Marketplaces in Palermo, Sicily
Palermo’s historical ties with the Arab world and its proximity to North Africa are heavily reflected in the noisy street life of the city’s ancient centre and nowhere is this more evident than in the markets. Dating back to the ninth-century Saracen rule of the island, Sicily’s outdoor markets share many characteristics with Arab souks; the bustling vibrancy of trade. The Sicilian street markets introduce us to a heightened world of senses; with sights, smells and sounds, splashes of brilliant colours, noisy street vendors and the mouth-wateringly powerful aroma of sizzling street food.
Each of the four historic quarters of Palermo has its own market, but the Vucciria, Ballarò and Capo are the big three in terms of historical charm and popularity with locals and tourists alike. Indeed, some of the names – such as Palermo’s Ballarò – are Arabic in origin and the markets are possibly the best preserved of Sicily’s Arab souk-like traditions.
The Mercato della Vucciria
Perhaps the most ‘dishevelled’ of the three main markets, with rough-edged customers, carts selling street snacks, stalls full of fresh produce and loud stallholders pushing their wares. Once at the heart of poverty-stricken Palermo, Vucciria illustrates the aged chasm between the rich and poor in Sicily up to the 1950s. However, if you can see passed the shabbiness, this is still one of the most fascinating areas to explore.
The Mercato del Ballarò
This market is filled with stalls displaying an abundance of household goods, clothes and foodstuffs of every possible description and this is where many of the Palermitans do their everyday shopping. Snaking for several city blocks southeast of Palazzo dei Normanni is Palermo’s busiest street market, which throbs with activity well into the early evening. It’s a fascinating mix of noises, smells and street life, and it really is the cheapest place for everything from underwear to fresh produce, fish, meat, olives and cheese.
The Mercato di Capo
The Mercato di Capo extends through a tangle of little lanes and alleyways of the Albergheria and Capo quarters respectively, is the most atmospheric of all the markets. It runs the length of Via Sant’Agostino and ends at Porta Carini. Here, meat carcasses swing from hefty meat hooks, fresh, glistening tuna and swordfish are expertly gutted and prepared. The pungent smell of row upon row of cheese superbly displayed from a long line of stalls. Huge tubs of plump olives, colourful fruits and fresh, glossy vegetables adorn more stalls.
A fourth market, the antiques market at Piazza Peranni, is located behind the Bishop’s palace off Corso V. Emmanuele and is great for wandering around and taking in the culture.
What to Expect
The markets are open from 7am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, but close at 1pm on Wednesday. Mornings are very, very busy on market days.
Even if you are not hungry when you arrive, the smell of smoky bbq from the stigghiole and the fried panelle is guaranteed to work up an appetite. Here you can forget the Michelin-starred restaurants and the tourist menus; if you were taught that eating in the street was bad manners, then you need to forget that fast! Everyone here does it. It doesn’t matter what the Palermitans are up to – business, shopping, commuting, romancing – everyone is enjoying buffitieri, little hot snacks prepared at the stalls and designed to be eaten right away.
You could start your morning off with a pane e panelle, Palermo’s famous chickpea fritters or enjoy crochhè (potato croquettes, often flavoured with fresh mint). Quagile is also popular – literally translated as quails, it is actually eggplant that has been cut length ways and fanned out to resemble the bird’s feathers, then fried. Sfincione is a sponge-like oily pizza topped with onions and caciocavello cheese or you could try scaccie which are discs of bread dough, filled and rolled up into a pancake. During summer locals also enjoy brioche filled with ice-cream or granite, the refreshing flavoursome crushed ice drink – The original Sicilian slush, dating back centuries.
As the afternoon progresses, the street snacks become slightly more carnivorous where you can sample bbq’d stiggahiola – goat intestines filled with onions, cheese and parsley. Or how about some pani ca meusa which is a bread roll stuffed with sautéed beef spleen? If you go for this, you will often be asked if you want it ‘schietta’ (single) or ‘maritata’ (married). If you choose the single option you will only get the roll filled with ricotta before being dipped in boiling lard; choose the married version and you will get the beef spleen added as well.
Markets in Catania
Unlike in Palermo where the markets run through narrow medieval streets, in Catania they are held in spacious Baroque squares, such as Piazza Carlo Alberto. Fera o Luni (Monday’s Fair) is the most famous market, now open every day, with clothing and household goods as well as fresh fruit and fish. On Sunday mornings, there is a flea market and numerous smaller antique markets and all very much worth a visit.