The pasta: even better. Chewy noodles tinted jet black with squid ink and tossed with sautéed rings and crispy legs of calamari—a sort of nose-to-tail homage to the island’s cherished cephalopod. And Palermo’s most famous dish, pasta con le sarde, a bulge of thick spaghetti strewn with wild fennel, capers, raisins, and, most critically, a half dozen plump sardines slow-cooked until they melt into a briny ocean ragu. Sweet, salty, fatty, funky—Palermo in a single bite.
And yet somehow, even with this lovely bounty before us, the food was overshadowed by the conversation at our table. As we plodded our way through the meal, Alessio Genovese, a Sicilian journalist from nearby Trapani, talked to us about Palermo’s immigration issues, about Sicily’s ambivalent relationship with the rest of Italy, about the micro-dialects and cuisines found all over the island. “You can move from one village to the next and find the food and the language have changed completely.”
Four times the server came by to pick up the plate of pasta and four times she was sent back empty handed—each time with an increasingly intense waggle from Genovese’s finger. The two Americans at the table, we had put our forks down an hour earlier, but the two Sicilians pushed forward, eating, drinking and talking in such a perfectly balanced manner that time seemed to stop moving altogether. The oil from a pasta, the last drops of wine, the final thought in a conversation: crumbs are precious in Palermo and they will be eaten, with the tines of a fork, the heel of a baguette, or the tip of an index finger.
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