It was not the best of bars nor the worst of bars. It did however have some of the best and the worst patrons. The two bars, both in Palermo, Sicily, could hardly be different from each other, with different purposes, atmospheres, and clientele. One goes to each for different purposes and experiences, though the drinks are the same
The two bars are both called Taverna Azzurra, and actually they’re the same place. Go during the day and again at night, as I did several times, and you’ll receive entirely different experiences.
Taverna Azzurra (“Blue Tavern”) sits on the narrow, pedestrian-only Via Maccherronai, just north of the small piazza nearby. Its street is the location of one of the three street markets, Mercato Vucciria, which every guide to Palermo mentions (along with the Capo and Ballaro). I’ve read several glorious mentions of the Vucciria market, such as here and here, and I don’t get it at all. It sucks, flat out sucks. It’s not only because it’s touristy, selling souvenirs and hats and things, with only a bit of food, but it’s so tiny that it does not deserve the label “market”. It’s not a market; it’s a street with some vendors, perhaps ten of them. It won’t hold your attention for more than ten minutes unless you want some souvenirs.
It was around 11:00 a.m. I like to visit markets just before lunchtime, as many of them have stands that turn into a lunch. Most Euro markets should probably be visited early, around 8:00 or so, but days don’t start that early for me. Chastened and appalled by the lack of attractions there, I sought solace in having another coffee, thus ducking into Taverna Azzurra.
I liked the bookseller here, but tell me: does this area look like a market?
Silly me. It had looked like a café from the outside. The guy in charge addressed me the instant I entered, someone I like, something not every place does. “Prego?” he asked, which is Italian for “How may I assist you, kind sir?” He was a somewhat overweight older man, balding with short white hair and a very round head. I would eventually see his face in several of the photos hanging around the bar. He sat in a high chair near the front, holding court, while the counter men bustled around, doing the work.
“Uh, cafe?” I asked with uncertainty, swiveling my head, as I didn’t see the industrial espresso machine that every establishment has in Italy. Do they have coffee? “No,” he said firmly. “Bira, vino. Drinks.” This is a drinking joint, not a café. Every traveler eventually must ask themselves a philosophical question, “Is 11:00 a.m. too early to start drinking?” The answer is: certainly not. If no coffee, then give me some wine. When in Rome. “Vino,” I asked. “Bianco. Secco.” The counterman fetched an unmarked bottle and poured me a generous glass.
I soon grocked the vibe of the place. This is a working man’s bar. Nobody was drinking anything expensive, nor were they perched at round tables. There are no tables, just a counter along one long side, a wooden bench along the other long side, and some benches outside, next to the door. The loo in the back is a squat toilet only. No one’s getting drunk at 11:00 on a Monday; they’re just here for a daily constitutional. Five men were sitting on the inside bench, a few on the outside, a few more standing at the counter.
I like places like this. No bullshit, and you just know it won’t be expensive (the wine was €2.5). Most guys (and it was only guys) came in, got a beer or a small drink, finished it at the counter in ten minutes, threw down some change, and left, perhaps back to work or off to lunch. No one seemed under forty years old. In contrast to the USA or a place like Britain, where anything less than a full pint is unmanly, most men in places like Italy, Spain, and Portugal have no problem drinking one small glass of beer and that’s it.
The counterman opened a very small bottle of neon-pink liquid for a customer, pouring the contents into a glass and adding a shot of some liquor. Most were drinking beer, some in a plastic glass, a few out of bottles. I was the only one with a wine glass.
I moved to the bench outside, sitting next to a younger man. Italians often don’t care much whether you speak their language well or not; they’ll talk to you anyway. My Italian, which used to be much better, is rusty now, but he didn’t care. He started in, and then his friend joined us on the bench. “Marijuana?” he asked me. No buddy, I’m good. “Hashish?” he clarified. Seriously dude, I’m fine. “Good,” he said, as a way of describing his product, further prompting me. “Ten euros, two grams,” he offered.
They were sharing a Coke, passing it back and forth, while I watched the lack of foot traffic at the stalls in front of me that dare call themselves a market. “Good,” the hashish guy prompted me again, surely reminding me about his strict quality control, and I left the bench to get a refill.
Despite my wanna-be dealer outside, I still liked this place. No one really bothers you here, not even a hashish pusher. You can wander outside with a glass of wine. They trust you’ll wander back in eventually. If I knew more Italian, I could probably discuss last night’s football match.
I ate lunch in nearby Trattoria Il Maestro del Brodo, on Via Pannieri 7 (an alley, really), a minute’s walk away, where their antipasti buffet for €8 included sarde a beccafico, eggplant involtini, and a dozen other dishes. Always go for this; it’s a great way to sample lots. Across the alley are several fast-food places, which is Sicily means fried chickpea batter or spleen sandwiches.
Place is changing as the day goes on
Bars like Taverna Azzurra are sometimes only open during the day, as their clientele aren’t night people. But the place, and the whole neighborhood, starts to change in the early evening hours known in Italy for the passeggiata, the stroll that many people take after work is done and before dinner. Being in the neighborhood, I popped in for a happy hour-like glass of wine and discovered the place a bit more crowded than before, although there was plenty of room. The white-haired man holding court was gone and a few different people were behind the bar. The crowd was younger and females were present.
The “market” stalls have vanished. The trattoria I ate lunch in earlier was closed tight, along with the other food places. The nearby square had places setting up, tables and seats for other bars appeared. Two or three large grills were set up in the square, the tables next to them holding seafood one could order up.
Step up and order your fish
Back in Taverna Azzurra, I talked to Hayden and Jem, both from New York City. I met them when I pointed to the three large glass containers behind the bar, labeled with Italian names, and asked the staff what they were. “Sweet wine,” the barman told me, grabbing a glass and pouring me a taste. Wine, sweet, yes yes. Overly sweet. One was labeled “Marsala”, a name you and I recognize, the other two were unknown to me, Sangue and Ribbed. I couldn’t drink more than a half glass of anything that sweet.
Hayden, standing nearby, was pounding the stuff, joking about it, gesturing with her glass at everything in the bar. Though there are no tables, the bar’s walls are busy, with three wooden casks sitting on a shelf way above the bar, and the opposite wall containing what the owners call “the bookstore”, wooden shelves holding hundreds of bottles of wine and liquor. We introduced ourselves. Hayden and Jem were traveling throughout Europe for months, starting in Amsterdam and ending in Lebanon.
We soon met Liam and his wife, traveling from Ireland, and the five of us chatted forever. I was drinking wine, Liam beer, and Hayden something sweet. As travelers who meet on the road do, we talked about travel, how we got here, and what a cool bar this was. Bow Wow Wow was playing, “I Want Candy”, a favorite of mine from college days, and the rest of the mix was rather eclectic and addicting. It was not anyone’s first time here; the place clearly had a draw that makes one return.
Liam, as it turns out, is the author of a book entitled Irish Crimes of Passion, a fact that make Hayden swoon. Hayden seems to be a person who loves everything, a good friend to have. I’ve not read nor heard of the book, but I’ll happily give him a link here.
After they all left, I sat outside on the bench again and watched Sicilian life around me. People were constantly kissing each other hello and goodbye, men, women, no distinction. People wear sandals and ride scooters everywhere. I decided I need to buy a Ducati. I had been there for three hours, starting at 5:30 when the local scruffy crowd was there, until 8:30 when they drifted away and things started to change, younger people, much more females, and several tourists.
One later evening, not really wanting a full dinner and a bit too late for one anyway, I stopped in the square south of Taverna Azzurra where vendors were grilling seafood. I picked out a few oversized shrimp and some squid, watching the grill man cook them up and carrying them to another nearby bar to eat. A boy fetched me a beer and I sat, watching. All the other business were closed except in this open-air space on the square, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Taverna Azzurra was closed as well, but the sounds down the alley clearly indicated it wasn’t.
It was mobbed. Everything around it was closed but the bar was going full speed, pumping its amazing soundtrack into the alleyway. There’s no sleep for you if you live around here. The crowd was quite a bit younger now, at least a hundred people, with several awfully-good looking people about. If I were to guess the motto of Sicilian females, it would be “There’s no such thing as showing too much skin.” Several girls all but insisted that I look at their bras.
A song would start, people would dance, and a few would sing along. I hopped on a bench on the opposite side of the alley and snapped a few photos of the crowd.
It’s a bit like a nightclub now, but Taverna Azzurra is still a dive bar at heart. The prices don’t increase throughout the day. Wine is still €2.5 and still I was one of the few holding a wine glass. That’s too expensive for some of this crowd. An older guy missing half his teeth told me I was a fool. I should be drinking beer, much cheaper, and there was one type here that’s only €1. Never trust the guy in the bar missing half his teeth.
I have a talent for attracting the Character in a dive bar. If there’s someone present who wants to pour out his life story or tell me his views on philosophy, the guy (and it’s always a guy) will find me, glomming onto me like glue. The other types to find me want me to buy them a drink, perhaps because I’m drinking wine, from a real wine glass, clearly the portent of affluence here.
I am usually far, far too tolerant of these types, and it never does me a damn bit of good.
The main Character in the bar that evening (because every bar needs a Character) was a young guy sporting dreadlocks and a heavy jacket (this was August, and I was sweating constantly in my thin shirts). His lower half was wearing shorts and was barefoot, with some strange anklet. His one Bar Trick was pulling out a cheap flute and approaching a group, playing some music, then asking if he could have a few sips of your drink. He tried it with me, pointing to my wine and asking for a bit. No dice, buddy.
According to online sources, the bar stays open until 5:00 a.m. It was going very strong when I left, well before then, utterly different from the first earlier time I darkened its door. According to this site, the place has been open since 1982, owned by a Mr. Tito, and today his sons Michele and Piero help out. They clearly know what they’re doing, and are somehow managing to pull off two entirely different bars within the same day. I recommend it.
Taverna Azzurra. Via Maccherronai 15, Palermo, Sicily, Italy
(Be aware: there is also the “Taverna Azzurra Café” on Via G. Sciuti. This is a very different place, a dessert café, not the bar above.)