This is a tale of two cities, one in the light and one at dark. The Capital of Sicily strikes as a larger, more complex metropolis than what it embodies, an ancient city that has seen the perils and progress of society.
Graffiti plastered over walls like propaganda. Twisting, trash-filled backstreets that open onto crowded piazzas. Colorful markets with buzzing flies and the aroma of fried Arancini and thick cuts of Pizza. Palermo is a riot. Palermo is a clash, one side spilling onto the other. A mix between Rome, Los Angeles, and Casablanca, the city is even more. Palermo is a furious medley of class, culture, food and aesthetic.
A cheap flight from Paris, my girlfriend and I arrive after two hours of smooth travel over an azure Mediterranean. The Airport, small and clean, is located about 45 minutes from the city center of Palermo and gives you three options on how to get there:
- Rent a car
- Take a Bus (Prestia e Comande)
- Share a Taxi
The air is thick, yet arid. After a moment of confusion, we stumble onto the shared taxi line where a man is yelling at the taxi driver to let him board an already full van. The driver departs without him. He yells something and slaps the trunk in frustration.
Here we have a big city Sicilian. A severe red tan and curly black hair, this portly man anxiously watches incoming traffic.
The next taxi arrives 10 minutes later. The man motions to the driver that my gf and I are with him in a friendly and ‘Tutto benne’ manner. We nod our appreciation and hop on board. The three of us are in the back and two others plop into the van. He yells over them to tell the driver to go. He’s not pushy or angry but welcoming. In fact, he has a huge smile and is almost joking as he directs the driver to get on the highway.
He works in Paris, but his French is questionable at best, and he speaks zero English.
The green, palm-tree covered countryside sweeps passed us, he points at a few landmarks and vigourously yells when something is lost in translation. Mafia! Mountain! Motorcycles! Through the windows, we watch, as the van is engulfed by urban life. Apartment buildings stretch down boulevards like sunny CA, white fountains, and two large Teatros. The man tells us of a bar called Champagneria and bids us a farewell and safe journey.
The First Night: Bisso Bistrot & Bonter
That evening, after a small introduction, our host directs us to Bisso Bistrot, a jazzy, contemporary take on Sicilian food.
Sicily is famous for its street food, which while tasty, is a reduction of its complexity. The cuisine departs from traditional Italian food in several ways: its Arab influence (Eggplant, Saffron, Mint, Rice, Apricots, etc.), and the bounty of Seafood (Cuttlefish, Tuna, Mussels, Squid, even Sea Snails). I once saw Cous Cous with Fish!
Bisso Bistrot is packed, full of Palermo Street Style (something I will talk about later). We take a glass of wine and drink outside.
Let go of the plane flight, I think. I take another glass of wine–it’s only 2 Euros.
We set it off by ordering two starters, and a main dish. A Calamari Milanese dressed in parsley, capers, and caciocavallo; Roasted Octopus Salad with greens tossed in oil, and lemon; and a Pici (Pasta) with Mint, Aubergine, Tuna, and Saffron. It was world class. It was 7 Euros. I am in f***in heaven.
Elegant but stripped down, the industrial walls, and minimal furniture filled with well-dressed urbanites yammering about philosophy over wine, and I enjoyed every second.
For some reason, I’d forgotten the Italians do cocktails so well. To me, the Negroni is arguably the greatest drink of all time.
Bonter Bar, however, showed me a thing or two about a good G&T. If you know me, you know my thoughts on the Gin-Tonic; it’s a basic-ass drink somehow elevated to a cult-like Martini status.
The bartender prefaced this Gin-Tonic with an introduction to their ‘special’ tonic water…oooooohh. Then, he brought over two dark, mysterious bottles, the Gin de Professor-Madame et Monsieur (Italian Gin!!!!). He asked, ‘do you prefer a subtle gin or an aromatic gin?’ Pause. OK, at this point, I’m starting to buy the hype. Unpause. Then, the guy was like, ‘ here’s this custom made platter thingy that’s only for this drink. Oh yeah, and don’t forget a slice of cucumber and juniper berries. JUNIPER BERRIES?!?
The nerve!! I was rattled by this titan of a drink that rested on the pine before me. I sniffed it like I worked for Le Guide Michelin. I paused. And finally, I took a sip.
Yeah, it exceptional, smoky, yet refreshing. I recommend the bar, however, for the ambiance. No one needs all of those dramatics! In the background, they had a folk band playing with a great harmonica soloist. The crowd was lit. The bartender seemed offended when I asked if any of the owners had been to East Nashville. Right, people don’t like Americans because of him.
The Second Night – 30 Mazzini Taverna & Frida
After sightseeing, we return to our flat. I read online about this place that serves really, really good pizza. That sounds like something I’m interested in, I thought. I ask my girlfriend and we agree, it’s something that we’re really, really interested in. As we leave the Airbnb, I see my host, and we start talking. I ask her about Champagneria, as I’d heard it was good from this cool ass guy in our shared taxi.
She says, ‘no, if you want a really good cocktail, you must go here–30 Mazzini.’ No need for arguing, so I say ‘Tutto Benne.’ She insists on making reservations for us, and she adds that she’s friends with the owner.
So, we head out. Down the boulevard, we pass the two Teatros and enter a…posh neighborhood.
The bar is elegant and has that style composed mostly of dark tones, except for ridiculous neon lights behind the bar. We see the hostess and she directs us to a table out front.
Sitting outside feels bizarre. It is a world apart in only a few avenues of difference. The grit and raw beauty that up to this point had defined my time in Palermo have been manipulated into something resembling a ‘Europe proper.’
It’s not a bad thing. There is still beauty, but it is of a different, manicured kind.
I enjoy a Gin Fizz (pictured) and later, I take a Negroni.
Out of a car pops two men holding glow in the dark trinkets. They have dark, brown skin, and look as if they come from a foreign land. They pass and plead that we purchase the trinkets. I don’t carry cash, so I apologize and we let them on their way.
At a table next to us, a man has purchased one for his baby, who is there in the stroller at the moment. We gaze over. The man turns, makes eye contact with my girlfriend, and stands. He is a rather dapper middle-aged man, he paces over to our table and introduces himself in a broken language. I am the owner of this bar, he manages to say. A warmth flows from his smile as we tell him who our host is, and once again, we are back in Sicily.
After our drinks, we are hungry, so we decide to try for Frida, even though it is past 10pm. No matter for Italy. When we arrive, there’s a 20-minute wait. The place is full and we stand about, waiting for our table.
The street style in Palermo is distinct, and Frida (named after Frida Kahlo) is a place for the stylish. Striped slacks with tucked, over-sized dress shirts, suspenders pulled up, and earrings curve through like moons. Tans, breezy cloth and oversized skirts, high heels and jewelry, it’s a cross between luxury and vintage, between beach and city.
When we’re seated, I order the spectacle above. A four cheese pizza with soppressata and mozzarella tucked into the crust. It’s the original stuffed crust. And it might be bold to say, but this pizza rivals the best in New York.
The Short List
- Bisso Bistrot – Via Maqueda, 172a, 90133 Palermo
- Bonter – Via Orologio, 43, 90133 Palermo
- Mazzini 30 – Via Mazzini 30, 90139 Palermo
- Frida Pizzeria – Piazza Sant’Onofrio, 37/38, 90134 Palermo
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