I often wonder what food travelers mean when they seek “authentic food”. A great majority of folks who write about Italy obsess over what makes the “best” food. The best I can figure is that people like the food the commoners eat but want it given validation by “chefs” in a place where they can pay a lot for it.
Nevertheless, we persist. My “authentic” is animated by common folks enjoying real food. Yes, I’m nuts.
Palermo is known for its street markets and street foods. It’s all good. If you wind through the Ballarò market starting on the train station side and work your way toward the Norman palace, you’ll come across all manner of raw materials for a fine meal. As the market winds down, the stalls are gradually replaced by restaurants. Touts call to you, “Meester, come eat now! Look menu!” a far cry from the abbanniate’, that wild Sicilian call meant to draw a shopper’s attention to the gleaming melanzane or the octopus crawling off the table.
In any case, if you continue, tying yourself to the mast to successfully avoid the traditional siren song of mediocrity, you will certainly come across Il Bersagliere Trattoria. It’s in a hole off to the left as you go up the hill.
If you can’t stand real authentic, please do not cross this sacred portal. Here the beer is cold and the cartilage chewy.
And in Palermo, you must give up the idea that food pictures on the outside of a restaurant are a sign that it isn’t at all a fine place to eat. It may work other places, but just not here, where it seems to be a tradition.
Il Bersagliere is the kind of place where tired workmen come, first giving a single peck on the cheek to the waiter, then congregating at communal tables. Couples wearing motorcycle helmets head for the back tables. Here, written menus are for tourists. Wine is for tourists. It’s beer and dialect; we can’t understand a word.
Plates overflowing with traditional foods start sliding out a window next to my left ear. Plates are as massive as the prices are reasonable. Pasta con le sarde, the traditional Sicilian pasta dish, comes with a twist. Tomato sauce, lots of it.
The dish behind is Martha’s choice. pasta with swordfish, eggplant and mint. And tomato, of course.
So I happen to glance at the next table. The guy on the end is dribbling olive oil over a huge stack of roughly sliced meat. The stream of oil goes on and on. I look at his buddy, with whom he’s sharing the plate. He’s rolling his eyes at the continuing gush of oil. I smile at him and he gives me that look that indicates his friend is out of his head. So I ask him in Italian what the dish is and he surprises me by replying that it’s a Sicilian bollito misto, the best in Italy.
I’m sorry that I’ve just had a trip to the big table out front that looks like a collision between a truck carrying random animal parts and a vegetable cart. My eyes had found something so strange I just had to have it. When I asked the waiter what the object of my gustatory lust was, he drew a gaunt hand over his face and replied that it was pretty much the face of a cow. A salad, believe it or not.
So I figured a salad was what you need to end a meal, and why eat all that lettuce when a cow face was waiting for you.
Postprandial research identified the “salad” as Insalata di Musso e Mascella or Insalata di Musso e Carcagnolo, jaw muscle and cartilage salad. “How is this a salad?” one may ask. Ah, it’s cold (actually, temperatura ambiente or what we’d call room templerature) and there is that little slice of celery and the faint whiff of vinegar…
So I was full and there wasn’t room for the bollito misto. Dang.
But the place was absolutely packed to the gills. I’m saying more than one person had to move in order to access the bathroom door.
In case—if there is any question, this is my authentic. Yours may very well vary.