1 - BIKER CHICKS Couples on scooters and
motorbikes make up a significant part of Sicilian traffic, the girl
typically sitting behind her boyfriend, romantically clutching his
waist. But a young Palermitana is just as likely to ride her own
set of wheels. Lean, outstretched arms and the sensual forward tilt
of a woman’s pelvis arching over a heavy motorcycle in acceleration
make for a physical embodiment of power and grace that eclipses all
2 - CAPONATA This antipasto is a staple of Sicilian cuisine. After sampling it throughout Palermo, I ultimately named the one served at the Trattoria del Bersagliere the best, hands down. The smoky taste of eggplant gently mingles with the flavors of onions, tomatoes, capers, and other fresh ingredients, which combine to form a firm, burgundy-green mush that is just so right. A crew of rowdy local men often occupies the front of the restaurant, so to avoid being disturbed while we gorge ourselves on this fine delicacy, we opt for the least desirable table—the one in the back by the toilets.
3 - ALBERTO BURRI, CRETTO, 1985–89 In 1968 an earthquake shook the idyllic village of Gibellina, burying four hundred citizens under rubble and leaving ten thousand homeless. In 1985, proto–arte povera artist Alberto Burri, commissioned to build a memorial for the site, poured concrete over the nearly twenty-acre footprint of the village, covering the streets and building up five-foot slabs over the ruined quarters between. This new, neutral-colored landscape serves as both a solemn memorial and a playful labyrinth for visitors to fill with the echo of new laughter.
4 - A RIVER UNDER THE FLOOR When Francesco de
Marco and Vincenzo Spatola transformed their ground-floor squat
into the Laboratorio Stalkernoiser—a studio for electronic music,
video art, cybernetics, electro-mechanical installations, and
parties—they discovered a river flowing underneath the concrete
floor. Studying old maps of the neighborhood, the city center of
Vucciria, they identified the stream of water as the Papireto,
which represented the outer city limit of Palermo when it was
founded. Now covered with a sheet of glass and lit dramatically,
the rushing water becomes a hypnotic feature with the ability to
stop night revelers in their tracks.
5 - LETTERPRESS The brothers who run the Tipografia Fradella Paolo di Angelo Scalia print shop in Palermo produce business cards and letterhead with thickly embossed text by manually assembling lead fonts designed in the 1940s and pressing each sheet of paper on a century-old Heidelberg press. Although computers now play an equal part in their business, the brothers are the third and probably last generation of their family still committed to the printed word as Gutenberg originally conceived it.
6 - ENHANCED FRESCOES The 1906 frescoes in the dining room of the Palermo palazzo owned by the Planeta family of winemakers depict decorative subjects—flower garlands, cherubs, girls on clouds—in the Sicilian Liberty style. It is more the strange rubbery form adhered to the ceiling, though, that provokes inquiry. Daughter Chiara Planeta once explained that it is actually a ball of a sticky plasticine marketed as “Pongo” that she and her brother tossed up there around 1975. Since no one has ever bothered to get it down, it is now, like the frescoes, a unique family heirloom.
7 - LABORATORIO SACCARDI This brat pack of young artists—Marco Barone, Giuseppe Borgia, Vincenzo Profeta, and Tothi Folisi, all born in the late ’70s—works collectively under the name Laboratorio Saccardi. A prolific group, they quickly churn out volumes of hilarious faux-naive paintings with one-liners commenting on local folklore of all sorts—the church, the mob, even their own parents. They have also painted five ironic interpretations of Picasso’s Guernica, in case anybody has forgotten what that’s all about.
8 - TUNA LIBERATION FRONT The ancient Mediterranean culture of tonnaras (tuna fisheries) and the mattanza (the ritualized massacre of tuna) spawned its own intricate system of social organization and performance involving singing and prayer. By the 1980s, the Japanese had begun to station their tankers off the Sicilian coast, outbuying even the Sicilians themselves. Some see the cropping up of trendy sushi bars in Palermo as a way to question the assumed Japanese-ness of sushi and as a roundabout way for Sicilians to reclaim their own tuna. Palermo’s Tuna Liberation Front, a loose-knit group of friends, furthers the cause by organizing homemade sushi dinner parties and planning a Miss Tuna competition. Stay tuna’d.
9 - WORLDLY POSSESSIONS One Saturday afternoon,
I took the bus down via Libertà for some luxury window-shopping
and, just outside the Chanel store, I spotted a nun my age crossing
the street carrying a Frette bag. What else does she have that I
10 - FAMILIAR NAMES Capo d’Orlando, a charming seaside resort in Sicily, has been claimed at different points by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Saracens. According to legend, the name was given by Charlemagne in honor of his paladin, Orlando (Roland). Today, however, the invasion of frolicking tourists is more in line with the other Orlando—Orlando, Florida, the home of Disney World. And located an hour away in a dreary suburb of Bagheria, a small toy shop named Disneylandino is just the best proof ever of culture’s endless mutability.