• This Sicilian sandwich is filled with offal, most often calf spleen and lung. (Audrey Bourget)Source: Audrey Bourget
The fatty and slightly chewy pani câ mèusa is still going strong in Sicily where it was invented hundreds of years ago.
By
Audrey Bourget

14 Oct 2021 - 8:15 PM  UPDATED 14 Oct 2021 - 8:15 PM

Pani câ mèusa (which translates to "bread with spleen" in Sicilian) is one of the most popular street foods of Palermo, the capital of Italy's region of Sicily, and it's sold for only a couple of euros.

"It has an interesting taste," says Napier Quarter chef Lorena Corso, who grew up just outside Palermo. "It's chewy, it's fatty, it smells very intense."

The sandwich is filled with offal, most often calf spleen and lung (and sometimes trachea), which have been boiled, chopped, simmered in lard, and seasoned with lemon juice and salt. It's served on a soft, sesame seed-sprinkled vastedda bun, which absorbs the fat. 

You can spot the pani câ mèusa street stalls by looking for large vats of simmering offal and vendors putting the sandwiches together like they're executing a precise choreography. 

Corso explains, "They are places where your status doesn't matter. You all have the same; it puts everybody on the same level for these 10, 15 minutes where you eat your sandwich."

A sandwich with Jewish roots

The origins of pani câ mèusa can be traced back to the Middle Ages, around the 15th century. At the time, Jewish butchers were paid with offal, which they put in a sandwich. "We've always been eating offal in Sicily, so they knew Sicilians would like that," explains Corso.

When Jews were expulsed from Sicily in 1492 (under Spanish rule), pani câ mèusa remained on the island. Eventually, locals started to cook the meat in lard and created a second version of the sandwich, which is thought to contain elements of an Arab cheese sandwich.

Italian pani câ mèusa sandwich
Despite being a Sicilian staple, the sandwich isn't eaten in the rest of Italy or other parts of the world.

Single or married?

When you order a pani câ mèusa, you get asked: "schettu o maritatu?", which means single or married. "Single" is simply the offal on bread, with a squeeze of lemon. "Married" means offal sprinkled with caciocavallo or ricotta — cheese which represents the veil of a bride. 

"We love it because it reminds us of history, and because of its simplicity. It hasn't really changed over the years and nobody tried to increase the price. You know you can get it for a couple of euros, and it's very filling," says Corso.

"It's not my favourite food to eat, but it's hard to explain, sometimes I really want it. Walking around the streets of Palermo, you can kind of smell it. It reminds me of home and being a bit more grown-up and going to Palermo to party."

"It puts everybody on the same level for these 10, 15 minutes where you eat your sandwich."

Despite being a Sicilian staple, the sandwich hasn't travelled to the rest of Italy or the world.

"I like the fact that it's still there, going strong, and it doesn't seem to die off. It's widely embraced from old generations to young generations," says Corso.

From Palermo to Melbourne

While it's uncommon to find pani câ mèusa outside of Sicily, your best bet is to keep an eye on what Joe Vargetto is up to. The owner of Mister Bianco in Kew, Melbourne, and co-owner of upcoming restaurant Cucina Povera Vino Vero, served the sandwich as a takeaway special during last year's lockdown.

Vargetto grew up eating it in Melbourne, thanks to his Sicilian mother. She'd prepare the spleen and lung by soaking them in vinegar and salt for three or four days. Then she'd boil it with aromats and fry it in lard. She'd stuff the meat in homemade vastedda buns, and finish the sandwich with fresh ricotta and a squeeze of lemon.

"The Sicilians use everything. You don't throw away anything," Vargetto says, adding that some Australian butchers are surprised when you request spleen and lung. "Today, they ask, 'What do you want that for?'.

"And when my mum would ask, butchers didn't know what to do. She'd have to go to Carlton or the Vic [Queen Victoria] Market. Back in the day, it was all for dog food."

However, when he put pani câ mèusa on Mister Bianco's takeaway menu, it was an instant hit. "I had all these older Sicilians order it and say: 'Joe, it brings so many memories'," he recalls.

"It's a fascinating sandwich that describes Sicily in a nutshell."

 

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