Mode of Transport: Pane Con La Milza
There was a stray cat that roamed the small gravel parking lot at the Lascari train station. During our Sicily excursion, one of us always carried a backpack for the day filled with all sorts of snacks. This day, unfortunately for our little friend, was different. We were without any snacks to share with her. She purred and meowed, as we continued our apologies. She continued to follow us as we went to Track 1, the only track on the small and mostly deserted station.
The Stray Sicilian Cat
The cat stayed with us for a few minutes, and then darted off. Seconds later, the train came into sight. The cat can always feel the train coming, by the murmur from the tracks before the human eye can. The commuter train was one big car. A bus on tracks. It was obvious to the man seated facing us, that we were visitors. In perfect English, he asked where it was that we were going. We told him Palermo in search of Milza.
A Sandwich made with Fried Spleen – Milza
Pane con la Milza is a sandwich made of fried beef spleen served with a slice of fresh Sicilian lemon and perhaps some grated local caciocavallo cheese. It is a street food treat favored by many Sicilians, especially around Palermo. It’s not for the faint of heart – literally. From the way the sandwich has been romanticized by historians, food people and locals, including the nice man we met on the train, I had to have it even though my cholesterol and blood pressure were suspect.
On the Ferry, Crossing the Straits of Messina
Of the many things that needed to the done during our stay in Sicily, having this sandwich was one of the reasons we crossed the Strait of Messina. The train pulled into the Palermo train station a little after noon. Soon as we unboarded, akin to the cat from the Lascari station, I was looking for a snack.
The Sicilian Favorite, Arancini
My daughter, Bailey, feeling a bit peckish herself, without hesitation walked straight to the cafe at the station, opened the cooler and got herself a Cornetto ice cream. My wife, Brenda, went straight to the food offerings that were displayed under glass, and ordered another Sicilian favorite, Arancini. Arancini are made by forming plain risotto into round shapes, commonly with mozzarella, peas and tomato sauce hidden in the middle ( there are other varieties, some with meat, other cheese, etc.) dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs then deep fried.
La Vucciria Market
I didn’t come to Sicily for some rice ball or manufactured ice cream. I came here for some cow spleen. I rushed them out and punched into the maps apps on my phone the direction to La Vucciria Market. On a small street right off Piazza San Domenico, I spotted a man with a white apron and a tin drum in front of him. I ran over, only to find that there were just scrapings of the spleen at the bottom of the drum and he was basically packed up for the day. I tried to order even the bits, but out of respect to me as a customer, he couldn’t sell it to me and in idiomatic English, asked me politely to return the next day for a fresh batch.
Casa Del Brodo
We ended up having a more proper lunch at one of the oldest establishments in Palermo, Casa del Brodo. They had a wonderful antipasti spread in which we were able to sample the famous sardines of the country prepared many different ways. The rest of the day was filled with adoring the Moorish inspired city and took photos of the town, that until that day, we only saw in Dolce and Gabbana fashion campaigns.
The Town of Cefalú
The next day, we visited the coastal town of Cefalú. The beach was lined with families basking in the sun, and ancient streets filled with the most beautiful chapels and almost dilapidated century-old buildings. There was food everywhere and I actually found a place that sold Milza, but it was a Monday and they were closed! Disheartened, we went for a drink, had a pasta called “alla Norma” which highlighted the wonderful and meaty aubergine available on the island.
We made a beach day out of it, and while strolling found out from a plaque that was set upon a large rock near a docking station, that one of our favorite foreign movies , “Cinema Paradiso” was filmed there. This made my wife fall in love with the town even more.
For most, and I agree, that no visit to Sicily would be complete without seeing the magnificent Mount Etna. We decided to forego the cable car and did some uphill hiking. Certainly, it was one of those experiences worth having and crossing off the list of places to see before dying. However, it still played second fiddle to the item on the top of my list, the Milza sandwich, which was yet to be crossed off.
The Town of Catania
Determined, we visited the town of Catania which lays at the foot of the volcano. It was late in the afternoon, and I knew there would be nearly no chance to grab that much-coveted sandwich, but worth the try. To no avail. However, to take away some of the anguish I purchased a good bottle of Etna Rosso.
The Town of Taormina
Taormina was one of those places that have gotten much acclaim these past years and has become the most visited town in Sicily. Beautiful, yes. Contrived, also yes. The second I stepped into that town, it lacked the authenticity in which I was in search and thought immediately that there was no Milza to be found there. I was proven correct. There was, however, lots of pizza. If you are a newlywed, or just want a somewhat Disneyfied experience of the country, then this is your place. Admittedly, from the terrace of a posh hotel, few sunsets are as beautiful. Though it comes at a price.
The Town of Sant’ Ambrogio
One day, we were invited to take part in a cooking class with a famous local chef, Mimmo who owns Osteria Bacchus in the less traversed town of Sant’Ambrogio. First thing I asked him was if he can put together a nice Milza sandwich for me. He would have done so, but he specialized in seafood and did not have calf spleen in the kitchen. As he only cooks what’s fresh and bought that day, there wasn’t any hope of frozen spleen in the refrigerator.
Our Cooking Class at Osteria Bacchus
Instead, we were treated to some great swordfish, pasta, vegetables; and were taught to make a perfect panelle, another street food favorite in these parts, which are basically little chickpea fritters. There were other dishes we were taught to cook, and there was as much wine as there was food. In short, an excellent afternoon with wonderful people in a beautiful setting. But something in me was still unfulfilled.
At the end of every day, and my stomach always feeling a bit empty due to my failures from not finding the grail I was coveting, I found solace in the beautiful villa in which we stayed. It was a wonderful respite from all the traveling, replete with all the luxuries one dreams when staying at a place in a beautiful island such as Sicily. There were roomy bedrooms, a wonderful living space, great outdoor space, an excellent swimming pool; and because the villa was perched on a hill, we had wonderful views of the lower towns and seaside when swimming and relaxing outdoors.
The Kitchen and the Patio of Massimo Villas
For me, it was the kitchen indoors that gave me great joy. It was spacious and had state of the art equipment along with all the pots and pans I needed to cook dinner in the evenings; which we usually enjoyed on the patio as we embraced the sounds of the wild from the small valley below and gazed upon the stars that were as bright as Christmas lights. If you ever want to stay in a villa such as Villa Vittoria, Massimo Villas is the company to seek, as they have many properties that will certainly not disappoint.
At the end, I ended up unsuccessful in my search of Milza, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt it karma or retribution of some sort from leaving that stray cat hungry on that day. As I looked through the photos we took and saw the smiles on my family’s face and the beauty that surrounded us, I realized, that obsessing about finding a sandwich led me to experiencing something inherently more satiating – Sicily, the country, the people, Eden.
Inspired to visit Sicily in search of Milza? Or perhaps some panelle (chick pea fritters)? Pin it for later!
Thank you to Massimo Villas, we were guests of Massimo Villas during our stay in Sicily, but as always, all words and thoughts are mine.