Palermo – coffee & cakes

Italians everywhere will happily start their day with a shot of strong coffee and a sweet pastry of some kind, and who am I to go against tradition? Here are a few of the sweet-toothed, caffeine-related experiences I had over the two weeks of my stay. I certainly had my work cut out for me because in Palermo you could probably eat a different cake on every day of the year, there are so many to choose from…

All the eleven places mentioned can be found on my map.

There are two cakes in particular which are distinctively Sicilian; Cannoli (gratuitous Godfather link here) and, my personal favourite, Cassata.

A cannolo has three parts. First there is the ‘scorza’, the tube-shaped shell of pastry dough (traditionally shaped on sections of cane, hence the name) which is deep-fried in lard. An indicator of good quality is the presence of the characteristic bubbles in the wafer which are created by three elements; the use of vinegar, the thiness of the dough, and the right temperature of the oil when frying. The ‘farcitura’ (filling) should be sweet, ewe’s milk ricotta, although the barbarians in Ragusa use cow’s milk. Finally there is the ‘guarnizione’ (decoration), which traditionally was simply a piece of candied orange peel and a glacé cherry but which now (controversially) can be quite creative. Ideally you want to find somewhere serving ‘cannoli espressi’, freshly filled while you wait, so the farcitura has no time to make the scorza soggy.

Cassata is a round sponge cake, moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta (the same filling used for cannoli). The marzipan shell is made with coloured icing (usually pink and green) and ornately decorated with candied fruit. A true Baroque cake if there ever was one!

In my opinion, the best place to try both, certainly for ambience and choice of selection, is I Segreti del Chiostro (The Secrets of the Cloister), a pasticceria hidden away in the former convent of the Church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Piazza Bellini.

Here you can find more sweet treats than you could possibly eat in a month. They are all made to once secret recipes that, through extensive research, have been collected from convents all over Sicily, in order to preserve the methods of more than 800 years of pastry-making tradition.

Other ancient sweets worth trying here include the Fedde del Cancelliere (aka ‘Chancellor’s Buttocks’, where almond pudding, known as ‘biancomangiare’, and apricot jam is encased in marzipan clam shells), Sospiri di Monaca (the ‘Sighs of a Nun’, which are savoyard sponge sandwiches filled with ricotta cream) and the Trionfo di Gola del Gattopardo (‘Triumph of the Leopard’s Throat’, a pistachio-based sponge cake). There are enough versions of Cassata alone to keep you going for several days.

You can also get the famous Frutta Martorana (fruit-shaped marzipan) which were actually invented in the nearby Monastero della Martorana, on the other side of Piazza Bellini. The story goes that the nuns created the lifelike fruits to decorate the monastery for a visit by the pope.

The nuns are long gone, but you can still see the covered turntable which allowed them to sell their sweets to the public without being seen.

Best of all you can consume your purchases under the orange trees next to a trickling fountain, in the peaceful Courtyard of Peonies where the sisters once grew flowers to give to brides.

Perhaps the next best place for the tourist to try the local sweets is at Antico Caffè Spinnato 1860 at 107 Via Principe di Belmonte. Every Italian city has its grand cafe, and this is Palermo’s, as the prices attest.

The oppulent interior is reminiscent of a private club with its leather furniture, wooden panels, marble floors and waiters in silver-buttoned tunics. Many locals consider it to be an elitist tourist trap but I think it’s still a place that should be experienced.

We preferred to stand at the bar, where the service is faster, and cheaper. The staff have a rep for being brusque but we had a lovely friendly lady serving us.

The cannoli and cassata are excellent here of course. We added a Sfogliatelle to our order, which is strictly speaking a Neapolitan pastry, but one that’s hard to ignore.

You could also try their gelato or maybe a decadent Granita al Caffe con Panna (shaved coffee ice with whipped cream). On the savoury front, they are famous for their Sfincione (see my street food post), and the Arancine and Ravazzata (a ragu-filled brioche) are also good choices. You could also sit on the terrace outside for a full blown lunch or, in the evenings, an aperitivo accompanied by the sounds of a tinkling piano.

Another pretty interior can be found at Pasticceria Costa (nothing to do with the UK chain), at 174 Via Maqueda, just by Quattro Canti.

Here you can have a coffee with an excellent cassatina (small cassata) or cannolicchio (small cannolo) while enjoying the Stile Liberty wall frescos painted by Ernesto Basile (my post on him here).

Their full-sized cassata looked good too.

Another famous bakery is Pasticceria Cappello.

There are two branches, the posher one is at 19 Via Nicolò Garzilli in leafy Politeama.

Cappello are the inventors of the famous Torta Setteveli (Seven Veils), a seven-layer chocolate-hazelnut cake, much copied by other bakeries.

Their second branch, the original, is at 68 Via Colonna Rotta, in a grungy part of the old town. It’s handy for Piazza Indipendenza where tourists catch the 389 bus to see the cathedral in Monreale (see coming post).

Before getting on the bus I tried an Iris (named after a Mascagni opera), which reminded me of a fried, ricotta cream-filled doughnut.

Also tempting is their Delizia di Pistacchio (a pistachio cake topped with icing and a chocolate medallion). Of course all the classics are here as well. The ewe’s milk for the cannoli arrives fresh, three times a week.

A good spot to see a wide range of frutta martorana is Bar Rosanero at 6 Piazzetta Porta Reale, near the botanical gardens.

As you can see they even had a marzipan version of Pani ca Meusa (the famous spleen sandwich). The bartender jokingly asked whether I wanted it ‘schettu’ (with a squeeze of lemon).

Due to my fixation with pomegranite granita (see my street food post) I didn’t each much gelato, although I could have had some really good ones at any of the shops above. However I did go to Il Signor di Carbognano at 2/L Via Notarbartolo (coincidentally right next door to a school I’d worked at ten years previously), which is considered to be one of the best gelaterias in the city.

My mission was to taste their gelato made with Modica chocolate. The Fondente was every bit as good as I dreamt it would be, and basically helped me decide that my next holidays would be in south-eastern Sicily.

As for coffee, one place to check out is Ideal Caffè Stagnitta at 42 Discesa dei Giudici, a nice cobbled street near Piazza Bellini.

This is the oldest torrefazione (coffee roaster) in Palermo, and has been owned by the Stagnitta family since it opened in 1928.

They make coffee for many of the restaurants and bars in town, and also sell directly through their store, and online via their website.

Another torrefazione is Caffè Maracanà, on the corner of Corso Olivuzza and Via Re Federico.

Named after the famous Brazilian football stadium, it’s just a plain neighbourhood cafe bar, but I love the logo on their cups! They do a decent Sfogliatelle too.

Probably the best place for coffee however is Caffetteria Rizzuto at 9 Via Villaermosa.

Again the bar itself isn’t anything special but their Third Wave coffee is. They use a retro San Marco machine, but V60, French press and AeroPress brews are also available. You can even get a flat white here!

I’ve left my favourite cafe till last, Bar Vabres at 85 Via Michele Cipolla, not too far from the station. Like Rizzuto, Vabres seems to be another heirloom family cafe that has undergone a Third Wave makeover. Flat whites are on the menu here as well and it’s the only place I went to where the barista put any effort into presentation. The coffee artist was a young guy who spoke excellent English, which I’m guessing he honed in Australia.

They do great cakes (think this was a Veneziana?) but their arancini are also rightly ranked amongst the best in the city.

And that’s my brief survey of coffee and cake in Palermo. I think I covered most of the famous stuff but still barely scratched the surface. You can compare with Catania here. Restaurants next!

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