Bellini Travel’s founder Emily FitzRoy curates her city guide to Palermo.
As Giuseppe Lampedusa famously said in The Leopard “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” After years under the thumb of the Mafia, Palermo is finally re-emerging as one of Europe’s great capitals. Invaded by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Spaniards, to the Arabs and the Allies, Palermo bears the scars of these conquerors well. However, for every Baroque palace and golden mosaic, the streets are still littered with rubble from the Second World War and parts of the centro storico are still considered slums.
Admittedly, Palermo may not be the natural choice for first-time visitors to Italy, yet its complexities have attracted artists and writers for centuries. Oscar Wilde declared Palermo to be ‘the most beautifully situated town in the world ’. Wagner wrote Parsifal here and more recently the artist Jenny Saville operated her studio from a crumbling 18th century palazzo.
Street food and restaurants
To really understand Palermo, you first need to get to grips with the food scene. To put it lightly, Sicilian food is outstanding. Sicilian food is hotter, spicier and sweeter than that of other parts of Italy. The focus is on seafood, notably swordfish.
Dive straight in and head to Capo, an ancient Arab market and must see. Whilst being spat at by live mussels and dodging the long noses of sword fish, this is also the best place to try Palermo’s famous street food. Favourites include pani ca’ meuza (spleen and ricotta buns), arancini and deep-fried chick pea fritters panelle.
If you want charcoal grilled fish on the street, we love the Piazza della Kalsa and especially Da Salvo. Borgo Vecchio is fun (near the Teatro Politeama) but very rough and ready. At Ballaro market, eat whatever is under the cloth in the wicker baskets. Zia Pina. Yes, sadly Aunt Pina has been discovered but it’s still fun to stroll through the chaos of the Vucciria, grab a plastic table and chair opposite some pretty impressive graffiti and order one of the daily pasta dishes and some grilled fish.
Peter Robb wrote most of his acclaimed ‘Midnight in Sicily’ from a wooden table in the Ristorante Sant’Andrea. Recently, the Bisso family closed their previous restaurant down after Mafia intimidation however, still proudly anti pizzo (no bribes), they have reopened as Bisso Bistrot in the landmark bookshop Libreria Dante, also on the Quattro Canti, just across the street from FPAC gallery (see below). Open all day, the delicate interiors by renowned artist Salvatore Gregorietti.
In Vino Veritas
A smart relatively, new restaurant and wine bar/wine shop beloved for the evening scene. Owner Giuseppe Liscandello with his shock of grey afro and green specs, greets old friends, nips in and out of the kitchen and advises on some of the amazing wines in stock. As well as a thriving aperitivo scene including an oyster bar, the menu is sensational. Booking advised.
La Rinascente Terrace
High above the traffic, dust and noise of Via Roma, the terrace on the top floor of the Rinascente department store makes for a soothing escape. The view is dazzling, you can almost touch the Baroque façade of the church of San Domenico, yet only a few hundred yards away is the colossal Post Office, a Modernist masterpiece by Fascist architect Angiolo Mazzoni.
Tucked down a dodgy side street in the Kalsa, L’Ottava Nota has a deservedly good reputation both with smart locals and visitors. The spaghetti aglio e olio sprinkled with a powder of dried prawns is so good it was nominated to represent Palermo in Expo 2015. Owner and chef Vladimiro Farina is a jovial fellow who often sits down with diners to share a glass of nero d’avola.
Historically this is one of the best restaurants in Palermo and is wonderfully old fashioned, elegant and exclusive with excellent food. The dolci are superb and include pasta frolla served with seasonal wild fruits and a delicious custard.
Recently opened after a major restoration by Gae Aulenti, Ristorante Branciforte i is new to the scene in the decadent Palazzo Branciforte, whose second floor houses a divine pawn shop. The vast interior resembles a scene from Harry Potter. Originally, the scaffolding-made entirely of wood-was put up when the second and third floors collapsed during the revolts of 1848.
Only open in the evenings, in a charming but dilapidated piazza in the centro storico. Ferro is elegant and fresh, designed as a minimalist rectangular box by Ornella Gasbaro, with central tables under a strip of bare light bulbs. Run by three sisters, with the masterful Chiara in the kitchen producing the lightest spin on traditional Sicilian classics. Highlights include featherlike quenelles of baccala nestling on a puree of zucchini and a spanking fresh sea bass baked in salt.
Located on a quiet street in the historical centre, Trattoria Gagini is relaxed and friendly. Inside you will find vaulted stone walls offering a cool respite from the midday sun, in the evening candles flicker and the atmosphere is romantic. On a recent visit, highlights included outstanding sashimi, squid-ink tagliatelle with prawns and fresh ricotta followed by grilled tuna, all of which were delicious.
Trattoria Piccolo Napoli
Restaurants in Palermo come and go, but Piccolo Napoli never seems to change, nor does owner Pippo Corona who welcomes everyone with open arms. This is as local as it gets; stout moustachioed grannies in black sit next to grandsons shovelling ink black spaghetti into their mouths whilst everyone talks over each other. The fish is outstanding with local gourmands declaring it the finest in the city.
Pastries and cookies
Palermitani have a sweeter tooth than the Scots and at Christmas, you’ll find the shop windows stuffed with sugared candies and an astonishing array of marzipan fruits. Try a kitsch cassata, a lethal combo of ricotta cake and rich ice cream and of course don’t forget the cannoli, tubes of crisp pastry filled with ricotta, pieces of chocolate and candied fruit.
Best Sicilian cakes and ice-creams. They used to sell very pretty tins which I hope they still stock.
Francesco Pantaleo Arte Contemporanea FPAC
Situated ot the fabulously Baroque Quattro Canti crossroads, born-and-bred Palermitano, gallerist Panteleone has put Palermo firmly on the international art circuit. From Palermo to Rome to Gagosian New York, FPAC is back in Palermo. Since opening he has attracted Damien Hirst, David Hockney and Juergen Teller, whose portrait of Francesco hangs on the wall of Pantaleone’s office.
Recognised as one of the most impressive galleries in Europe, this year celebrates its 70th anniversary as the National Gallery of Sicily. Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to create the gallery and even the benches and exit signs are designed by him. Even if you have only a few minutes to spare its worth diving into for a glimpse of the exquisite portrait of the Madonna by Antonello di Messina.
Stanze al Genio
The Tile Museum is a real gem and definitely worth visiting if you love tiles. They have an English-speaking guide if you book in advance. Housed in a very pretty private home. Unfortunately, you cannot buy from here.
Palermo has a spectacular history of puppet shows and down the road is a theatre which shouldn’t be missed. Owner Giovanni Parinello shares the same passion as his father did for ancient Sicilian folklore. The family have an art studio and make brilliant little paintings and cards of Santa Rosalia and the history of Palermo.
Via Calascibetta, Via Paternostro and Via Alloro are all full of little artisan’s shops. There you will find Vito Torretta whose gorgeous straw bags quite possibly inspired Dolce and Gabbana’s Moda Alta collection – Go in (it looks like a hardware store from the outside) and choose your bag, pompoms, tin icons and ribbons and it will be ready the following day. On the same street is Gianni Vallone the best leather craftsman in the city (his shop is stunning). At number 75, Via Paternostro is Edizioni Precarie a brand new printing studio using paper normally found in the market and wrapped around produce to create super chic little note books and other types of stationary.
Tucked away in a small courtyard behind Via Roma is the Rizzo shoe and vinyl emporium. Operating since 1945, the shoes are still made to order and created in workshops in Palermo. These include classic 1950’s driving shoes from Euro 150 in the softest suede, and smart laceless brogues.
Further down the Via Roma and tucked down another side street is Vuedu, a chic boutique with polished concrete floors and cool grey interiors. Owner Daniela Vinciguerra, who designed the store herself, buys mainly from Sicilian designers as well as stocking her own ‘Margaret Howellesque’ line, which is all made in Palermo and now sells worldwide. Describing her shop as a factory that supports young designers from Palermo, she recently opened a gallery at the back of the store to showcase artists, local photographers such as Marco Bruni and most recently cult bike maker Lombardo from nearby Trapani.
Ceramics and tiles
Not cheap cheap cheap, but here you’ll find the real deal from the ceramic capital of Sicily.
Ceramiche Tre Erre
Family-run firm and best place in the city for inexpensive ceramics including the marvellous testa di moro heads – at my wedding we stuffed them with flowers throughout the palazzo and they looked terrific.
Le Cittacotte di Vizzari
Exquisite terracotta replicas of some of Palermo’s most famous palaces and churches. His shop is not far from Quattro Canti and the smallest thing you’ve ever seen. His hours are erratic so call first.
Plaster molds for marzipan fruits – this place is AMAZING – Signor Ferrante makes molds for all the marzipan fruits that the Sicilians are obsessed with. He also does very special angels and plasterwork restorations for surrounding churches.
Linens and tablecloths in the most incredible old palazzo in the same square as Palazzo Gangi (where Visconti filmed the ballroom scene from The Leopard). It’s one of the oldest shops in the city and is stuffed with stunning linens, tablecloths, napkin etc. GO here even if you think you don’t want to shop for linen!
The Mercato delle Pulci is held every Sunday morning on Piazza Merina – it may be too junky and scruffy. Alternatively, the bigger Mercato delle Pulci which we all love is on Piazza Peranni near the Duomo. You’ll find antiques, vintage and modern art and many many curiosities.
Antiques and kitsch
Smart antiques shop run by a friend of a friend just below one of the big buildings on Via Della Liberta. He has an incredible collection of vintage coral and religious icons in the back room.
Mary Taylor Simeti
Andrew & Suzanne Edwards