Palermo Has Changed for the Better, and the Arancini are Still Awesome
Over twenty years ago during college I spend a few weeks traveling in Sicily by train and ferry. It was just before All Saints day and there and the first cool autumn rains were signaling that, even on an island just of the coast of Tunisia, Summer does end. I was in Palermo for only three days on that trip and my views then were mixed. So much of the city was breathtaking, a swirl of ancient Greece, Arab domination, Norman invasion and dozens of other chapters of human history permeated the streets of the city.
Maybe it was incessant drizzle or maybe it was the “unconventional” business climate that so many of the shopkeepers were working under, but I did not always feel that welcome when I went into the shops looking for something to eat. But even if the sellers were often surly, sometimes their aranicini made me feel welcome anyway.Aranicini, basically fried, filled rice balls, can be found in street food places up and down the boot and they can be tasty elsewhere, but somehow I’ve never found one as good as any of those I ate during that trip, with the sole exception of the ones I’ve had coming back to Palermo two decades later.
In my three trips back this year Palermo has given me completely different sensation. People are engaging everywhere, even taxi drivers, and every downtown neighborhood seems to have an area where you can enjoy hanging out at night. I’ve found good pizza and rediscovered amazing almond and ricotta based pastries, but I’ve been longing for arancini.
The most traditional arancini are filled with either a meat and sweet pea ragout or béchamel and prosciutto, but you can find store specialties with other fillings. They can be small, like the ones I had as appetizers at the Foccacceria San Francesco a few months back, but the softball-sized ragout arancini are still my favorite. I think you can only fully grasp the importance of eating real Sicilian arancino if you hold it in you hand and bite in. Popping one into your mouth is too similar olive ascolane (which much better in their Ascoli Piceno birthplace or in Amatrice than anywhere else) to have their own magic.Last week at my insistence Italo took us to the Pasticceria Alba on our way home. Alba is a full-service bar and pastry shop with an elegant glass corner with table service. There were other distractions – even a sweet basil pesto arancino – but we were able to stick to our goal and I had my long-awaited ragout Sicilian arancino (and a glass of Nero D’Avola red wine). Part of their secret is that they usually made them every few hours.
I was happy, but being from Palermo, my guide had other motives for choosing Albe – their ice cream is, well, dreamy sandwiched inside a brioche bun. But I’ll write more on Palermo’s frozen treats later on.
For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com