I love markets. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and remember often going to the Pyatt Street Market, once stocked with fruit and vegetables from farms in the area. From my childhood, I have always enjoyed the colors, sounds, and smells of markets, and one of the things I miss most living in Las Vegas is going to a real farmers’ market. I think that’s part of the reason that when I’m in Italy (or anywhere in Europe), I make sure to frequent the markets no matter which town I’m in. I learned very quickly that shopping in the Italian markets is very different from shopping in markets in the States. Here are a couple of tips that you might want to know if you decide to head to Italy and go to one of the markets.
• Many of the markets are not open everyday.
While markets in larger cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna have permanent daily markets, the smaller towns have a permanent market day or days. For example, Rome has several markets that are open daily, as is Mercato Centrale in Florence. Sulmona, a smaller town in Abruzzo, has market days on Wednesday and Saturday. Pratola Peligna, another Abruzzese town, has theirs on Friday. Bologna has a few markets, but the largest 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. If you are interested in visiting markets in the smaller towns, be sure to check out websites for the town or region as they will list market days and times for you.
• 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.
Sulmona, which holds its market in Piazza Garibaldi, has one of my favorite markets because that market has everything. I bought a chitarra (below L) there 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 (below R). Porchetta is roast pork that is simply to die for.
• 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. For example, I once 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 will burn 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 might 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 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 a few years ago who didn’t listen to 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 her buy said tomato. Mamma Mia!
• 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 (below) one day because I gave him a 5 euro bill to pay for 2 euro worth of tomatoes, squash, and pear. He wanted moneta, aka coins, which I did not have, and I can tell you he was not happy with me.
• The weekly markets are social as well as shopping events
If you go to a market in a small town, you’ll notice that many of the people who attend are dressed up. Women wear skirts or dressier slacks and tops while some of the men wear sport coats.
You’ll also notice that while the women shop, the men get together and talk. My husband has a theory that the men always converse in odd-numbered groups of three or five. It’s usually true. If you see two men together, another one will often walk up and join in the fun.
If you go to a market or markets, plan to spend time just people watching. Compare the products of several booths if you are there to shop. I have bought a number of old prints, keys, and coins from the antique markets, I have also bought good clothes and the best vegetables from the weekly market. That said, taking photos and enjoying a snack while I people watch are my favorite things to do.