Market shopping forms the backbone of Italian food culture, here's why...
Italian villages may be tiny but most of them will host a weekly market which is where you'll find an astounding amount of early-risers doing their weekly shop, at 7am.
La mattina ha l'oro in bocca - Morning has gold in its mouth.
i.e. The early bird catches the worm (and the freshest market produce).
The bigger the town, the bigger the market. Squeezed onto a piazza or some central streets, even in the tiniest towns, guaranteed, there'll be a regular local fruits and vegetables trader, a cheese and cold meats stall, perhaps bread, meat and if you're lucky seafood too. E allora, what more do you need?
We often talk about how Italian food culture is seasonal and regional, well, you don't get fresher than this. Weekly markets form the backbone of seasonal food shopping and the beauty lies in how Italians shop, it's almost an art, with hardly a market-shop list in sight. Because most recipes form in the moment. As your gaze befalls a pile of shiny, purple aubergines or a bunch of bursting green asparagus, all of a sudden, you're thinking Melazane alla Parmigiana and Asparagus Risotto. Pecorino Romano on offer means Bucatini Cacio e Pepe, freshly caught mackerel is snapped up and grilled with rosemary for lunch. In fact Friday is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, but we'll get to that con calma.
City markets will stock an array of goods from clothing, shoes, kitchen supplies, leather goods, curtains, wicker baskets, plants and flowers, but for a foodie, an Italian market is always a tiny colourful piece of culinary Eden. Those in the know get there early, as early as 7am.
Some of the most famously beautiful markets are found in most famously beautiful towns, but there's something characteristically quaint in every single market because as functional as they have to be, there's a recurring communal theme of joy and celebration on market day which seems renewed every week. Is it a celebration of the seasons, of food, of neighbourly love or just gossip? Stop for a coffee and a chat, bump into friends, wander the busy streets, soak up the spirit and then head home with a bag of purchases, excited to get cooking for lunch.
The midday bell tolls and the market dissipates because at mezzogiorno, it's time to pause and as the bells ring out from every church tower in unison, goodbyes are said and products are packed away no matter how grand the city, unless of course it's a permanent fixture, which may drag on a little longer.
We love a market for many reasons, but mainly, it's a shortcut straight into local culture: foods, dialects and quirky traits that make every region unique. A market is a welcoming space with children, pets and all ages drawn out onto the streets, sometimes in the worst of weather, if only to stock up on fruits, veg and cheese. Astounding is always how quickly and neatly everything suddenly manages to disappear at closing time. After lunch, the city streets return to how they were and traffic flows through town again. If you think about it, the weekly market has been around since forever, perhaps that's why it's so efficient.
Friday is a special day in Italy.
It holds a place in religious tradition as a day of restraint which throughout the years has developed into a day of fish on the menu, instead of meat. Pesce (pronounced \pe-she\) is the Italian word for 'fish' but also the encompassing word for 'seafood'. Venerdi Pesce is Fish Friday but also seafood Friday. If your market happens to land on a Friday, expect long queues at the fish counter, a mass of early-shoppers and an abundance of beautiful seafood your jaw will drop at.
Here are some of our favourite markets, great and small, for varied reasons:
Venice - Ponte Rialto Market
The Mercato di Rialto is open Monday to Saturday 7.30 - 13.30 for fruits and vegetables and Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 - 12 for seafood and fish. This is where Venetians grab their produce so get there early for the good stuff and take a good gaze at the beautiful neogothic Loggia Mggiore della Pescheria. which was built in 1907 to host covered markets even then and is sometimes hired out as a party or dinner venue for scenic events beside the Gran Canal.
Venice - Floating Fruit and Vegetable Market
La Barca di San Barbara is found at Ponte dei Pugni every day except Sunday. It's a market on a boat! selling fresh vegetables and fruit from a little family-run shop nearby. Truly unique, la Barca di San Barbara is a photographer's paradise, a beautiful family tradition and really worth a visit.
Bologna - Mercato di Mezzo in Via Clavature
Tucked into a dimly-lit alleyway off Piazza Maggiore is a surprising collection of Bologna's finest. Via Clavature is an ensemble of botteghe (food shops) and osterie (rustic wine bars) more than a market, although towards the end of the street, squeezed along one side a couple of merchants sell fresh fruits and vegetables lending the alley a rustic, foodie feeling.
Via Clavature stocks freshly-made tortellini, Bologna's ginormous polony, Mortadella, hanging legs of Prosciutto Crudo, local wines, cheeses, you name it, but perhaps the best part is where you least expect it. Branching off from Via Clavature, the owner of Eataly, Oscar Farinetti, has created an indoor market named Mercato di Mezzo (the Middle Market) because it stretches through a renovated 19th century building from one street to the next. Here too, more than our typical idea of a market, Mercato di Mezzo hosts a bunch of snazzy local producers on the ground floor where you can grab bits and bobs to casually eat and drink at the tables provided. Downstairs stocks a microbrewery and upstairs a slow-food pizzeria via the scenic lift. Mercato di Mezzo has become a stop on any visiting foodie's to-see list for Bologna's impressive food culture so it gets rather busy but if you avoid lunch and aperitivo times, it can be wonderful to sit and sample some of Bologna's must-eats and drinks in an eclectic setting.
Expect freshly-fried Frutti di Mare from the seafood bottega, accompanied by beautiful local wines, like aromatic Malvasia from the enoteca wine stand, sumptuous breads and cold meats and something quite unusual, tortellini fritti which I ordered and loved.
Vittorio Veneto - Weekly Monday Market
Monday 7 - 12
Close to where we live, this simple but functional market takes over part of the stunning Serravalle quarter of the historic town of Vittorio Veneto every Monday morning and then disappears as if by magic, without a trace. Expect clothes, plants, all the classic Veneto foods like soppressata, montasio; expect kitchen equipment, curtains, a cheese van and fresh bread but keep an ear out for those midday bells meaning home time, Cinderella.
Modena - Indoor Mercato Albinelli
Monday to Friday 7-15, Saturday 7-19
Entering this indoor market through its dark, iron fencing, feels a little gothic and somehow ominous but once inside, you're transported into true, immersive market hype and it's mesmerising. Apart from a wealth of expected local produce including the famous Aceto Balsamico di Modena and Parmigiano Reggiano, you'll find a community of friendly traders and a handful of little restaurants. Wines a flowing and a bounty of delights to accompany them, you could while away hours here and emerge into the bright Italian sunshine feeling like you've stepped out of a time-machine or a movie cinema. Mercato Albinelli with its characteristic fountain inside, has become quite the spot to visit for a foodie-explorer and truly merits a visit (and lunch.) Try the tigelle!
Naples - Mercatino di Antignano
Monday to Saturday 7.30 - 13.30
Take the Funicolare Centrale at Piazza Augusteo till the last station, Piazza Fuga, where you step out into a 'fresher' quarter of Naples. Slightly elevated above the city fumes, Vomero boasts views over the bustling Centro Storico with Vesuvius as a backdrop as well as a proper, sprawling, artisanal market that takes over the central streets. Expect everything at low prices - shoes, clothes, Mediterranean delights, bread, cheese, meats and freshly-caught seafood. Napolitans love to shop here for a bargain so it becomes very busy, loud and crowded, just as a market should be. Beautiful just to wander around and photograph, even if you're not shopping, because the buzz is so real, it thickens the air.
There are truly too many markets to mention; Florence's extraordinary, indoor Mercato Centrale and Bolzano's charming Saturday market on characteristic, Alpine Piazza Walther both spring to mind but our advice is this: whichever Italian village or city you visit, ask around about Market Day, someone is bound to tell you when and where to go and if you love to experience local culture, il mercato is undeniably worth a visit.