There’s an expression in Sicily: “Quannu s’asciucanu i balati dà Vucciria,” which means “when the streets of the Vucciria run dry,” the equivalent of when hell freezes over.
THE Vucciria, in the heart of Palermo’s historic old city, opens early. By 4 a.m., fishermen are hauling in the day’s catch; by 5 a.m., vendors are setting out crates of fruit and vegetables; and by 6 a.m., the place is bustling with shoppers. It’s a tradition that’s gone on, more or less the same way, for the last 700 years.
Every day but Sunday, the Vucciria fills with fishermen, shopkeepers and merchants who have come to peddle their goods. And it’s quite a selection: pasta, grains, sacks of beans, bags of dried herbs, shoes, socks, cigarette lighters shaped like handguns, grappa, wine, CDs, paintings and paperweights of the Madonna, salted capers (a local specialty), zucchini the size of a child’s leg, crates of artichokes still attached to their long stalks, tomatoes (large, small, sun-dried, packed in oil, in a can, on the vine) and practically anything else you can think of.
Strolling through the maze are the market regulars: men in coppolas, the forward-leaning Sicilian caps, like the one Al Pacino wore in “The Godfather”; and elderly women in heavy tweed skirts, stiff pocketbooks hanging from their elbows. The smattering of curious tourists don’t arrive in Palermo, the crumbling city on the northwest end of Sicily, until the summer.
The center of the outdoor market is the Piazza Caracciolo, the fishermen’s square. I arrived as dawn crept over the buildings. Rickety tables were propped up by plastic milk crates, and men in tall rubber boots and stiff red aprons laid out the morning’s catch on sheets of crushed ice under bright, unforgiving light bulbs dangling from the tarps overhead. The fishermen, stray cats at their ankles, chopped swordfish steaks with cleavers and wrapped handfuls of shrimp in white paper for their early customers. Every so often, the fishermen poured water over their catches — red mullets, shrimp, squid, sea bass and marlin — the excess spilling on to the piazza’s stones.
There’s an expression in Sicily: “Quannu s’asciucanu i balati dà Vucciria,” which means “when the streets of the Vucciria run dry,” the equivalent of when hell freezes over. In other words, it could never happen. But it is happening. By midday on a recent Friday, the worn white stones of the piazza were nearly bone dry.
After 700 years, the Vucciria is fading.
“Everything has changed,” said Ignazio D’Alessandro, a 62-year-old man with white hair and a round face who has been selling fruit in the Vucciria for 57 years. “It hasn’t been the same since Orlando left,” he added, referring to Leoluca Orlando, the anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo who prevented developers from razing old neighborhoods, before leaving office in 2000. “There’s new construction, new developments all around. The Vucciria won’t survive.”
This is a common sentiment around these parts. After World War II, when much of Palermo was bombed to rubble, Mafia-controlled construction companies seized the opportunity to erect inexpensive new buildings rather than refurbish old ones, and the trend has continued since. The result has been the gradual expansion of square, gray concrete buildings squeezing in on the Vucciria.
The market reaches from the heavily trafficked Via Roma down to the water. But what once covered dozens of city blocks has dwindled to only a few. Mr. D’Alessandro is one of the Vucciria’s oldest tenants. He took over the fruit stand from his father, who had taken it over from his father before that.
“I’ve lived here since I was 5,” Mr. D’Alessandro said from his perch behind crates of apples, oranges and prickly artichokes. “I used to employ five people, but now it’s just me. It used to take an hour to get through one block of the Vucciria, but now you can walk it under a minute. The crowds are leaving. The developers are moving in. I’ll have to close in the next two years.”
As I started to leave, Mr. D’Alessandro clasped my hand, and said he had something for me — a gift from the Vucciria. He gave me a small plastic cup filled with what looked like pink water. “It’s artichoke wine,” he said. “I make it myself — good for the digestion.”
Another Vucciria fixture is the Shangai Trattoria (Vicolo Mezzani, 34; 39-091-589-702), a small home-style restaurant full of eclectic furnishings and the smell of garlic. Perched on a balcony above Piazza Caracciolo, the trattoria has been in the same family for 41 years. “This area and this restaurant have always been popular among artists and poets,” said Maria Concetta, the owner, who said that cast members from “The Godfather” ate at her restaurant while filming. And Renato Guttuso, the Italian artist, anti-Fascist and recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize, painted his 1974 masterpiece, “La Vucciria,” of the market in full swing, from the trattoria’s veranda.
“It’s different today,” Ms. Concetta said. “But there are still days you can find the old Vucciria.”
On one such day, makeshift stalls sprang up around Piazza Caracciolo, and small lines started to form within minutes. The early afternoon crowd had poured into the market for its famous street food: salty fried snacks like calamari, artichokes and pannelle, or fried chickpea flour patties. Suddenly, it was easy to see the Vucciria as a living vestige of the past.
It might be the only market in Italy where the art of the abbanniata — calling out your wares at the top of your lungs — is in full effect. Like so many of the traditions in Sicily, the abbanniata was picked up from North Africa. This is a place where old men selling olives will spontaneously start singing their favorite operatic arias, where haggling is considered inappropriate and where the crowd looks as if it were displaced from the 1950s.
The Vucciria may be smaller, weaker and emptier than it has ever been, but it remains stubbornly impervious to the 21st century.
One who remembers its heyday well is Enzo, the single-named proprietor of la Vecchia Trattoria da Totò (Via Coltellieri, 5; 39-333-315-7558). Enzo grew up in the Vucciria and now runs one of the market’s most beloved restaurants, a place where regulars come as much for the pasta con sarde (spaghetti with sardines), as they do to hear Enzo play his drums.
“It was a full place, an important place,” he said, wistfully. “This is where Sicilians came to play, to eat, to work. But the store owners didn’t have money and couldn’t stay open. If the city fixes it up, it can survive. If not, it won’t.”
LATER that afternoon, I was walking around one of the side streets, and apparently out of nowhere I heard a horse neigh. The sound seemed to come from behind a brightly colored door with the words “Teatro Vittorio” painted above. It was an old theater. I pushed the door open and before me — in the center of the Vucciria, just off one of the busiest streets in Palermo — was a fully functioning indoor farm.
It was an astonishing sight: A pig snorted as her piglets slept next to her, two horses were munching on piles of hay, a gangly colt wobbled around his mother, chickens scampered in every direction, and a farmer, sweeping piles of straw, wordlessly beckoned me in. I felt as though I was walking onto the set of a Nativity scene.
The farmer handed me a baby bottle of milk and gently placed a newborn lamb in my arms. “Her mother died three days ago,” he said. “You need to feed her. She must finish the whole bottle.” When I left an hour later, reeling from my brief stint as an urban Sicilian sheep farmer, I passed a handsome young man on the street. He looked at me and winked. “You have found the secret of the Vucciria,” he said, conspiratorially, before walking away.
Early evening, after the fishermen have left Piazza Caracciolo, was when Tanino, the neighborhood barbecue chef, rolled in. He unfurled his stand, fired up the grill and meticulously laid out flanks of liver, kidneys, lungs and intestines; Tanino’s specialty is innards, a Sicilian favorite.
As the smoke of grilled meat drifted into the evening air, the piazza filled with old men on their way home, young couples on scooters and merchants who had just closed up shop for the day. Tanino carefully arranged bowls of salt, lemon wedges and bread, filling orders as quickly as they were called out. This was happy hour in the Vucciria: locals, young and old, munching on hot, greasy sandwiches, talking to friends with full, smiling mouths.
A short while later, as it grew dark, I left Tanino and his group to stroll through the Vucciria once more. The streets were nearly empty except for a few stray cats picking at the fishermen’s scraps. As I stepped over the empty boxes and discarded fruit rinds, I recalled my day in the Vucciria — drinking homemade artichoke wine, listening to an eccentric old man play bongos at his restaurant, feeding a newborn lamb and watching traditions unfold as they’ve unfolded for centuries.
“Places like this can never go away completely,” Ms. Concetta of Shanghai Trattoria said earlier in the day. “You just watch — the Vucciria will outlive us all.”
By DANIELLE PERGAMENT