A garrulous but charming host, Marco Romeo recently helped Jamie explore the backstreets of Catania. Through his company, Streat Palermo, Marco (below) runs officially licensed tours in both the island’s capital and Catania. He speaks perfect English and is a fount of knowledge on how Sicily’s multicultural past has shaped the island’s traditional street-food culture. Here he shares some insider tips on what the cities have to offer the hungry tourist.
So Marco, what first inspired you to start running street-food tours?
“I love travelling and I love food. Food can often tell you much more about local culture than a historical site can. A temple is just the past; a chickpea fritter is the past, present and future! I had watched for too long travellers falling in tourist traps or avoiding authentic local places because they felt intimidated by loud locals or the Sicilian Mafia reputation. Usually, travellers go to the main square or the fish market, then find the nearest way out. Lost in the crowd, they need a hand to grab them and lead them around. I was doing similar walks with my foreign friends coming to visit me in Sicily and in the end I just made a business out of it. I came up with the idea of the Foodie’s Passport (below), which allows guests to collect stamps after tasting each street-food dish. It’s just a bit of fun but my guests love it!”
What makes Sicilian food distinct from elsewhere in Italy?
“Sicily’s history and its weather. Because of its central position in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has always been an important strategic base for controlling trade. All the major colonisers ruled over us: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French. These influences have created a new form of cuisine like nowhere else in Europe.”
And the weather?
“How can you have a popular street-food culture where cold temperatures don’t allow you to consume food in the streets? Compare Portugal to Norway, or Egypt to Scotland, or simply compare the cities of Milan and Catania. Here, we live, eat, drink and fall in love in the streets, under the sky and the sun, and the variety of our street food is vast. Try a spleen sandwich in Palermo or a minnuzza di Sant’Agata (below) in Catania and in two bites you will swallow down centuries of Sicilian history. Each food specialty tells you a different historical chapter of Sicily.”
Do Catania and Palermo have a big rivalry?
“Yes, mainly in football… Welcome to Italy! But it’s not only that. Both cities share frustration because one misses what the other has. Palermo is the political centre and the historical capital of the island. Catania is the innovative business centre of Sicily with a richer soil and where the coolest events happen.
This rivalry also finds its focus in food. Take arancina. In Palermo, this is rounded and has a feminine name: arancina. In Catania, it has a pine-cone shape and is called arancino, a masculine name. Both are fried-rice croquettes stuffed with minced meat, breaded with flour or breadcrumbs and deep-fried. But the Palermitan rice is cooked in saffron and stuffed with white ragù, whereas, in Catania, the arancino has a red ragù and is more saucy. Both are super-good but both populations claim to be the original masters of it. I have to support the Palermitan cause because the original arancina should not have any tomato. We are talking about a 1,000-year-old recipe, well before the tomato arrived from South America began invading Italian cuisine, ‘tomato-ising’ our recipes.
To give you an idea of how big this whole arancina-arancino deal is, Sicilians recently brought it before the Accademia della Crusca, which is considered the highest language authority in Italy. The Accademia is not even based in Sicily but in Florence! We await their ruling…”
What are your favourite places to eat in Catania and Palermo?
“In Palermo, don’t miss Madame Dainotti’s meat arancina in Capo market. In Catania, don’t dare to skip Savia’s ragù arancino (above). They are similar in the making but totally different in the taste. The best spleen sandwich in Palermo is made by Mr Pippo Basile in Vucciria square. You see businessmen in elegant suits, young hipsters and muscled workers all together in the same line, hugged around the ‘teano’, a typical pot used to cook veal spleen slices in lard. It’s more than a place, it’s a slice of history. In Catania, the fish market is the best stage to eat local food. Do not miss the boiled stigghiole (veal intestines) served in the street by Mr Carlo Pastura (below) under the railway bridge. Not easy to find – nor to swallow! – but extremely authentic.”
Is it important to break down visitors’ stereotypes and educate them about the real Sicily?
“Absolutely. I want travellers to know what life in Sicily is for real. Sicily is much more than Mafia, but the fact that visitors aren’t aware of this is, in many ways, our Sicilian government’s fault. Local government hasn’t been able to make up a brand to promote the island, like most other Italian regions have. Ask a foreigner to link a city to an image or an item. With Naples, there’s Mount Vesuvius. Milan has its Duomo, Rome the Colosseum, and Venice its gondolas. Then ask them what about Sicily and the answer will be ‘the Mafia’.
“By the way, that doesn’t mean hiding whatever is bad. We do have a Mafia, but it’s not what most of tourists think it. Tourists expect to see people with guns or they tend to link any sound with shotguns or whatever movies fixed in their mind. If you expect to see that in Sicily, sorry to disappoint you, but you are picking the wrong place. Mafia is not The Godfather, it has different forms. We also talk about this with our travellers. We share both the shiny and the dark side of Sicilian moon.”
Why should a tourist in Catania or Palermo consider taking a tour with you?
“Food is good everywhere but who tells you that you are having the original arancina recipe or the best spleen sandwich in town? I will tell you because the places where I normally go to eat street food are the same places where I take you. My mission is to let travellers get in touch with the authentic culture, with no filters in between. Whatever you can’t find in your web research or in the pages of your guidebook can only be experienced with a local friend. A friend like me.
Find out more about Marco’s tours on his website. For the full story on Catania, see the current issue of Jamie magazine, on sale now.
Interview by Paul Dring. Photography by Matt Munro.