“I love shopping. There is a little bit of magic found in buying something new. It is instant gratification, a quick fix.” ~Rebecca Bloom
One of my favorite things about Italy is going to the different markets. To tell the truth, I love going to markets no matter where I am, and that includes the US. Shopping in the Italian markets, though, is different than shopping in a market in the States. I thought I’d pass along a few things that you might want to know if you decide to head to Italy and go to one of the markets.
• Most of the markets are not open everyday. That may be different in larger cities such as Rome, but each town has a different market day or days. For example, Sulmona’s market days are Wednesday and Saturday. Pratola Peligna, another Abruzzese town, has theirs on Friday. Bologna has a few markets, but the main one (no food) is Friday and Saturday. The Mercato delle Erbe (food) is open daily except Sunday, and many of the vendors in the Mercato di Mezzo (also food) are open daily.
• Some of the markets sell only food; other markets sell no food; and other markets sell fruit, vegetables, clothes, housewares, linens, shoes, sandwiches, cheeses, meats, and more. You can find specialized markets that sell antiques and artisans’ works, too. Bologna has a small antique market every Thursday and a larger one once a month in a different piazza.
Sulmona, which holds its market in Piazza Garibaldi, has one of my favorite markets because that market has everything. I bought a chitarra there last year because I want to use it to make pasta. I could have bought one in the States, but this one was only 10 euro and not $40-70, and some Italian guy made it. I like that. I also like the porchetta (por-KET-a) at the Sulmona market. Porchetta is roast pork that is simply to die for.
Yesterday, I went to Mantova, and I enjoyed that market a lot. It spilled through the streets of the historic center. It was interesting, though, that when the basilica’s bells chimed noon, a lot of the vendors started packing up.
• All market items are not created equal. If you are shopping for clothing in the markets, you have to realize that you may not be buying top quality. I can give you about a zillion examples of what I mean, but let me just give you three tips to help if you ever do decide to go to an Italian market….even one of the ones in Florence (maybe •especially• one of the ones in Florence).
••• If the vendor insists something was made in Italy, don’t necessarily believe it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a scarf that was MADE IN ITALY, and I know that it wasn’t even though there was a tag ironed onto it that read, MADE IN ITALY. I was looking at scarves in one booth in Florence two years ago, and I saw one identical (IDENTICAL) to one I had just bought in the US. The vendor insisted it was made in Italy, but the one I had bought was made in China (aka PRC). Another time I was looking at scarves at a different booth, and I saw one with the MADE IN ITALY tag ironed on the side opposite the MADE IN PRC tag. I’m not saying everything in the markets is not made in Italy, but you never know.
••• You might see a shirt that you like in one stall, the vendor wants 15 euro, and you decide to look around. If another vendor has the same shirt for 3 euro, make sure you check it out thoroughly. There’s a reason that one is five-times less than the other. Some of the vendors will mark the bad spots, but others will not. Today, for example, I saw a few shirts I liked in one booth but decided I didn’t need them. I walked down another aisle and saw similar shirts for 2 and 3 euro. I wasn’t going to buy those, either, but I looked, and the less-expensive shirts had tiny holes, ink marks, dirt marks, and more on them. My favorite shirt was made with the printed front inside out.
••• If you go to Florence with the intention of buying leather goods, beware of prices that are too good to be true. There are a lot of vendors who try to pass off plastic (vinyl) for leather even in the San Lorenzo or Porcellino markets. How to tell? The smell is the first thing as real leather has a light smell while fake has a strong and chemical smell. Secondly, if you hold genuine leather in your hand, it will get warm. If you hold fake leather, it will not. Finally, there are two tests you can perform to make sure. If you rub a little water or saliva on real leather, the leather will absorb it while fake leather does not. Secondly, if you hold a lighter or match to real leather, it will resist burning for some time. Fake leather goes up immediately.
• Prices are negotiable…. to a point. Most vendors—unless they are from a brick-and-mortar store—will haggle a little on prices. Don’t expect them to go down 50%, but they will usually go down at least 10% or so. The food vendors, however, do not haggle. The price you see is what you pay.
•Speaking of food vendors, do NOT touch the goods.
In Italy, it is not acceptable to touch fruit or vegetables with your bare hands. If you are at a market, you let the vendor get you whatever your want. NON TOCCARE means just that. Do not touch (or you’ll bear the wrath of the vendor). The same, by the way, is true at groceries. They provide a plastic glove for you to pick up whatever you want.
I had one woman with me last year who missed that piece of advice and picked up a tomato in the Mercato di Mezzo in Bologna. She sent the vendor into a tirade that stopped only when I made buy said tomato.
• Cash is king at the markets. Market vendors do not accept credit cards. Actually, Italy
is a mostly cash-based society, and except for big-ticket items, you’re better off paying cash most places. It’s always good to have a variety of money, including coins. I invited the wrath of a vendor the other day because I gave him a 5 euro bill to pay for 2 euro worth of tomatoes, squash, and a pear. He wanted moneta, aka coins, which I did not have, and I can tell you he was not happy with me.
I have one other big tip, but that’s another story for another day…