Palermo’s heart: a conversation with Filippo La Mantia

Palermo was officially name Italian capital of culture for 2018. To celebrate Sicilian character, and get to know the heart of this special city, we had a chat with chef Filippo La Mantia, born and bred in Palermo, who told us about the favorite places of his heart, his favorite dishes from Sicilian tradition, and the places you shouldn’t miss in Palermo.

Palermo as capital of culture 2018: did Palermo get onto the world’s radar, or did Palermo open up to the world? Or was it maybe both?
First, it must be said Palermo has always been known as a place that is very rich in history and culture, also thanks to all the foreign invasions that happened over the centuries, which all left an important mark. The problem is that at some stage even locals neglected the city of Palermo, getting busy looking elsewhere, abandoning the city. That was a mistake, because locals should stay, and take care of their city. I know that it might sound a little contradictory from someone like me, since I left, but it was because of the times I lived in. Today, younger generations are proud of the city again, and their effort has been rewarded by being designated Capital of Culture.

How did your relationship to the city evolve over the years?
Wherever I went, I always promoted Palermo’s specific character, putting a touch of it in everything I did. I am proud to be from Palermo, and my relationship to the city is not so different from how it used to be, because my mum still lives there. I like the city at night, I enjoy watching it breathe softly. Palermo is a sleeping beauty who needs to be loved again.

What are the places that warm your heart?
The first must definitely be Mondello, definitely, since I lived nearby. I made my way to the sea, and admired all that greenery, enchanted by it all. Then there is the Parco della Favorita, which is also the city’s lung. They are the same places I still love today. When my ferry arrives in the morning, the first thing I do is go to Mondello.

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Can you describe a Palermo dweller’s typical day for us?
It’s slow. First and foremost, Palermo is slow: we do everything slowly, wake up with no rush, the keywords are “let’s see” and “I’ll get back to you.” This attitude is a heritage of our Arabic ancestors: the people of Palermo think first, then take a stand, and only then they act. My friends go to the beach every day, whether they are notaries, lawyers or shop owners, everybody takes half an hour off for the sea.

What is the one flavor that reminds you of your city?
Pane e panelle [Sicilian fritters] definitely. Street food [in English, in the Italian text] culture, like people call it nowadays, shows in pane e panelle. The smell of fried street food, too, of fresh lemon being squeezed on food, and soft, crunchy bread prepared on the spot.

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What Sicilian dish do you enjoy preparing most?
Caponata di melanzane [cooked eggplant-based salad], definitely: it’s my family’s specialty. The women of my family used to get together every Sunday to prepare it with tomato sauce, fried eggplants, basil, sugar and vinegar, the ingredients that give it the magical touch. It was a true ritual for us.

What Sicilian specialty would you never eat when dining out?
Arancina! [Stuffed rice balls]

Some people call it arancino, with an “O”. What is the correct version?
Arancina, with an A, of course: the name comes from oranges [whose name in Italian is arancia, also with an a. Arancina means “small orange” in Italian — in other Sicilian regions, people call the dish arancino, with O] and their round shape. To be honest, on my menu I wrote both names, to make everyone happy: Sicily is a large place, and people come visit from every part of the island. This way, everyone is happy.

Motorbikes are your greatest passion. Is Palermo doable on two wheels, for a visit?
Of course it is! I remember I bought my first Vespa at 13. I got out of the dealer’s building and immediately drove to La Favorita park, to be enveloped by the intense scents of flowers and plants. Tourists can and should rent a moped: it’s the best way to experience complete freedom.

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You are also passionate for photography. Can you name 5 places that absolutely must be photographed in Palermo?
It will be hard to only choose 5. But let’s try. Palermo’s Cathedral, the Cappella Palatina, the Martorana church — one of the most beautiful churches in the world for me, pure Arab heritage — and Monreale Cathedral, which has a special connection to the one in Palermo, since they were both designed by a pair of architect brothers. Palermo’s cathedral is very opulent on its exterior, while in Monreale, the architect focused on the interiors, creating beautiful golden mosaic. Ballarò is also a place to go, as it is the only market that is still authentic. You will be fascinated by the sellers’ movements, they will be the perfect subjects for your photos.

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Photo credits:
Mondello (Flickr Matteo Ferrara)
Pane e panelle (Flickr mat’s eye)
Filippo La Mantia’s motorbike (Instagram)
Palermo’s Cathedral (Flickr Vicente Camarata)

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