Panelle in Sicily is terrible. There, I said it.
The Panelle is one of our most successful sandwiches of all time. It’s like nothing you’ve had. Custardy, almost egg-like though it’s vegan. The fennel is amazing. It’s satisfying, yet summery and fresh and delicious. It’s incredible and I wish I could make it at home (even though I’m eating it daily at Clover). When we asked Josh Lewin, award winning chef at Juliet what he loves most on our menu he said: “PANELLE!!!” At that point we hadn’t even had it on menu for 2 years. But now it’s back and Josh and others can rejoice.
But our Panelle is inspired by something terrible. The Panelle in Palermo, where it originates, is just awful. There is not other honest way to describe it. I’ve been torn about whether to admit this. It’s been a little secret we’ve been keeping to ourselves. But it’s the truth. The Sicilian Panelle wasn’t just disappointing, or “not for me.” It was “how am I going to spit this out discreetly without drawing attention” bad.
We originally learned about this sandwich from a customer who told us about his childhood favorite, he described it as a Sicilian equivalent of grilled cheese. Comforting and something your mother might make for you after school. And don’t get me wrong. I believe that there might be amazing panelle served by mothers to their kids. But this isn’t the Panelle we had in Palermo.
In Palermo, the capital of Sicily, there are 2 street food favorites: spleen sandwiches and panelle sandwiches. (If you want to include dessert there is a 3rd, a delicious and odd ice cream sandwich served on a sort of brioche roll.) We found a couple listings of “best panelle in Palermo,” and made our list. The first stop wasn’t on the itinerary. As we entered the city we saw a shop and pulled over excited for our first experience. We’d been in Calabria for a week and were told Panelle was only to be found in Sicily. We took the ferry over hoping to get Panelle at the closest port City (Messina area) and we were told we had to go to Palermo. I found a cheap hotel and booked it and off we drove through 3 hours of amazing tunnels across Sicily.
The first panelle, it looked interesting, but none of us wanted a second bite. At this point we were all looking uncomfortable, but nobody wanted to share their thoughts.
We found the shops on my list. We had a few from street vendors. Tried one at a sit down restaurant. A couple of new places. Some old places. I was traveling with Chris, Vincenzo, Lucia, and Ethan. Everybody wanted to stop the Panelle search after a couple. But we soldiered on. I kept us tasting until late at night when everything was shut down.
But all we found was just really awful Panelle.
- The oil it’s fried in was always nasty. Old, oxidized, really not tasty
- The texture was terrible. Do you know how a perfect egg is tender, exciting in your mouth, satisfying? And an overcooked egg is rubbery and sort of hard to eat? The Palermo Panelle is the overcooked egg.
- The taste wasn’t yummy. When we made the Panelle (which are made like polenta but with chickpea flour) we thought it could use something. So we season it and add a bit of rosemary. It’s delicious. The Panelle in Palermo just didn’t have much taste. Really you could only taste the off flavors of the rancid oil from the fryer.
Or as Lucia said the other day: “I’ll never want to eat gross old oil on nasty ass stale bread… It was unlike anything I’ve had in how bad it was.” (btw, Lucia speaks fluent Italian, so if you take offense you don’t have to yell at her in English ; )
On another note Vincenzo loved the spleen sandwiches.
(Picture below of the fun ice cream sandwich from Palermo. Reminds me of the ice cream on hot dog roll that is popular in Bangkok.)
Addendum – a couple of people took from this story that I didn’t like eating in Southern Italy. Sorry if I gave that impression. That couldn’t be farther from the truth!!! I LOVED the trip there. I love traveling. You are forced to reassess so many assumptions. And who wouldn’t enjoy an eating trip in Italy. It was incredible and the trip impacted me in wonderful lasting ways. Even the Panelle. We came back knowing first hand what we were working with.