Sicilian markets can be a very interesting first place to visit when travelling to Sicilian cities such as Palermo or Catania. Popular markets are in fact the places where travellers can better understand the peculiar characteristics of a new culture, enjoying the typical folkloric atmosphere and plunging in a powerful kaleidoscope of sounds, colours and perfumes, able to awake each of the five senses.
Today with this post we want to present some of the most famous Sicilian markets, with their long history that today co-exists with the modernity of cities. A virtual journey to places where you can buy and taste the typical Sicily street food. From historic to slightly more modern ones, visiting the Sicilian markets you can take a quick lunch break, meet friends, taste or even buy and take home the typical cooked, raw or packaged products.
Protagonists in the Sicilian markets are surely the screaming vendors, trying to grab and convince customers to buy their products. Screams, called in Sicilian dialect abbanniate in Palermo and vuciate in Catania, may be seen as a rude attitude, but is actually an oral heritage of the past: during fairs cantastorie or balladeers used to tell stories to the crowd, with particular vocal techniques and rhythms aiming at attracting the attention of the audience.
The same that today happens -in a modern way- with vendors who sometimes scream in rhyme, using precise vocal rhythm inventing kind of songs, even using metaphors in order to exalt their products and competing for the attention of customers.
Vision in Sicilian markets is as stimulated as the hearing. The typical scenery of Sicilian markets is made up of ephemeral architectures: moving stands and colourful sunshades occupy the maze of narrow alleys to show and display every sort of goods. Merchandise itself contributes to enlarge the spectrum of colours hitting visitors and customers entering a market. Stands of fruits, vegetables, spices, aromatic herbs, cheese, salami and much more can confuse and fill the vision.
Sicily street food is another key point of the Sicilian markets, stimulating both smell and taste. The street food in Palermo is maybe the biggest reason today to visit Palermo Sicilian markets and trying the delicious –yet not so healthy!- typical gastronomic food, fatty and mainly fried, served in cones of rice paper to take-away.
It is not a coincidence if Palermo is the 5th best city in the world for street food and the first in Europe. Visit the Sicilian markets of Palermo and try the wide variety of specialities: a ‘rascatura, i cazz iddi, a’ quagghia, i vrocculi a ‘pastiedda, i purpietti, u ‘pani ca’ meusa, fish, a ‘chicory, a’ lattuca, i giri, u ‘caciocavaddu, a’ murtadiedda.
But first things first, let’s start our virtual journey of the most famous Sicilian markets!
Sicilian markets of Palermo and their history
Palermo has always been a cosmopolitan city, and here the history of the Sicilian markets starts near the rivers and the port, where merchandise arrived or left for trading during the Islamic time. The 3 historic and most famous Sicilian markets in Palermo are Ballarò market, Capo market and Vucciria market.
Ballarò market, the biggest of Palermo
Among the Sicilian markets, Ballarò market is the biggest of Palermo. Located in the famous quarter of Albergheria, the market occupies the streets from Corso Tukory to Casa Professa Square and it existed already in 1287, selling not only fruit and vegetables, but also meat. It was composed by a single narrow and long street, but in 1297 the Senate decided to give Ballarò market more space, so it bought some houses nearby to tear them down and realize a large square. Its name comes from the term ‘Bahlara‘, which indicated a village near Monreale, from which the Arab merchants came.
Among the aisles of Ballarò market, not only you can find several kiosks selling colourful fruits and fresh vegetables, but also many historic taverns and important monuments. Moreover, Ballarò market is the perfect place where to try Sicily street food. The street food in Sicilian markets has also an ancient origin, coming from the merchant’s habit and necessity of having a quick meal in the Sicilian markets streets during their trades.
The most common street food in Palermo is boiled octopus, boiled or baked onions, and especially the well-known and characteristic pancakes called panelle, made with chickpea flour, aromatized with parsley and fried, and crocchè or cazzilli, but also the famous arancine or cannoli. In addition, other typical food are what locals use to prepare with animal scrap. Among these the most popular are stigghiola and pane ca’ meusa (bread with spleen), typical Sicily street food whose origins date back to Arab time. A stigghiola is a gut of young goat or lamb enrolled with shallot and grilled.
Vucciria market (Bucciria)
The Vucciria market was once the biggest among the Sicilian markets of Palermo, but it has a more recent origin, yet still very ancient, dating back to X-XII century. Even the area where it rises is different from the other markets, as it is located where the ancient port was silted, in the current district of Castellammare.
The Italian name of the market has changed many times from Bocceria Grande to Bucceria and finally to the current Vucciria, coming from the French “boucherie” meaning butcher shop or slaughterhouse, and in fact this market used to sell meat. Very prosperous in 1400, Vucciria market hosted the lodges of “foreign” merchants coming from Italy (Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi) and Catalonia, and was enlarged many times.
Sicily street food you can buy at Vucciria market are Castelvetrano olives, dried tomatoes, citrus fruits, bakery, fish, watermelons, aubergines, spices and all the delicacies of Sicilian pastry. It is a temple of aromas and colors that became also the subject of a beautiful painting of Renato Guttuso, called “Vucciria”. The painting fully express the typical atmosphere of the Sicilian markets with the narrow streets with barely enough space to people to pass, the triumphal exhibitions of merchandise and the stands.
Several films have also been shot in these pretty and folkloric alleys, always crowded with tourists and local people. In Vucciria market fish is sold around Caracciolo Square, for example the typical stockfish. A wide selection of fish is instead found in Capo market.
Capo Market: the most ancient one
Capo market is the most ancient of the Sicilian markets of Palermo, born during the Islamic domination in the historic district of Monte di Pietà, where also the beautiful Palemo cathedral stands. It was once populated by “Schiavoni”, pirates and slaves traders and it rose beyond the Papireto river. Here, along with fruits and vegetables, you can find meat and also other typical products such a special bread made with wheat flour, olives and capers.
Anyway, the fish is the protagonist: several colourful stands follow in the narrow streets, with vendors setting a real competition for the most beautiful stand, screaming (abbanniando) to attract customers: big fishes such as tunas or swordfishes are constantly enlightened with big lamp above, and a wide range of fish is bathed with water to maintain its freshness.
In Capo market you can meet the “riffaturi”, a person who walk through the market selling ticket for a popular lottery having as a prize some grocery or a box of fresh fish or meat. In the afternoon, in the street of Capo you may smell the delicious scent of the boiled potatoes, another typical street food in Palermo, prepared in a very large copper cauldron.
Fera ô luni and Pescheria Catania markets
Sicilian markets of Catania, as Palermo, has an crowded and lively atmosphere, where the screams of vendors are called in the local dialect vuciate instead of abbanniate. Markets of Catania have a strong link with the religious identity of the city.
The different processions occurring over the year, and especially the most heartfelt of Sant’Agata, always include in their itinerary the most ancient and famous Sicilian markets of Catania: the Pescheria and the Fera ô Luni. Here during the processions huge wooden structures, called Candelori, richly decorated in baroque style culminating with big candles –thus the name Candelori- are carried on the shoulders escorted by the marching band. When the procession enters the Sicilian markets of Catania, especially the Fera ô Luni, candelori stop to the stalls and stores, and merchants used to throw sweet breads and candies.
Pescheria Catania market
The Pescheria is the ancient fish market of Catania, born at the beginning of 1800. It is included in the tourist routes due to the folkloric atmosphere that you breathe while passing through the fishmongers’ stalls. The benches of Pescheria Catania are located from the beginning of the XIX century in the Alonso di Benedetto Square and in the tunnel dug in 1814 in the ramparts of the XVI century wall, under the Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici.
The tunnel keeps the stalls sheltered from the sun and is a real attraction both for tourists who come to enjoy the folkloric ambience, and for locals because of its unparalleled offer of fresh fish: swordfish, tuna, octopus and clams, cockles, squid, everything that the sea around Sicily can offer. Fishermen and wholesalers clean, gut, cut into slices on the spot and share their recipes on request.
Fera ô luni market
Fera ô luni is the most ancient among the Sicilian markets of Catania, having its origins in the Middle Age, and was once held in the square located in front of the Basilica della Collegiata, under the ancient name of Piano del Carmine. In 1832 the market was displaced to the current location of Carlo Alberto Square. The name Fera ô luni means “Monday fair” because originally this market was only held on Mondays even if today the market takes place every day from Mondays to Saturdays.
Here too there is a part dedicated to food, with vegetables, fruit, cheeses and sausages and very low prices, but it is especially a place where you come to do some clothing deals, and find some bargains for the wardrobe, perhaps on one of the second hand and vintage counters.
Other important markets in Sicily
Other important Sicilian markets are the Pescheria of Syracuse and the market of Strata a Foglia held in Caltanissetta.
Now, tell us: how many places exist in the world where to go buy fresh grocery and tasty fish and having the remains of an ancient pagan temple as background? Well, this happens in Ortygia island. Walking through the streets of Ortygia, we meet the historic market of Syracuse, the Pescheria, located near the remains of the ancient Greek temple of Apollo.
The market is held along the Emanuele de Benedictis street and the nearby alleys and it keeps the same atmosphere of a typical Arab souk. It represents a fact of Muslim continuity, a true economic reality of the city for decades. This characteristic atmosphere has lasted for decades. Initially, the market developed only within the pre-existing building of the Old Market built at the end of the XIX century within which butchers and fishmongers were located. This structure has become a cultural container available to associations wishing to do promotional activities in the area.
Moving in the inland, we find the historic market of Strata a Foglia in Caltanissetta, dating back to 1500. Originally the market sold local vegetables and wild herbs recollected by the inhabitants called Fogliamara, meaning literally bitter leaf, referring to the bitter taste of the wild herbs that had –and still have- medical benefits.
In conclusion, we can say that Sicilian markets are included in the tourist routes because tourists are more and more interested in discovering the local culture of countries and regions they visit, and markets are the best places helping fully understand the most popular and pure aspects of local people. Sicily is a land where all the dominations that followed over time never deleted or destroyed the pre-existing cultural heritage, but instead adopted a strategy of inclusion, which is today our greatest treasure.
Sicilian markets are just an example of Islamic heritage, that in addition can be found in architecture, food, habits, topography and much more, always co-existing with the many following influences.