Palermo by Roberto Alajmo

If you’ve been to Palermo in Sicily, you probably either loved or hated it. My love for the city is no secret. Palermo is not a place that throws open her arms to you; she makes you work for it, makes you discover her charm one ridiculously busy street at a time — and I tend to like that in cities. See also: Philadelphia.

I’ve written a series of posts about some of my favorite popular stops in Palermo including the Duomo, Fountain of Shame, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, and the Capuchin Catacombs, so when I got an offer to review Roberto Alajmo’s new book Palermo from Haus Publishing, I jumped at the chance. The fact that it fits in perfectly with the Gita Italiana 2010 is like icing on the cannoli. Or something like that.

Roberto Alajmo is a native of Palermo; this book is translated into English by Guido Waldman. When I received it, the first thought in my mind was whether this was going to be a love letter to the gritty Sicilian cittΓ  probably known best for the Mafia and its pastries — and I’d say yes. Yes it is, but it’s a palermitano love letter, if you will.

Now let me explain.

Alajmo speaks directly to a first-time visitor to his city from the first sentence: “You have to get yourself a window-seat and arrive on a clear sunny day.” This sets the tone of the entire book as he educates the reader about the city’s sights, but not just tourist attractions. Much of the book is a tongue-in-cheek look at the city and its natives with caustic, wry observations about illegal structures, Palermitano mentality about corruption, rubbish, politics, and so much more.

Palermo by Roberto Alajmo

Buy Palermo by Roberto Alajmo on Amazon

I found myself smirking through most of Palermo (and underlining an overwhelming portion of the book) because Alajmo’s analysis is so keen, his criticism subtle and yet full of daggers. He leaves you with many thought-provoking ideas such as the real reason why the South has so many unfinished buildings: “an unconscious sense that total completion carries with it an inbuilt sorrow.” It’s just a brilliantly written book.

So where’s the love?

Remember, Alajmo is a native of the city. He knows it. He appreciates its beauty, but he really delves into its problems — *big* problems in many instances — and the latter is what nearly all of this book is about. But in order to truly love someone (or in this case, something), don’t you have to recognize the faults and decide to love anyway?

So, yes, I would characterize Alajmo’s Palermo as a love letter to his city — a whopping, entertaining dose of tough love, but would a Palermitano have it any other way? I just loved it. Five very full espresso cups out of five.

Aside from content, by the way, this is simply a snazzy little book. It’s hardcover and measures 15.6 x 11.6 cm (about 6 x 5 inches); perfect for stuffing in your bag on a trip and a great gift item as well.

Have you been to Palermo? Would you like to go?


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62 Beans of Wisdom to “Palermo by Roberto Alajmo”
  1. Nina

    sounds like a great book JUST to read, but which also gives an in depth native look at the real nitty gritty of Palermo!

    Alajmo pulls no punches, that’s for sure!

  2. 08.23.2010

    I love Sicily – I’ve been to Palermo & Cefalu. The island has such an amazing history & is truly a melting pot of cultures.

    Thanks for the chance to win this beautiful book!

    I’ve only gone through CefalΓΉ on the train…gorgeous!

  3. 08.23.2010

    Oh yes please. I would love to read this book, and I’m off to like Haus Publishing on facebook too.

    Thanks Michelle. I’m enjoying this, quietly.

    Thanks Di πŸ™‚

  4. saretta

    I have been to Palermo and found it chaotic and overwhelming and in decay…and, as you say, wow, fantastic!

    It’s funny because when I first came to Bari I saw it that way, but got used to it. Then I visited Naples and it seemed that way, but I got used to it. When I got to Palermo I thought, this is it, this is the craziest most undisciplined city of all…but I’m sure some other city somewhere can top it!

    Haha, yup, sounds about right πŸ˜‰

  5. kristen

    i’ve never been further south than rome but i would love to go to palermo!

    Come on down Kristen, and be sure to stop in Calabria before you hop on the ferry to Sicilia πŸ˜‰

  6. kristen

    oh, and i ‘liked’ haus publishing πŸ™‚


  7. Gil

    Thanks for this great offer. It sounds like something that I might even read! Off to the publisher on FB.

    I think you’d really enjoy this, Gil. It’s critical but not useless bitching…tough mix, but he pulls it off IMHO.

  8. Gil

    I now like Haus Publishing.


  9. I haven’t been to Sicily yet, but this certianly sounds like a lovely read! Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy. Look forward to hearing the results! πŸ™‚

    Best of luck, Laura!

  10. 08.23.2010

    Sounds like a fabulous book! I was always a little intimidated about going to Palermo alone. When I finally made it to Sicily, I chickened out going to Palermo alone and instead went on a day tour with about 8 other people while staying in CefalΓΉ. I LOVED Palermo. I need to get back there one day and would have no problem going there alone.

    Atta girl πŸ™‚

  11. 08.23.2010

    Michelle, I feel the same way you do about Philadelphia. I’ve never been to Palermo but it’s at the top of the list of places I want to see. I’d love to read Alajmo’s book on it.

    I think you’d really like this, KC; just a smart book all around πŸ™‚

  12. 08.23.2010

    I just ‘liked’ Haus on FB.


  13. 08.23.2010

    I must admit I approached Palermo with mixed feelings – as the plane landed I had that – I’ll either really hate or really love this place. Fortunately Laurent had gone a few days before and had scouted out restaurants and attractions and found some fascinating out of the way things. I loved it!

    Excellent! Laurent rocks (but I guess you knew that) πŸ˜‰

  14. This book looks interesting for sure. We visited Palermo and had such a mixed experience. The people were beyond wonderful and hospitable, but you could see obvious issues all around.

    Indeed, Erin; good luck!

  15. 08.23.2010

    I love books of this sort. I’d rather read tough love than hearts and flowers any day. I just finished Faithful Place, by Tana French, and one of the things I loved most was her portrayal of Dublin.

    Ooh thanks for the rec!

  16. 08.23.2010

    Oh, and yes, I “liked” Haus. πŸ˜‰

    Noted, thanks!

  17. 08.23.2010


    I am married to a Palermitano and I would love to win this book and give it to my hubby as a gift. It is my adopted city as we visit our family in Palermo every time we come to Italy. The city is crazy and hectic but I love the foods of Palermo, especially their street foods.

    Mmmm street food indeed…good luck Rosetta!

  18. Maria I.

    Thanks for the review! My paternal family hails from Palermo and I love the city with all its chaotic beauty. I’m returning to Palermo in October for my biennial visit. I’d love to read this book before my upcoming trip.

    Best of luck Maria!

  19. Maria I.

    I now like Haus Publishing.


  20. Charmain Giuliani

    I <3 Palermo

    Yay! I hear you πŸ™‚

  21. 08.23.2010

    I have family in Palermo and visit regularly…I love it, but sometimes… can be unnerving….of course I have picked peak traffic hours to go in search of a cannoli, torta setteveli, or arancina, just to name a few. (That torta setteveli might have been worth the 2 hour, 1/2 mile bus ride, though)

    I would love to read this book and see how his perspective of the city compares to my cousins’.

    Would definitely be an interesting perspective for you, Kathy; good luck!

  22. 08.23.2010

    I’ve never been but I am moving to Italy in one month, so Palermo is on my must-see list. Thank you for the chance to win!

    Excellent; good luck with the contest and the move πŸ™‚

  23. carol

    I’m bummed – missed out.

    On the book giveaway? Nah, you’re right on time πŸ™‚

  24. 08.23.2010

    My 2 beans… I would give ANYTHING to go to Sicily and visit Palermo…why you ask…? My husbands family genealogy dates back to Trapani, Sicily and the Palermo area and there are more of our surname:VIVONAs, there then any place else in the world!
    I read this book review with a lump in my throat, wanting to hop on the next plane… I would love to read this book…
    I will visit Haus Publishing, next… (I think I need a glass of wine πŸ™‚

    What a great story, Deborah; good luck! And salute!

  25. 08.23.2010

    Reading (and loving) Beppe Severigni’s _La Bella Figura_ at the moment…this looks like the Sicilian version of it, which would be a very good thing!

    Haven’t read it, but from what I know of it, yes, you’d probably like this too πŸ™‚

  26. Ciao Michelle! I like the new design. Might have to rethink our new “Only In Italy” design. The book will be a good read just the same…even though I visit Palermo every week.


    Thanks Salvatore! Lucky you to get to Palermo so often πŸ™‚

  27. Cynthia

    Thanks for the recommendation. I enjoy reading your blog.

    Thank you Cynthia!

  28. Cynthia

    Became a “liker” of Haus Publishing for my second entry in contest. Thanks again for the recommendation and book giveaway.

    ciao – Cynthia

    Noted, and prego!

  29. Angela Napolitano

    I’ve visited several places in Italy, but never Palermo. I would love to visit. Hope I win the beautiful book. It looks wonderful.

    In bocca al lupo, Angela!

  30. 08.24.2010

    My first and only trip to Palermo was … interesting. Just kind of strange, but not in a bad way. It was simply unlike anything I’d experienced anywhere else in Italy. It was kind of intriguing, actually. Would love to go back. I’ll have to check the book out. Grazie!

    Ooh sounds like a blog post…. πŸ˜‰

  31. 08.24.2010

    Hi, Michelle,
    Palermo sounds great. My husband and I love the city, have been there three times. I like the author’s idea of getting a window seat so we can just observe.
    I remember looking from my own window seat in the plane, as we pulled to a stop in the small airport, and seeing a group of young men leaning against cars wearing dark glasses and looking as cool as could be. They were just drivers waiting for their customers, but it felt like a scene from an American movie.
    Thanks for the offer. I’d love to read this book.

    Palermo has a way of making you feel like you’re in a movie indeed! Thanks for coming by, GG πŸ™‚

  32. 08.24.2010

    My only time there was on the way to Stromboli. My Italian friends, and wife, were all nervous not to be mugged from the train station to the boat dock. Me I was intrigued and wanted to see more, but I am foolish too!

    Love your site, thanks!

    Yes, the warnings about muggings come strong and fast…alert travelers should be just fine, just like any other city IMHO πŸ™‚

  33. Danny Scalise

    Never been to Sicily. Sounds like an interesting read.

    Best of luck Danny!

  34. I wish I could write something like that about Kuching…but I don’t have such wit to make it funny.

    I don’t know that this was funny, per se, but I’d love to read your book, so get writing! πŸ˜‰

  35. Cristina

    Always wanted to visit Sicilia, but I never seem to have enough time when i am in italia! Gotta keep buying those Enalotto tickets!

    It’s definitely difficult to fit it all in…so many great places to see!

  36. Maria-p

    Greetings from Greece! Just discovered your site, very nice! Interesting book. Thanks! I became fun of Haus Publishing.

    Welcome Maria! Thanks for coming by; hope you’ll stay a while πŸ™‚

  37. 08.24.2010

    I read Midnight in Sicily and thought it was a beautifully written book and very insightful about Sicily and Palermo. Note: he is Australian πŸ™‚

    I went to Palermo and stayed in a wonderful hotel which opened up straight from the street and into a courtyard with 2 stairs coming up to the first floor. It was just beautiful. I would go back again.

    Midnight in Sicily is also a great book, although much more…pesante (heavy) than this one. Best of luck!

  38. debp

    I would love to go there. The book sounds really good, I would love to read it.

    Best of luck!

  39. Sue

    I haven’t visited Palermo, but would love to through the book. Thanks for the giveaway.

    Good luck Sue!

  40. Carlo60

    I have not been to Palermo in twenty years and will return in two months. My first time was with my wife and two small children and we stayed near the Botanical Garden, which was supposed to get turned over to the Law School of the University. (Don’t ask why!).

    My very first impression was that I had returned to the mid-50s and back on 18th Avenue in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn looking out the window of my grandmother’s flat -not the Palermo Opera house and great buildings and monuments but the places where real people live. Did the Sicilian immigrant’s recreate Bensonhurst to look like Palermo or did they settle there because it reminded them of Palermo; or a misremembered childhood memory? To be honest, I didn’t like Palermo much the first time, with the exception of the food, the weather, the people, the atmosphere, the delightful chaos of life that enchanted as much as it confused.

    On a later visits, unfortunately all work related, I never got to visit Palermo. On one visit, as I arrived on an early morning flight directly from Rome, my mind was focused on work that took me to a government office. I arrived at one of those awful official buildings built on the outskirts of the city and very un-Brooklyn. This was a new Palermo experience.

    The first step for this job was to meet formally with the head, La Direttrice, but I preferred to think of her as malafemmina. Even though planned months in advance, I failed to account for Italian bureaucracy and specifically the Sicilian time-table. After waiting one hour for malafemmina, I mean La Direttrice to arrive to work, and getting some excuse from her related to an unexpected family affair -scusi come sempre- the first thing she insisted was we go outside to a nearby Bar for an espresso ignoring my despite pleading to start work. After an espresso con brioche and a leisurely chat while walking back to the office, I had the deluded confidence of an Americano and thought I could still accomplish my task before the evening return flight -just work all day. At precisely 1330 La Direttrice appeard in my cubicle -now she was on-time!- to announce ora di pranzo. I protested and much like complaining about weather I had the same results. I explained the many delays during my brief few hours of “work”, mostly because each request for material was a delay culminating in a thirty minute wait for someone to fill the Xerox paper. La Direttrice did not understand a word: my poor Italian? Perhaps, but I had the distinct impression it just didn’t compute with her what I was saying. Whether she thought me mad or of no importance, time was wasting for il pranzo and she quickly informed me I would be locked-in for my protection and she moved like an Olympic sprinter and dismissed my impression she maybe suffered from arthritis when before we walked slower than snails. And I was alone, full run of the supposedly high-security government facility with freedom to wander at will, had I so desired. But I didn’t, as I combed the files and yet I never finished the job.

    The data I required, and which I was only told at the end of the day by Malafemmina, were in Milano and inaccessible. A private contractor held the data and was holding it “hostage” until paid for the work performed. How long had the contractor waited? Five years and La malafemmina Direttrice thought the contractor’s expectation on the payment time-frame was a little unrealistic.

    Ah Palermo. A true mystery as years later I feel just maybe the rest of the world is crazy and a Palermo life represents the sane.

    I wrote this to explain why Alajmo’s book has reached the top of my wish list as I return to the cittΓ  dei miei nonni and this time try to learn what made them choose Brooklyn. Let’s hope I don’t meet Malafemmina.

    Wonderful, Carlo, just wonderful; thank you so much for sharing — and in bocca al lupo πŸ™‚

  41. Carlo60

    I just signed-up on Facebook with Haus and discovered there much more than the book on Palermo. Thanks for letting us know.

    On a sadder note, please make mention of the death of Elvira Sellerio, la palermitana e fondatore of the great Sicilian Publishing House. An inspiration and a woman that deserves all the praise given her.

    Thank you, Carlo, for the mention; I didn’t know of her or her passing, so thanks for the info.

  42. 08.24.2010

    I’ve “liked” Haus Publishing on Facebook.


  43. 08.25.2010

    This book sounds great!

    I have been to Parlermo and was quite surprised to find out that apparently the historical center is the biggest in Europe! Well, although it was very hot, my ankles were covered in heat rash and I was dehydrated, I was determined to see as much as possible before leaving and I’m glad I did.

    Despite warnings of possible kidnapping by the Mafia (just as one would get warnings about purse snatching in Naples) I visited on my own, and made it out alive πŸ™‚

    Haha, atta girl, Keren πŸ™‚

  44. 08.25.2010

    and yes, I like Haus Publishing πŸ™‚


  45. 08.25.2010

    I my name is … Palermo, but I never visited the city. Great giveaway, count me in please!

    Good luck Barbara!

  46. 08.25.2010

    I now like Haus Publishing on Facebook. Thanks for the chance!


  47. Christina

    I have been to Palermo. It was not love at first site, but I began to learn to love. I’d enjoy the book, learning about cities I’ve visited or would like to visit is a passion of mine!

    Best of luck, Christina!

  48. Vanessa

    I am going to Palermo this weekend. Love Palermo in August – totally deserted! Will have a look out for you for this book in Italian. If any of the shops are open….

    Enjoy Vanessa!

  49. Joanne at Frutto della Passione

    Hmmm, I would love to read it in Italian, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for it. I think my husband would like it too. He spent a month there for work just before we got married and loved it.

    Definitely worth a trip south, Joanne! Be sure to stop in Calabria when you come though πŸ˜‰

  50. Eleftheria

    I would love to go to Sicily. In fact, I have already found the hotel and almost ready to book for next year. Would love to read more about it πŸ˜‰


    Excellent! Enjoy πŸ˜€

  51. As a lover of guidebooks/travelbooks and also a lover of Italy I would LOVE this book of course πŸ™‚

    Best of luck!

  52. OK, I like Haus Publishing on Facebook now πŸ™‚


  53. 08.29.2010

    I’ve been to Sicily, but not Palermo. I would love to visit though. I saw the film the Sicilian girl and also watched a documentary about the series of tunnels made by the mafia in that part of Sicily and found it all so fascinating. I would love to read this book!
    Just liked Huas Publishing as well πŸ™‚

    Great, Piccola…hope you do get to Palermo someday πŸ™‚

  54. laura

    to win or not to win – that is up to luck.
    but to go or not to go…. that is something i can do something about!
    i must just say a THANK YOU to you AND all those who write and publish these lovely books and posts abd blogs – all the time given for making all these places just so REAL that we are planning our next break to visit some of the places we have only read about.
    i LIKE HAUS too!!!
    ciao ciao e buona domenica……….. la la la la la la la laaaaaaa

    Best of luck, Laura!

  55. Nancy USA

    Blogs are such a fun way for us here in the USA to dream of Italy!

    My husband and I are planning a trip to Sicily for my 60th birthday. I know we have relatives there, but my uncle who has met them passed away this year. πŸ™ We’ll find them though!!

    We did have one day in Sicily on a cruise. Now we are ready to go for a much longer stay and visit with the wonderful people!

  56. I remember taking a group of my British teenage students around Palermo and all they asked all day was, “Can we go and see the dead people now?” All they wanted to do was see the Catacombs! I would love to win this book.

  57. Just became a fb fan of Haus, too.

  58. 08.29.2010

    I love Palermo! You describe it so well by saying, you have to work to see it’s “Beauty”:)
    ~Thank you ~

  59. 08.29.2010

    I would love to visit Palermo…never been! This book looks very fun. Grazie, Aimee

  60. 08.29.2010

    I came from Australia to visit Sicilia for a week at the beginning of May …and I’m still here…I thinks I likes it !!! Do you think I like it? These last 10 minutes before “the bell” are the last 10 minutes of the aniversary of my uncle’s berthday. he died some years ago but would have adored to be here with me now…I know it. LOVE THIS SITE !!! MANY THANKS.There is no opportunity to become a friend though.

  61. 08.30.2010

    I love Palermo. We visited several times when we lived in Sicily. These were my first impressions: “Palermo was as Palermo has been. Chaotic traffic, crumbly buildings, street corner vendors selling fruits and vegetables, gorgeous theatres and churches, ancient trees, ancient city, classy, decadent, schizophrenic.” Did I say that I love Palermo?

  1. [...] Book Review & Giveaway: Palermo by Roberto Alajmo [...]...



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Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
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