Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
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Spleen burgers? A western Sicilian thing, but there's hardly a region of Europe without its specialty
food made from some kind of organ or "variety meat." Scotland has haggis, England has kidney pie,
Germany has liverwurst and France has its fois gras. There was a time, long
before the days of mass-breeding and slaughtering of livestock and poultry, when such giblets
or "sweetbreads" were considered something tantamount to a delicacy.
Tripe, made from beef stomach, used to be common in most of Italy, including
Sicily. One of the more interesting Sicilian entries in this esoteric culinary
category is roasted goat brain --admittedly a bit exotic-- but poultry or calf
liver seems to be part of the cuisine of many countries. In western Sicily, and
especially around Palermo, a favourite treat is Pane con la Milza, which
in strictest Palermitan Sicilian is "pani cà meusa" (the old Sicilian word was vastedda or vastidda) a sandwich
made of fried beef spleen served with a slice of fresh Sicilian lemon and perhaps
some grated local caciocavallo cheese. Admittedly, this is nothing for the faint of
heart --whether that faintness results from a confirmed cardiac condition, a high blood cholesterol level
or a mere psychological aversion to eating animals' vital organs.
The neolithic practice of eating the heart of a hunter's large prey (American
Indians did this too) may have had a quasi-mystical rationale. None of that here.
This is simply folksy food. Yet one wonders how spleen surpassed the more generic
liver in popularity. It has to do with the popularisation of the cow.
It wasn't until the fifteenth century that bovine livestock took its place as
a principal mainstay of the Sicilian agricultural economy. While it's true that
cows had been raised here since antiquity, the deforestation and ever-increasing
conversion of country estates to wheat and grass changed the economy, and not
necessarily for the better. True, Sicily was the granary of the Roman Empire, but
now entire provinces were turned over almost exclusively to grain production.
Landholders viewed such agriculture as the most direct route to fast, easy money,
and anyway entire forests were being destroyed to support Aragonese (and then
Spanish) shipbuilding. Something had to be planted in place of the firs and
hardwoods, and arboriculture and conservation were little more that theoretical
notions. (Some might argue that they are little more than such in Sicily even
Pork, mutton and goat were the main meats consumed in Sicily for centuries.
The occasional hare, rabbit, pheasant or chicken complemented this diet. Fish was
popular in coastal cities but people in the rugged interior rarely even saw fish
or squid, mussels or other seafood. Goats and sheep were easier to raise than
bulls and cows. To this day most Sicilian aged cheeses are made from the milk of
these hardy, mountain-loving animals. As a foonote, it's interesting that until
the 1960s Americans (for example) consumed more pork than beef, so Sicilian
tastes were not entirely eccentric to general trends.
Organ meats waned in popularity only as livestock prices became more
affordable following the end of the Second World War. Larger, meatier livestock
seemed to make steak more appealing than liver, though much in the shift in
preferences is owed to advertising, the new "restaurant culture"
(dining in restaurants as a pleasure rather than as a necessity for travellers)
and a general evolution in taste. In Sicily the consequences of this development
were not always predictable. At one point some enterprising Mafiosi from Corleone
actually cornered Palermo's beef market and began to inflate prices to their own
advantage. Today virtually no beef, and very little pork, consumed in Sicily
comes from local sources. Most of it is imported from France or the Netherlands,
or brought in from northern Italy.
It has been suggested that spleen was first popularised by Palermo's Jewish community, but this is not
known with certainty. Spleen sandwiches were, in effect, a fast food that gained in popularity in
the nineteenth century. Like arancine (rice balls), they were sold at stands around Palermo. One
might almost refer to this as "comfort food." The spleen strips are
cooked with lard in a giant, circular vat. (Whoever rediscovered the Mediterranean Diet certainly didn't have pane con la milza in mind!)
Stirring and straining the meat is something of a ritual, so expect to wait a
minute while the chef prepares your sandwich.
What does it taste like? A little like calf liver but slightly more chewy. As
I said, it's not for everybody.
Where to Find It: The appropriately-named Pane cà Muesa, at Via
Cala 62 (across from the Cala bay between the Gancia and Porto Salvo churches) is
a local institution in Palermo and pane con la milza is their specialty. Nearby, on the edge of Piazza Marina,
is Franco u Vastiddaru at Corso Vittorio Emanuele 102, where there are outdoor tables
on warm evenings. For a slightly more formal atmosphere, with table servce, try Focacceria San Francesco
in Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi a few blocks away. At Corso Calatafimi 95, just off Piazza Indipendenza (near
the Norman Palace), is Testagrossa, which in addition to spleen burgers also serves arancine and other fried foods.
About the Author: Palermo native Francesca Lombardo is Best of Sicily's
resident wine expert. She has written a book about Sicilian street food.