Menfi, an engaging Sicilian town located southwest of Palermo and northwest of Agrigento, is known for its ceramics, the oil made from Nocellara olives and its viniculture. Only a few miles from the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, Menfi also carries the allure of the local food that combines traditional products with a simple yet delicious art of cooking.
Hungry for those Sicilian specialties? Here are six reasons Menfi stands apart from its neighboring towns.
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1. Go spiny
My driver, Nino, passionately recounted details about the carciofo spinoso (or spiny artichoke), whose exterior bracts have a base color green with shades of violet and large golden spines. The Slow Food movement has placed this special artichoke on the list products worthy of protection. These ‘chokes are greatly aromatic, crispy yet delicate and delicious eaten raw, grilled, canned or cooked-through as a caponata and paté. Considered a medicinal plant for centuries, rich in antioxidants, it boasts a high percentage of cynarin, a polyphenol able to promote liver function and to improve bile activity.
2. Street food
It’s a Sicilian tradition. Nino directed me to Signor Pino, Menfi’s most respected street vendor, who usually parks his cooking trailer in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. At the top of the choices is the pane cà meusa, (spleen sandwich). It is a soft panino stuffed with small bits of previously boiled beef spleen, fried in a little bit of lard and served piping hot with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. “The darker the spleen, the better the taste,” said Pino (aka Mr. Panelle from the very popular panelle, a type of fritters made from chickpea flour). Spleen is rarely on the menu, and it tastes a little bit like liver or kidney. Its soft pulp crumbles in your mouth like a blood sausage. Most either love it or hate it. For the record, I so loved it that I had two.
3. Giovanni, the Last (or the best?) Fisherman
Menfi inhabitants call him “Ultimo Pescatore.” Giovanni Tarantino fishes at night or in the early morning after studying the moon. “A weaker moon is better, sardines are scared of the light! I choose the beaches of Porto Palo or Selinunte, I drop the net and wait. To prepare them, I usually skewer and grill over coals with a pitch of oregano. Hey, I am about to make a pasta with sardines and wild fennel, would you like to have a try?”
You bet I did. Legendary Sicilian hospitality exemplified.
4. Low libido?
Sicilians are ready to share a tasty secret. Take a sea urchin without poking your fingers, cut it in two, squeeze a little lemon and indulge in this delicacy, considered an aphrodisiac since the days of the ancient Greeks.
In the vicinity of Menfi, the morning markets offer succulent sea urchins to be eaten raw on the site. I loved their creamy sweetness that I found more similar to mussels than oysters. In Menfi a restaurant called Vittorio’s uses only female urchins colored in purple, green and brown to make a great pasta sauce.
5. Don’t call them pizza
I had my first encounter with a slice of sfincione accompanied by a glass of the well-balanced Chardonnay by Planeta. Sfincione comes from the Latin spongia, meaning sponge, exactly the way its dough should be: soft and spongy, then topped with an intense sauce made of tomatoes, onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese and olive oil. Delicious.
In the nearby city of Sciacca, I tasted the tabisca saccense, a special kind of “pizza” stretched to a 23-inch oval shape, topped with roasted tomatoes, grated pecorino cheese and lots of onions. Finale touch: one black olive in the middle.
6. Have a glass
Since 1995, Menfi has been host of Inycon, a three-day wine festival, the which is oldest in Sicily. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of excellent wines. Inycon offers a marathon of wine and food workshops. It features the cookingof Sicilian chefs, visits to wineries, walks through the vineyards, even great rides by horse or bycicles. The piazza hosts several wine tastings showcasing the production of local vineyards, including Planeta, Settesoli and Donnafugata.
Evenings are magic. I loved the old courtyards in Vittoria Street, all decorated with lamps, candles and fabrics and surprisingly transformed from the neighbors into small restaurants, where often the chef is the real nonna (grandmother)living in the building. Everywhere is an array of food tasting, from the porchetta to pate’ tapas, from the sweet cake cassata siciliana (where else?) to seafood couscous. Great bread and local extra virgin olive oils will abound in their basic majesty.
These six good reasons should be added to the main one: The incomparable welcome that the inhabitants of Menfi will reserve to you making your visit preciously worth.
Main photo: Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca