I spent the summer of 1984 with my grandparents on their summer house on the Nebrodi mountain range, in the north east of Sicily. My parents came to pick me up in late September, and my father choose the fateful 29th September, Michaelmas, to come back home, in western Sicily. At the time there was no motorway between Messina and Buonfornello, where the Northern Sicilian highway was joining the motorway between Palermo and Catania. The Northern Sicilian highway was and actually still is a thinly asphalted Roman consular road, the via Valeria. The only major change since Marcus Valerius Laevinus legion opened it 22 centuries ago is that the western terminus was moved 20 miles north, from Marsala to Trapani. In a good day it was going to take 6 hours to reach Palermo from my grandfather mountain retreat, and the plan was to start at 4 am, and start the crossing of Palermo at 10 am. At that time, the commuting traffic would have been abated, and the hope was to complete the crossing in 1 hour or so. Saint Michael's day, tough, was not going to be a good day.
We managed to reach Palermo in 8 hours, which was putting us at risk of being delayed by the midday congestion.
What we didn't knew, we couldn't knew, was that a couple of days before, while chatting with a journalist, Giovanni Falcone, who was at the time organising the capture of more than 400 members of Cosa Nostra, misunderstanding one of the journalist's remarks, suspecting the journalist knew of the incoming draught, decided to close the nets that very morning.
The police surrounded the city like in a siege, and they allowed cars and buses and trains and people to come in. But not to leave.
It was the greatest traffic jam of my life.
Palermo doesn't have a beltway. It had one in the 50s, via Regione Siciliana, again, a mere variant of via Valeria, but the furious development of the 60s quickly moved that well inside the city. Traditionally, in via Regione Siciliana you feel inside Palermo from the crossing with via Oreto in the east to the crossing with via Belgio in the west (the two intersections are now roundabouts). Palermo is actually wider than that, but these 7 and a half miles are usually the main obstacle in the crossing. During a day without much congestion, and if no ones has committed suicide on the Corleone Bridge, you would expect to take half an hour to 1 hour from the two intersections. That Michaelmas it took my father 12 hours.
Most of these 12 hours were spent in absolute immobility. It looked like a movie, people were mulling around, chatting, rumours were spreading. In a fact finding mission with my dad, I heard people talking about a nuclear war between the Soviets and the Americans, a third world war, an invasion of Europe by the Soviets. My father didn't believe any of the rumours, but asked me not to report those to my mother.
We discovered the truth late in the evening, after my father got his hand on a copy of the L'Ora, which was for almost 92 years the evening newspaper of Palermo. We had been caught in the St Michael's Day great blitz.
After more than 30 years, I have a confession to make: I do remember that day, not for the traffic jam, not for the rumours, not for the thirst, not for the collective madness, but because I made my acquaintance with one of the most revered street foods of Palermo: the stigghiola.
That day I had panelle, crocchette, spleen, but you can have those all around western Sicily. To be honest, I can make myself a better spleen sandwich at home than any stall in Palermo, and that's not hard really, I'd not use lungs, just spleen, and probably a much better oil. But buying stigghiola under a bridge in via Regione Siciliana was totally a different story. I say was, because I strongly suspect the rule of law may have finally found a way to kill this very ancient tradition. The reason you could find stigghiola only in Palermo was that this is a typical Albanian dish, and the only western Sicilian city where you could historically find Albanians was Palermo. People from Mazara, Trapani, Marsala, Sciacca, Alcamo or Agrigento may have heard of stigghiola, but while they would have had first hand knowledge and cultural familiarity of panelle or arancine, the stigghiola would have felt completely foreign. Not to Palermitans, obviously. Until legal, or at least until it was allowed, the stigghiola was the crowned king of the panormitan street food.
In that fateful Michaelmas my father managed to crawl the car just in the right place. At dinner time, a chap with a portable stall came around, fired the barbecue, and started to sell stigghiola. Thanks to this sheer luck, we managed to grab a few portions, with real bread, well before the scent reached the rest of the horde.
I ate stigghiola many more times in my life, but they never tasted half as good as that night.