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Sicilian sushi

(article, Cassandra Funsten)

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When I lived in California, buying fish for dinner meant picking up neat little shrink-wrapped blocks of protein stacked in a supermarket cold case. Tidy, hygienic, and dull. 

Now that I live in Sicily, however, I regularly buy fresh raw fish displayed in the open air on the sidewalk of a heavily trafficked boulevard. And I think nothing of being kissed by my fishmonger. 


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My new home is a Mediterranean island floating between Europe and North Africa, and the shopping habits of the Sicilians probably have more in common with those of their neighbors in Marrakech than with those of the Milanese. Supermarkets exist here, but are primarily for dry goods. Meat is bought from the butcher, bread from the bakery, produce from the greengrocer, and fish from the fishmonger. 

While the first two require a stable structure, vegetables and fish can be sold from tented stalls by the side of the street or even from the backs of tiny Piaggio pickup trucks. The advantages of going into the open air? It's cheaper for the sellers, sure, but they can also attract customers more easily, with their sing-song calls and the spectacularly theatrical arrangements of their wares. 

When food is bought off the street, trust becomes an important part of the exchange, especially for fish. A Palermitano is just as loathe to purchase fish from a stranger as he is to have his hair cut by an unknown barber. This fedeltà, or fidelity, is rewarded with the good stuff at the right price. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Tuna tartare is a classic Mediterranean raw-fish appetizer."]

My fishmonger, Tonino, is the ringmaster of a big red tent on a sidewalk peninsula shared by a gas station and a Romanian bar. He's a barrel-chested man with a silver crest of greased-back hair. He never stops talking and he never stands still. He darts from the chopping block to the cash register to the counter, giving orders, kisses, and tastes of mussels or shrimp popped open on the spot to whomever is adventurous enough to try them. I won him over by chomping down the treats he offered without question, and flattering him by calling him the Silver Samurai, the best sushi chef in Palermo.

Tonino reigns over tuna and swordfish of leviathan proportion, sweet shrimp full of cobalt-blue eggs, iridescent silver mounds of tiny fry, bags of ebony barnacle-crusted mussels, silver-dollar clams that squirt you in the face, and octopi desperately trying to escape by wrapping themselves around his arm when he pulls them out of their tub. 

Unlike the sterile slabs of white and pink I once bought in California, Tonino’s fish are not only fresh, they seem to be dancing across the ice-filled trays. The swordfish happily points his nose in the air as he “gobbles down” a poor little mullet artfully placed in his mouth. The codfish have been made to arch with a piece of string joining head and tail. Tonino is constantly splashing ice and water on his displays to keep the insects off and to maintain his stars’ sexy “wet” look. Bits of seaweed and shells are tucked in here and there as scenery. There is no shroud of plastic wrap here; these fish are gussied up like the ladies of the night that line this same street corner after dusk, winking and cat-calling at the cars as they pass by.

Amused by my nickname for him, last summer Tonino put out a few plastic tables and chairs next to the petrol pumps, claiming that he would really open up Palermo’s best sushi bar. While he did feed us countless morsels of jewel-colored fish that we washed down with beers bought from the Romanians, his plan never got off the ground, simply because he never charged us. Besides, most of Tonino’s “sushi” recipes are little more than “Snap head off and slurp out the meat.” 

When I described the scene to my grandmother in Los Angeles, she was both thrilled and repelled by the viscerality of it all. But she was most struck by the time she imagined it must take me to do my shopping. ”Three stores for one meal!" she exclaimed. "Why, it must take you all day to do your shopping!”  

Certainly, if I had to go to three different versions of Walmart, grocery shopping would be nothing to get worked up about. But my husband and I sometimes walk down to Tonino’s stand without buying anything, just to “see the show.” His stall is like a bracing after-work aperitivo. I'm hooked.

p(bio). Cassandra Funsten writes a column about local food and culture for the Italian newspaper Giornale di Sicilia. She also keeps an English-language blog at Un'Americana a Palermo. Her photographer, Gabriella Passananti, is not only often her guide to Sicily but also her partner in crime, especially in the kitchen.

reference-image, l