompassing food tour on the first full day dropped us into one of the more respected pastry shops in town. Typically a dense and heavy gut bomb of sugar and filling in Italian-American neighborhoods, here the cannoli is an altogether different experience. Lightly whipped ricotta filling that tastes almost cloud like but over-indexes on flavor marries magically to a crisp and never oily shell.
Someone informs us that the mark of a worthy artisan cannoli vendor is one that proudly allows shells to remain unfilled and on display until someone places an order. Filling the cannoli at the time of order reduces any chance that sogginess can spoil the work put into ensuring a crispy vessel. They encourage customers to enjoy their pastry on site for the best experience.
Sicilian chefs are no stranger to the deep fryer. Among the other signature quick snacks are the dense arancini, or fried stuffed rice balls, and the crocche, or potato croquette fritters of finely mashed potato and mint…often presented between bread in sandwich form. It sounds like an odd overload of carbohydrates but it somehow works.
Perhaps my favorite item during the stay was Sicily’s take on something I seek in all new locations: the unwanted butcher cuts, or offal. Often left to groups and classes that were historical kept at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, these dishes are triumphs of producing the most with the least and I respect the hell out of it.
In Palermo, the favorite is pani ca meusa. A sandwich consisting of marinated cow’s spleen gifted by the original Jewish community in the city. The Jews in Sicily often served as butchers and consigned to make do with leftover cuts. They were violently driven out of the country during the Spanish Inquisition but the sandwich remained.
The meat stews in juices of its own fat all day long and serves up on a modestly seeded roll with optional mustard and finely shredded cheese - optional in name alone if you follow. The taste is like a less gamey and sweet liver with a slight texture of a french dip - stemming from the inescapable and welcomed juices that carry to the bread with the pronged meat.
Street foods serve to fuel steps around a highly walkable city. Walks reveal frequent visual reminders of Silicy’s ravaging history. The marks left during the mid twentieth century hit especially close to home and served as the leading influence in Palermo‘s inclusion on my itinerary. Once installed in the old city, further inspection of the older architecture and churches reveal facades still bearing marks from the second World War.
Sicily was a key front-line for the Allies successful offensive in Italy, one which siphoned off Nazi resources required to come to the aid (ultimately unsuccessfully) of their fellow Axis force, Italy. Allies bombarded Palermo and the leading ports of Sicily with 81mm mortars that keyed victory and left shrapnel scars where quaint cafes and bakeries now operate.
My grandpa, who we all knew as PaPa [pronounced paw-paw], spent time on the island in 1942 in between a tour that took him from the trains of northern Africa to the Italian continent. PaPa Jordan was a loving, humorous and profoundly humble man not prone to volunteer details of his life in the service - and I regret to this day not appealing to him to share more stories. However, later in life he interspersed small anecdotes about the places he discovered during his time heroically serving and Sicily was invariably at the forefront.
He regularly spoke of his hope to return here and walk the footprints that took him from a modest town in Alabama across the world to these same roads I now settled myself on. There was talk and planning, followed by more talk and planning, and later illness. The return trip never got further than an idea before my grandfather left us, and that weighed heavy on my mind as I strolled the backstreets and sought to take it all in. Trying unsuccessfully to capture every image and memory I could and regularly asking myself: “Did he look upon this just as I am now?”
In some peculiar and unsuitable way, it felt like an undertaking to honor the chance he never knew to come back later in his life when the shadow of battle and certain nerves of a man too youthful for war were surely unsettling. No generation deserved to relive sites and bustling towns like this more than his. Theirs was a generation that bravely made the world a safer place and afforded myself, and generations after mine, the capacity to cross borders and break bread with other open and free communities.
My final night in Palermo, I found myself at the tiny Osteria Lo Bianco - a modest trattoria specializing in local and non-fussy Sicilian cooking were freshness of ingredients and their flavors may shine. The kind of place with non-ironic checkered tablecloths and a not a stemmed wine glass in sight. Over a plate of eggplant pasta alla norma and a cup of dry red wine, I caught myself thinking: “This is just the type of place we would have brought him to on the trip.” Our large tribe of aunts, uncles and grandkids attentively listening and observing Sicily through his eyes and stories. Told in only the manner that PaPa could deliver them - infused with some humor and full of humility.
Minutes later I am interrupted by the polite waiter. He drops by the table and sets the glass of white wine I had ordered just in front of my plate while I finish my current glass of red. Before reaching for it, I let it rest there for a minute longer. Perhaps as an offering to a dining companion who never made it back here in person, but sure as hell was here in spirit.