Adventures in Italy: Palermo’s Vucciria Market

Our day in Palermo began with breakfast on the Abasciatori Hotel’s rooftop terrace. After the previous day’s rain, the skies had partially cleared, leaving the air clear and fresh. From the hotel’s deck, the panoramic expanse of urban Palermo, tucked in between the hills and the sea and speckled by the domes of numerous churches, was ours to enjoy.

When planning the trip, Palermo seemed like a daunting, dangerous, and uncomfortable place to visit. We had yet to spend much time there, but this attitude was quickly changing.

With only one day in Palermo, we had a lot to see. We headed up Via Roma to the open air Vucciria market. Tucked into a side street near Piazza San Domenico, the small market offers an amazing variety of food items. In the valley created by the gray, city-soot coated buildings that line the alleyway, the colors, sounds, and smells of the market filled the senses. The standard fruit and vegetable offerings that you would find throughout Europe were at hand. A wide variety of fresh fish, glistening, firm, clear-eyed, and smelling only of the sea, was in abundance. Meat markets spilled out on to the street from small shops that lined the bazaar. And, of course, cheeses, breads, pastas, olives, olive oil, capers, and pretty much any other ingredient you would use to prepare an Italian meal was available.

Most of the items in the bustling market were recognizable. Along with the familiar, were some unusual local specialties like snails, castrato, freshly boiled octopus, and Palermo’s ubiquitous pane ca’meusa (boiled spleen sandwiches). It was the first time we had seen many of these offerings.

We had to try something new. One vendor was serving small, freshly boiled octopus to a collection of tourists and locals that waited like chicks in the nest to be fed. The intensely purple colored octopus was pulled out of the boiling, salty water; the legs were sliced off with a knife and cut up into manageable pieces. The head of the octopus was quartered and all the pieces along with a slice of lemon were transferred to the customer’s plate. The food was then eaten by hand.

We watched this show for a while, and then we wandered around the market checking out the stalls. Before we left, we decided to give the octopus a go.

The octopus was excellent, slightly salty with a mild, fresh seafood flavor. The texture was somewhat rubbery and a little chewy. In its purest form, this was probably best octopus we have had. More adventurous was the head of the octopus, which had a crab and lobster innards like flavor, though milder. With healthy squeeze of lemon, I could definitely see the head as being an acquired, sought after taste. The jury on the head was still out for my traveling partner Becky. She wasn’t sure she liked it. Nevertheless, both of us would make a point of having another octopus prepared this way, even if I got all the head.

In the end, pictures and video can reinforce the visual memories of a place but another visit is often required cement the memory of the taste. That’s a trip we look forward to.

By: Dave Oare

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