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5 Things to Know About Italian Markets

Written by 9 September 2011 6 Comments

Better then any theater drama or movie comedy, the local market sums up everything Italy stereotypically stands for: the crowd, the noise, the friendly banter over espresso, the arguments about quality and pricing or the laughter by a glass of excellent wine and the infinite types of cheese, tomatoes and meat products.

If you thought that Italians go to the market just do their food shopping, think again: this is the prime spot to socialize, exchange the latest gossip, to see and be seen.

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Don’t miss a day on the market – whether it is the famous Campo di Fiori in Rome or a small local one on Piazza Testaccio, the fish market at the harbour in Naples, the florentine leather market in San Lorenzo or, like in this case, the one in Dogliani, a small and stunning village in the Piedmont. Here, every Tuesday, one can find fancy foods for small prices, which most big European cities would only offer at the finest gourmet shops and restaurants.

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During the three years I’ve lived in Italy, I studied Italian lifestlye closely and learned a lot about it. But there really is no need to spend that much time here to really get to know what Italy is all about – one day at the market could almost be enough.

Lessons 1: Never say NO to an Italian Mamma that offers you something. I once went up to an old man selling a lovely selection of fruit from out of his car. I picked a couple of peaches and plums and he asked me whether I wanted to buy truffles as well. Looking through his baskets and boxes, I couldn’t spot any. The only shape or form in which I had seen truffles was thinly sliced on top of a plate of pasta, so I was curious to see them in one piece. “Show them to me, please”, I asked the vendor and he pulled out a glass of dirty black balls, which he had been hiding under the driver’s seat.

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This type of mushroom certainly did not look like a world-famous delicacy to me which can easily cost up to 1000 € a kilo. The vendor’s wife joined the conversation, telling me about their son who goes into the woods with his dog to find the truffles. She eventually gave me the 101 of preparing carpaccio (raw meat) with parmigiano chips, olive oil and truffle and without even noticing, I suddenly found myself stuck in one of those situations you just cannot get out of easily. Before you know it, saying no becomes impossible and parting from a small stash of cash becomes inevitable. Italians are great in creating these kinds of situations and I fall for them every time. Why won’t you have another gigantic plate of this pasta, don’t you like it? You get the picture…

Long story short – I bought three dirty balls for 10 Euros and decided to bring them home to my Mamma.

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Lesson 2: Always talk about food and family. One time, on a food safari through the market, I met an elderly couple, which talked to me like to an old friend, even though we hardly knew each other. As we were chatting about the best parmigiano in the country, I suddenly remembered where I had met them before: I once asked them for a lighter one night at a pizzeria in another village on a vineyard hill.

Another time I went on to the butcher’s to get a donkey salami for my Nonna. In the queue I saw the a lady, who had served me dinner two days prior, at a lovely trattoria in another village. While the German in me tried to avoid eye contact, she on the other hand came walking straight up to me, asking how I was doing and whether I had enjoyed dinner at her restaurant. Five minutes later, leaving the shop with full bags, I knew everything about her wedding, which dessert she had picked for that special occasion, that one of her sons still was single and the one just got a divorce.

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Lesson 3: Enjoy the show. On most stands I stop at for longer than 2 seconds, I get asked what I need. Well, I don’t need anything, I’m just browsing, grazie. AIt usually doesn’t take too long before I blend into the scenery: Touching all the textiles I come across, eating everything people offer me over the counter and buying everything people offer me over the counter, too. You get to the point when it’s time to stop and sit down for a smoke (In Italy, if you don’t smoke it can be much harder to get social with people – remember the elderly couple I asked for a lighter in the pizzeria) next to that stereotypical group of old men on a marble bench – on the piazza – next to the church and – yes – next to the lemontree. I like to listen to them talking about the density of the crema on the espresso as if they were rocket science and just enjoy the show. The passion going into those converations always make me feel like applauding, standing up and screaming Bravo, bravissimo!, but being the German I am, I just smile and sneak away.

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Lesson 4: Bargain and you win a friend

After I managed to decide on the best cheese – I usually get forced to try six – I move on in search of the right pair of shoes earrings pants. I’ll try them on next to an old truck, arguing with a young man about the price, paid 9€ instead of 10 and gained a new friend. A kiss on the left and a kiss on the right cheek seal our new bond. He waves goodbye until I turn the next corner.

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Lessons 5: Stay away from nice looking restaurants, they either don’t serve good food or they are overpriced. When you spend as much time as I do at the market, you soon get coffeethirsty and sittinghungry. Take this scenario: you spot two bars – one lovely and calm with a comfy outside area and a big white sunsail over it and just a couple of blond girls sipping on cappuccinos. The other one overcrowded, plastic chairs, Lady Gaga’s Pokerface pumping through the radio, a sunbleached Coca Cola umbrella and a running television at the end of the bar.

80 cents for a delicious coffee and 30 minutes of fun and entertaining chats about food let you know you made the right choice by picking the crowed one.

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Packed with kilos of some of the freshest vegetables, sweetest sun-riped fruits and all the cheeses, meats and pasta you could wish for you’re set to go home, get the water boiling and prepare yourself a plate of pasta e basta.

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6 Comments »

  • mumun said:

    Woah! I love markets, wherever they are. I think the real locals are at the market. They’re the real people and soul of a town or area.
    And you had to put ‘Italy’ in to the equation? I’m going to faint. It’s like one heaven is not enough, you put 2 :P Ok, plan book out, jolt ‘markets in Italy’ under ‘Europe’. Done!

  • Annette | Bucket List Journey said:

    The fish market in Venice was one of my favorites. I couldn’t believe all the varieties that were available. If only I would have been staying at a place with a kitchen, I would have been in heaven!

  • Kosma said:

    This is so true! browsing through a market, without having a kitchen is masochistic! And in Italy, I agree, you find the very best ones!!!

  • Silvietta said:

    I’m a Italian girl and I am pride of my Home,like Italia!

  • Chantal said:

    I’m moving to Italy on the 24th to work as an aupair in Rovereto. This definitely made me want to go to a market now :-) I am getting nervous about making friends as well. Do you have any tips?

  • MrM said:

    Never been to Italy, though I plan to someday, but I was born and raised in Mexico so I know all about markets, with all the interesting people you can meet and delicious food and beverages you can buy. One of my favorites is in Oaxaca City where the hustle and bustle of the merchants and shoppers intermixes with the colors, aromas, textures, and flavors of Mexico, coming together into a wonderful and unique melange. If you’re ever there do yourself a favor and sample everything you can, including roasted grasshoppers with garlic, lime, and red chiles. Also, be sure to try the incredibly delicious Oaxaca ice cream, in fantastical flavors such as rose petals, corn, mamey, or amaranth. I hope I get to visit Oaxaca again someday soon.

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