Vucciria market. The name even sounds gritty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. And it’s one of the markets they send you to when you ask where you should go in Palermo. It’s a market in transition. It’s a place to go in the evenings, not only to have your pockets picked but to have some cheap and questionable libations and maybe dance the night away. The bombed-out buildings surrounding Piazza Garraffello make up the background. You never forget the war.
We discovered Vucciria market while waiting for our dinner reservation. The sun had set. We had no idea where we were strolling.
Then came the rat-tat-tat of boxing gloves coming together. Musically. So we pushed forward, squirming between folks clutching drinks tightly. In front of the infamous Taverna Azzurra, where the cheap booze is, we discovered an older guy and a young guy boxing. No equipment besides the gloves. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Just the gloves. No blows to the head, no stomach punching, no ring. Nobody afraid to pass these concentrating pugilists closely with a couple of jiggling beers.
“Odd,” I thought. Then we went to eat.
Days later I got to thinking about this little slice of life, so I searched the web for “Sicilian boxing” thinking that maybe it was a strange kind of boxing that rewarded blows to the glove—or a game that depended upon building what percussive sounds you could conjure with boxing gloves while looking like Sylvester Stallone on a narrow street lined with vegetables.
Like a brain surgeon peering into a politician’s skull, I found nothing.
When I got home to our hovel in the Lunigiana, just happened to come across a short video that made everything crystal clear.
It turns out that of the boxers was Pino Leto. It’s unlikely you know him, but you’ll like his story. Pino was an eight-time Italian champion and winner of the European super-welterweight title in 1989.
As a child he lived with his family around the Vucciria market. He watched as his friends succumbed to the siren song of the Mafia and ended up broken or in prison. One day a friend turned him on to boxing. He was good at it.
Today, retired from professional boxing, he remains the “boy of Vucciria” as he tries to improve his neighborhood. His desire is to remove the youngsters from the mean streets, teaching them to follow a passion. He gives them a taste a performing in front of a crowd at the market. Bravo.
You may be surprised that Mr. Leto has written two books, Dalla strada al ring, From the Street to the Ring, and Amare Palermo amara, about the bitter love Palermo invokes. Not your typical boxer at all.
I understand, dear (potential) tourist, your fear of gritty Naples, or a bombed out corner of Palermo. There are many more beautiful places in Italy. But the uplifting stories exist in the cracks and the best wine still comes from stressed vines.
Where is the best place to go in Italy? Depends upon the time of day and which knight emerges from the darkness.