Don’t get stiffed in Palermo
These reviews are from 2008/9 but many will still be relevant. Heard Cucina has gone which is a shame. Has anyone checked it recently?
Typical Palmeritan dishes include Caponata (a sweet and sour aubergine stew, served as an entree or side dish), Pasta chi Sardi (sardines with wild fennel, pine nuts and raisins), Sfincione (a street food like pizza but thicker and usually topped with anchovies, tomatoes, stewed onions and breadcrumbs), Arancita, deep-fried rice balls filled with spinach or veal, Cassata (rich ricotta cream cake with marzipan) and Canoli (ricotta cream filled cakes). Pasta alla Norma, named after a character in a Verdi opera, consists of fried aubergine in a tomato sauce. Alla Palmeritana usually means coated with breadcrumbs. The ice cream is invariably good but you might like to try Granita (shavings of fruit flavoured ice) as another cooling option.
The house red in restaurants will invariably be Nero d’Avola. It’s usually best to avoid the house white although good whites are available by the bottle. Personal favourites include Charme (pronounced ‘sharm’) and Corvo Glycine which are lightly sparkling whites, and Leone, a floral Chardonnay/Sauvignon, and Principe di Corleone all excellent with seafood. Whites from Grillo grapes can also be very good. Others I have been recommended butwhich remain untried include Syrah, Planeta, Donna Fugata, Frappato, Firriato, Principe di Butera.
It’s easy to spend a small fortune in the restaurants here and not get-value-for-money, or in fact get completely ripped off. Below are a few suggestions on where to go, and also where to avoid! As a general rule of thumb, the places around Via della Liberta are generally more upmarket, whereas eateries off Via Roma are cheaper. See also my reviews of Mondello if you fancy a day at the beach.
Right, 300 restaurants in the Palermo area, best get busy…
CHEAPER RESTAURANTS WITH GOOD FOOD:
Il Mirto e la Rosa (Intermediate A), 30 Via Principe di Granatelli, off Via Roma, closed Sunday.
A touristy place (recommended in several guides) but very good value with friendly service and lots of choices for vegetarians. In May it’s best to get there before 8, especially if you want to sit outside on the rather narrow terrace, although it’s quieter in June. They have set menus starting at €10, going up to €30. I like the €13 option, for which you get an Insalate Caprese (A), Fettucine Meditaranee (pasta with a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, B) or Fettucine Norma (B) and a veal escalope (A), or a plate of veg if you prefer. The red Nero d’Avola (Rallo ’08) (€7 half bottle) is very good although you might prefer the bone dry La Segreta Bianco (Planeta ’09) (€13) or the slightly sparkling white Corvo Glycine, (€12). The panna cotta is also wonderful (A). A limoncello is a bit expensive though at €4. The only negative is the frequent attention of hawkers and accordion players. If you can’t get in here, the Cafe Royal next door also has a selection of menus starting at €10, although I don’t know what the food is like.
Ristorante Altri Tempi (Intermediate A), 65 Via Sammartino, 5 mins from the Principe. GEM ALERT!
I love this place for its attitude as much as its food, which was very good value for money. It’s old school in every way, the menu is in dialect (and English) and the dishes are very traditional, and therefore possibly a bit challenging! The terrace is a popular meeting place for middle-aged blokes, I counted nineteen men to one woman outside, but don’t let this put you off. When I asked for the antipasti, seven dishes arrived at the table! I panicked about the cost but was told it would only come to €8 in all. You can also get free refills of water and wine! The starters were; 1) Vrocculi e Carduna a Pastetta (A), deep fried cauliflower and cardoons, and also chickpea fritters. 2) Favi a Cunnigghin (A), broad beans ‘a la rabbit’ i.e. with garlic, oregano and oil. 3) Pumaroro Siccu (B), sundried tomatoes with capers and a piece of cheese. 4) Caponata (B). 5) N’zalata d’arenga (C), smoked herring with orange, lemon, celery and olive oil, (too powerful for me and I’m half Norwegian). 6) Pieces of octopus, squid, mussels (B). 7) Mussu e Carcagnolu (B), which are erm..calves feet and cartilage (described as lips on the menu), actually not too bad! I had already ordered my pasta course but wished I hadn’t as I could only manage half of the above, and I was starving when I arrived! The Pasta chi Sardi (hollow pasta with sardines, dried broad beans, wild fennel and oil) was a bit too rustic for me and I could only give it a C. When I asked for a digestivo after my strawberries and canolino, three chilled bottles of homemade liqueurs were put on the table, limoncello, finochetto (fennel) and alloro (infused laurel leaves, a herbal taste like amaro but clear), all (!) delicious. Total cost €20, amazing value.
Cucina (Intermediate A), 54 Via Principe deVillafranca (between via Agrigento and Catania), Tel. 091 626 8216
Very popular with the locals due to having good simple food at great prices. The menu is spoken and changes daily. Modern, bright and simple decor. Don’t think they do reservations so get here early if you want a table for one, there will need to be more of you to sit on the terrace outside. They don’t really need your custom and there will probably be a queue at the door so they may well ask you to leave as soon as you finish! Not a problem if you are prepared for a certain level of brusqueness.
CHEAP PLACES WITH AVERAGE FOOD:
Pizzeria Bellini (Intermediate B), Piazza Bellini (off Via Maqueda, just after Quattro Canti)
Considered by many locals to be the best pizzeria in town, I think it’s pretty good but not a patch on Da Michele or Trianon in Naples. Pizzas start at €4.
Still you can sit outside in the very pleasant square surrounded by historical architecture (the so-called ‘Fountain of Shame’ with its controversial nude statues is in the adjoining square).
Casa di Brodo (Intermediate B-), 175 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, open Sunday lunch, Tel: 091 321 655
A Palmeritan institution (since 1890), it has a nice art nouveau wooden interior but a slightly fusty atmosphere despite being recently repainted. It’s famous for its broth (brodo, in this case tortellini in chicken stock with parsley and chunks of celery and carrot)) which legend has it made people feel better during an epidemic at the end of the 19th century. To be honest it’s rather tasteless (C) (Italians don’t really do soup) and they seem to be living on their reputation. However it’s good value if you go for the set menus which offer a choice of two first and second courses for both fish and meat. I went for the seafood Menu della Tradizione for €18, and opted for Ravioli alla Cernia (grouper) which was great (A) but the following Involtini di Pesce Spada (a paste of swordfish, pine nuts and raisins formed into balls and grilled on a skewer) wasn’t really my thing (C), although it’s very traditional. You get water and a quartino of house wine included in the price (the white (B-) is ok). On a second visit, I had the sausage with a side order of chips which were perfectly edible but unimpressive (C). The rather unhelpful foppish manager was unable to recommend a wine with my food (“Everything is good”, I hate that!). There is an extensive but rather unattractively presented antipasti buffet too. It’s worth the visit but twice was enough for me. Open Sundays but closed on Mondays.
If you go down the side alley next to Casa del Brodo, you enter a fascinating maze of ancient back streets. On the left as you go straight is a bizarre statue of a king holding a huge snake.
If you turn right from here you come to Piazza Garofolo which has a beautiful but derelict fountain and some pretty spectacular urban decay. I think this area was bombed in WW2 and seems never to have been rebuilt. Some of the houses look too dangerous to live in but are still inhabited.
La Cambusa (Intermediate B), Piazza Marina (at the sea end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele)
Located next to the Giardino Garibaldi, near the La Cala yacht marina; this is a pleasant spot where you can sit outside in the square at a candlelit table. It’s been around a while (mentioned in my pre-euro Lonely Planet) and seems quite popular with locals. Not really worth a deliberate trek from town but if you are in the area it’s nice enough. I had Spaghetti alla Vongole Verace, Bisteca di Vitello alla Brace, Patate Fritte, water, a mezzo of house white and an ice cold limoncello (all B, except the chips C) for €29.50. There’s a cool little bar three doors down playing funk and reggae.
Hostaria de Ciccio (Intermediate B), Via Firenze 8 (off via Roma at the station end)
Many years ago (pre euro) Lonely Planet described this place as one of Palermo’s favourite cheap eating spots. They only had four customers when I went but the food was ok. The Zuppa di Cozze was a B, and the Spaghetti allo Scoglio a rather oily C. The house draught white (C) was €6 a mezzo as is the red. The strawberries were lovely. Total cost €31 with a limoncello and water. They have a €16 Menu Turistico and 6 tables outside, 2 large rooms inside. Closed Sunday.
Cambusone (Intermediate B), 25/27 Piazza Verdi, I missed it the first time I walked round the square but if you have Via Maqueda behind you, it’s in the far left corner of the square, behind the Theatre Massimo.
This is a popular place with locals, mentioned in Italian guides. It’s basically one big room with lots of paintings of bygone days adorning the walls. The waiters look like night club security but are actually quite friendly. The menu is fixed with three options for the second course. To start you can select from the huge buffet, about 40 types of anti-pasti. The pasta is ok, but my spaghetti with pesto and crunchy almonds (B-) was a bit oily. The waiter had problems with the minimal pairs ‘swordfish’ and ‘shellfish’ and I ended up with the former when I wanted the prawns everyone else was eating. Unfortunately it scored a D and sent it back and what I wanted instead. The full bottle of Nero d’Avola was very young and only got a C. Total cost €30 with water and dessert, which was good value but some of the food could be a bit better.
Osteria lo Bianco (Elementary C),104 Via Emerico Amari
If you are on a really tight budget and not too fussy what you eat then this place, with its sticky plastic tablecloths, may be an option. Primis are only €4 and secondos €6. I had Spaghetti all Acciuga Rosa (C), basically pasta with tomato puree, garlic and raisins, which arrived suspiciously quickly. I followed this with Arrosto Panato (C) which I was told differed from Cotolet Milanese by being roasted rather than fried, but it tasted deep fried to me. The first sip of wine was shudder inducing but went down reasonably well after that (you can’t really complain for €2 for a mezzo) and the limoncello an unheard of €1.50. Total cost €17 with salad and bread. There is a ‘buffet’ with about four items on it, including boiled spuds. I scored the food C for edible as opposed to D for inedible. Probably best to go for simple stuff like a veal steak and boiled greens. Go late and point at other people’s food! Nice lady serving.
Al Duar (Intermediate B/C), 28 Via Marino Stabile
You can get couscous in a lot of places in Palermo but I thought I would try out this long-standing Tunisian place and it was definitely worth it for the money paid. They do Italian dishes too but the best and most cost effective option is to get the four-course Menu Completo Tunisimo. The first course is Gilbena (B, a veal stew with peas and potatoes), Mescuita (C, a puree of grillend peppers and onion used as a condiment) and Merghes sausage which I added to the couscous later. Second course is Brik (B), a kind of crispy pancake with potato, tuna, egg and parsley) and Cebtia (C), a fried rissole of potato, veg and parsley which failed to impress. The third course was the couscous itself, I chose the meat version with vitello (B) and the accompanying semoule (C) which was made with the stock rather than being simply steamed which I prefer. Ask for harissa to whip into the couscous stock if you like it hot. If there’s two of you, you get a fourth course of Safoud, a spit of veal and veg, but you will probably be too full to eat it! Finally there was a fruit macedonia. All this with a half liter of water and a quartino of house red (C) for €17, cheap and very, very filling.
There’s a friendly and very comfy gay-run bar next door to the above. The Spanish brandy was a bit pricey at €6, though local drinks will be cheaper. There is a Phillipino restaurant next to this (always empty) , and a Chinese place at number 87 (although there’s a posher Chinese at 56 Principe de Belmonte).
M.R.S. di Tharsan, 3 Via Torre Arsa, (Intermediate B/C), just off Via della Liberta.
A Tamil restaurant selling Indian dishes. The interior looks very atmospheric although probably too warm, but you can sit outside on the street too. The starters I had pandered to the local taste for deep fried rustici, three balls of channa dahl, lentils, rice, with hot sauces, that were ok but nothing special. I opted for a thali of four curries, a delicious dahl and a nice fish curry but these were offset by a disappointingly flavourless chicken curry ,a rather bitter aubergine concoction and a very soft popadom. The beers were a reasonable €2. With fruit and a grappa it came to a very cheap €20. Good if you know what to order.
Ristorante Moon India (Elementary C), 35 Via Marino Stabile
Actually Bangladeshi rather than Indian, with a rather grumpy owner but his family are nice. Great samosas to start and the tandoori mixed grill (4 pieces of chicken and a rather non-descript seekh kebab) was delicious with yoghurt. The Chicken Jalfrezi and Tarka Dahl were very disappointing though, and the naan too doughy, however total cost with two Moretti beers (dirt cheap at €3 for 660ml) was €15. Fixed veggie menu for €7 includes samosas, saag paneer, tarka dahl, rice, naan, and rice pud.
MEDIUM RANGE PLACES WITH GOOD FOOD:
Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (Intermediate A), 58 Via A Paternostro
One of the oldest eating places in Palermo, since 1834, with a not particularly interesting Stile Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) interior.
You can choose to eat off plastic inside or off porcelain on the nice terrace in the square outside as I did. Set menus from €6 to €12, salads for around €6, pizza and foccacia too. I had the rustici (rice balls, bechamel croquettes, chick pea fritters, pizza, caponata) followed by Analleti al Forno (pasta rings baked with tomatoes, mince, peas and parmesan), all delicious. A mezzo of draught house red was €4. You can choose desserts from a tray brought to your table.
The large cauldron in front of you as you go inside contains milza (veal innards, specifically lungs and spleen) an ancient Palermitan snack, served in a panino with shavings of caciocallo cheese and tasting rather like liver, actually rather nice.
2016 update: The owner of Antica Focacceria di San Francesco recently featured on Gino D’Acampo’s ‘Italian Escapes’ as he’s famous for bravely refusing to pay the mafia their ‘pizzo’ or protection bribe. The anti-mafia campaign Addiopizzo got its start here. For that reason alone they should be supported.
La Dispena dei Monsu (Intermediate B), Via Principe
A nice place with an atmospheric off-street terrace, candlelit so not good for reading, and a soulful selection of cool sounds on the CD player. The food is good, a modern take on traditional classics. The main menu is reasonable but many dishes weren’t available and the daily specials are pricier. The crostini with baby tomatoes and oregano (€2) were rather brittle. The Tagliatelle con Pesto e Mandorle was crunchy but you couldn’t taste the almonds. The Lacerto (veal) in Agglace al Frebbiano (onion sauce) was delicious whilst the accompanying contorno of apple caponata was interesting but there was too much off it. Wine is only sold by the glass, but I wasn’t too impressed by the €18 Cos (Azienda Agricola ’06) which the waiter recommended. Total cost €39 with water and cover.
Piccolo Napoli (Intermediate B), 4 Piazzetta Mulino al Vento (at the beginning of a side street on the right of Corso Domenica Scina as you walk down to the Borgo Vecchio).
A mid-range place in the Borgo Vecchio, recommended by Gambero Rosso and a local fixture for over sixty years. The location and interior decor is nothing special but the service was friendly. Every table was full when I arrived but I managed to get one after a few minutes wait. After some delicious olives (A) and a plate of Caponata (B), I had the Spaghetti alla Marinara (A) which wasn’t much to look at, being mainly cubed squid with the odd prawn, but the pasta had been finished perfectly in the stock and it tasted wonderful. The following grilled prawns were big and juicy but a bit disappointing (B) for this Norwegian (must remember cold water prawns have much more taste and order something else next time I’m in the south). The accompanying €13 bottle of Leone was already my favourite local white wine (A) and went perfectly with the seafood. Total cost €62 (the prawns were €18 and I had two limoncellos) as it was my first night and I was treating myself, but you can eat more cheaply here.
Ristorante/Pizzeria Le Volte (Intermediate B+), 12 Via Agrigento, open Sundays.
A good quality place recommended by the hotel, I went a couple of times till I found cheaper places. The Busiati al Pesto di Pistacchi di Bronte (pasta twists in a pistacchio and bacon sauce) was original (B) and the Risotto al Nero di Seppia con Salsa di Fasolari (risotto in squid ink with chargrilled clams) was very good (A). Wasn’t so keen on the Scontatissimo Involtino alla Siciliana which was balls of veal mince grilled on a skewer, with mash and mushrooms (C). Ask the price when given suggestions, the fish with cherry tomatoes ended up costing €22.50 alone. House half bottles of Nero d’Avola (Desio ’06) cost €7. I wasn’t too impressed by the local Bianco d’Alcamo at €10 for a full bottle. Open Sundays.
There’s a Japanese sushi place called Tribeca at the posh end of Via Marino Stabile at #134, full of beautiful people but a bit too expensive for me.
EXPENSIVE PLACES WITH GOOD FOOD:
Officina del Gusto Bye Bye Blues (Advanced A+), 316 Corso Vittorio Emanuele (where it meets Via Maqueda at Cuatro Canto), Tel. 091 6111568, http://www.officinabyebyeblues.com GEM ALERT!
This is a satellite restaurant of the fantastic original in Mondello (see below), one of my favourite restaurants in Italy. You can sit outside or in. Nina and I went for the €40 Menu de Degustation and weren’t disappointed. After an amuse bouche of mussels and clams in a courgette sauce and a mini sfincione (like pizza but different dough?) the main event started with amberjack fish in a pea soup (A) followed by rolls of squid and a lemon sponge in lemon sauce (B), spaghetti in a ragu of tuna and tomato (A), tagliolini cooked in squid ink (A+) and fish croquettes (B-), finishing with homemade ice cream in a bavarese cream sauce (A). The white wine (Schietto ’08) made of Grillo grapes from the Spadafora IGT was fantastic (A+) and a bargain at €14. I had a Passito sweet wine with dessert and an Amaro di Capo digestivo too. It’s fantastic value for what you get, beautifully presented dishes without compare in terms of taste. They also sell deli items, both local and international.
La Scuderia (Advanced A-), 9 Viale del Fante, just a few doors towards town from the stadium.
Recommended by a local businesswoman, this is the place to take your industry contacts to impress them. The food is good but pricey, you are basically paying for the service (I prefer to pour my own wine). The Pasta alla Norma (B) was pretty but I had better elsewhere, the seared tuna steak also. There’s a great wine list but bottles start at around €15. Three courses with wine cost €54, wouldn’t go again.
EXPENSIVE PLACES WITH BAD FOOD:
Ristorante Pizzeria Biondo (Intermediate C), 15 Via G.Carducci, 15 mins from the Hotel Principe.
Recommended by both hotels I stayed at, but with overpriced and often badly made food. The waiter I got was brusque and unhelpful, though the others were ok. It might be better on a different night but I wouldn’t go again. The Antipasti della Casa included some lovely grilled sweet peppers and caponata but the rustici and mushrooms were horrible. The Agnello Siciliana (roast lamb with rosemary) was tough and the burnt roast potatoes were going soggy in the gravy, an insult for €18. The house Nero d’Avola (Campo Reale ’08) was good (B+). Got some free, very dry fig rolls and amaretti at the end. Had to make them switch off the music because the speakers were so bad on the small terrace. Total cost, with an amaro, €49, a rip off as far as I was concerned.
Trattoria ai Normanni (Intermediate D), 25 Piazza Vittoria
Listed in several Italian and English guides this place is taking advantage of it’s lovely setting in a Norman square near the cathedral to rip off unsuspecting tourists, look at the outside by all means but don’t go in! The service was pleasant enough but the small portions of food were badly cooked (I sent back my €10 Spaghetti alla Pescatora but was so hungry I had to eat my burnt Controfilletto ai Ferri alla Palermitana with iceberg lettuce). The prices look ok on paper but the house Nero (admittedly quite good) was an extortionate €5 for a quartino, and they wanted to charge the same for a digestivo. My starter of Vari Antipasti varied between A for the deep fried calmaretti, B for the marinaded anchovies and Polpo alla Greca (octopus with olives, capers and basil) and C for the worst chick pea fritters so far and piece of fish with raw garlic. My replacement primo Casarecce Salsiccia e Pomodoro was ok. I was going to score them a C but then the bill arrived…
Ristorante Pizzeria Peppino (Intermediate C), 49 Pizza Castelnuovo, at the end of Via dell Liberta
Red chequed tablecloths in a tunnel like room. Owner was rather pushy. Had a very doughy pizza for €5 and paid nearly the same for water and cover. Other food (and places) probably better.
Acanto Blu (Intermediate A/B?), 10 Via TorreArsa , just off Liberta
This place has an atmospheric courtyard with palm trees and a South American feel. They do food (prices look reasonable) but I have only had drinks here. It was also the only bar I found that had fresh limes and could consequently do a half-decent caiparinha, although the sugar is a bit coarse. Cocktails are €5/6. A nice place for an apertivo or a digestivo. Opens 6.30.
Via dell Orologio, along with the next parallel street and the square at the end, is a good spot for bars and light night drinking. I liked the Moroccan vibe of Caffeteria il Siciliano at 37 Via dell Orologio which has outdoor floor cushions in the adjoining alleyway.
OTHER USEFUL INFO:
Filippo’s at 219 Via M. Stabile, is a great salumeria (“the best” according to the IH rep) for stuff to take home, or for self catering. He’s brusque at first but lightens up if you work on him and show some knowledge.
Another good place for take home treats is Antica Drogheria (spelling?) at 45-51 via Porta Carini, in the Capo street market. Antonello, the shop manager (his auntie owns it), is a great salesman and an excellent English speaker (and wannabe teacher!). He proudly showed me an article on his shop in the Sunday Times magazine and was over the moon when I countered with his accolade in the Easyjet in-flight brochure. Many of the products (pesto in particular) are homemade by his family. I went for the extra-virgin olive oil, super-dense and best for salads, and the giant capers (total cost €15).
The Hotel Principe has a gym and internet (€4 p/h or €10 for 24 hours).
There’s a Carrefour supermarket in the basement of Oviesse at 30 Via della Liberta.
There is an upmarket internet place at 41 Piazza Sturzo (€3 an hour).There are cheaper Bangladeshi-run internet places opposite each other on Via E. Ximenes, the friendliest being at 37a, both cost €2 an hour.
This is in the Borgo Vecchio, a vibrant multi-cultural slum, with lots of street food and market stalls where you can see whole tuna and swordfish being chopped and sold.
If you’re staying at the Hotel Plaza Opera (great staff, top breakfast) you can get an hour of free internet if you ask (they don’t advertise it). It’s €4 for an hour otherwise. You also get a free welcome glass of Prosecco if you give the barman the small gold disk by your bed.
There’s another Internet place at 3a Via Sammartimo (€1 per 20 mins).
The stalls in Piazza Verdi sell international newspapers.
Huge Feltrinelli bookshop at 133 Via Cavour.
There is a public swimming pool near the stadium, but you need some kind of pass to use it. The staff said there is another at Via Belgio but I didn’t have time to check it out.