Fish and chips usually give me a headache. They’re not particularly complex but I’ll bet there’s something in the batter that makes my brain swell. Don’t get me wrong, on some occasions, this quintessential seaside dish can be delicious but more often than not, the batter is soggy, cooked in ancient fat and the chips are as floppy as a… well, a bunny’s ears.
Of course, the Sicilians have an equivalent to fish and chip shops. Except, instead of chips you’ll generally find pasta, couscous and caponata.
After a morning in the market of Ballarò, the locals come to this pescheria to buy lunch because there’s no time to cook after all that haggling. You walk past the odour of copper and salt emanating from stall upon stall of fish so fresh, the clams are still clapping. There is zucchini, as long as your arm or as small as a 50 pence piece, ripe fichi d’India and mammoth persimmon in vivid pinks and oranges, olives up to your eyeballs. But down a little street, where fish-heads and entrails rest, unwanted in the gutter, is Mare Pronto.
The one issue you will have in here is what to choose. Behind a glass counter like a quaint patisseria, are platters full of fish in all shapes, sizes and colours. Juicy swordfish steaks peek out from under freshly chopped tomatoes. There are prawns so enormous and sweet, any prawn you’ve ever eaten before would get size envy. Not a cod in sight today, but perhaps gurnard would appetise?
There is a whole section set aside for fritto misto, deep fried fish. In a round bowl sit octopus, their suckers fixed in a friendly wave. Golden rings of calamari would rather be eaten than worn as jewels on giant fingers. Prawns, crab, kebab, more prawns. The prettiest red mullet is blushing from underneath a minutely thin layer of batter, like fine lace over flesh. Bitesized sepiolini, baby cuttlefish, a crisp salty bite turns gooey then chewy. If any larger, they would look like they’d swum out of a terrifying Alien vs Predator film. If you’re really lucky, a snorkeler might have braved the waters of the gulf for sea urchins and you could have delicious ricci, which hangs then slips from spaghetti ropes, falling apart, perhaps before it even reaches your mouth, as if it has known its destiny all along.
Apart from the abundance of fresh fish, this looks like your average chippy. It’s no frills dining, you can either eat on the street off a paper plate or take a big bass and piles of squid home to feed the family. The owners are friendly and welcoming and the prices are fantastic. The best bit is, the batter is thin and unobtrusive so you can enjoy the full flavour of each fish. It has the same degree of crunch as any old cod in England but thankfully, without the headache.
Via cesare battisti 35, Palermo
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