Italian open markets: the vibrant tradition of the Mercato

Italian traditions

One of the many cultural aspects that I like about Italy, and that I mostly miss where I live, is the open market.

Open markets, or mercati, are the centre of everyday life in most of the Italian cities and towns. They are vibrant, colourful and lively, surrounded by lots of chatters, bustling with life at every angle.

As soon as you start your journey into an open Italian market, you experience the culture, the people, the aromas, the lively chattering of the vendors and their customers, the vibrancy of the food. This is the place where you can dive into the Italian culture, connect with the people, chat about anything and experience their way of living.

From fruits and veg to….pretty much anything!

The first thing you will notice is that there are lots of stands called bancarelle. Here you can find pretty much anything, from fruit to vegetables which are all freshly and locally grown, to fresh fish and local meat to bags, shoes, clothes, flowers and home accessories.

Vendors will shout out their merchandise and the cost to attract customers’ attention and encourage people to come over to their stand and buy. For example, you may hear them say: “Carciofi a 2 euro al kilo! -Artichokes only 2 euros per kilo”! , a very effective way to stand out in the crowd!

A taste of Italy!

Vendors will often offer you a taste of what they sell and they will be very happy for you to take it and taste it. Everything is locally produced and freshly grown, all the food is seasonal so don’t expect to find watermelons or strawberries in winter or artichokes in summer for example.

If you are unsure on how to cook something, being vegetable, fish or meat, the vendors will be more than happy to advice and recommend tasty recipes and ideas on various ways to cook their produce. 

Don’t be late and….don’t touch!

The best time to go to the open market is early morning or no later than 11am-12pm as the best produce will be gone by then. Usually, queues are not monitored here so you would just need to ask “Who is last”? “Chi e’ l’ultimo”? and wait for your turn to be served. For the fruit and vegetable stands, the vendors will provide you with a paper bag to help yourself to whatever you need and want. Then you will pass it back to them and they will weigh the bag for you and tell you the cost.

They will add some aromatic herbs like fresh parsley, basil or celery into your bag for free, which is a plus! (This won’t happen in a supermarket where the fruit and vegetable have to be weighed by the customer on a special scale with a corresponding number for each item).

Golden rules

One of the golden rules to remember in an open market is “Do not touch the food”! The vendor may get annoyed and tell you off! Usually there are handwritten boards in the vegetable or fruit crates with the following words: “Si prega di non toccare”! “Please do not touch”!

Disposable gloves are usually provided to customers to help themselves before selecting anything.

Show off some Italian

A piece of advice: vendors will not probably speak English so it would be a good idea to learn a few sentences before diving into the intense spirit of an Italian open market.

Let’s explore some of the common and useful sentences and expressions that you could use in this situation:

You can approach the vendor by saying: “Buongiorno, vorrei un kilo di carciofi per favore”. (Good morning, I would like a Kg (2 pounds) of artichokes please”

Or “Vorrei due etti di prosciutto cotto per favore”. “I would like two quarter pounds of cooked ham please”.

Or “Mi da un etto di parmigiano grattugiato per favore”? (Can I get a quarter pound of grated parmisan please”?) “Mi da due etti di Grana (Padano) per favore”? (In Italy if you only mention Grana instead of saying Grana Padano, everyone will understand). “Can I get two quarter pounds of Grana, please”?

The vendor may ask you “Che altro desidera”?  Or simply ask “Altro”? They are asking if you would like anything else.

At the vegetable stands if you are looking for ideas on how to cook something, you can ask: “Come si cucina”? “Come lo faccio questo”? “Come si fa”?(informal) “How do I cook this”?

Positive social impact

Open markets have such a good impact on society as they are a meeting point for both young and old. They offer a positive, unique and a cheerful experience completely different from what you may get in a supermarket. People usually greet each other, and you may start chatting with people you don’t know at the vegetable or fruit stands. There is plenty of opportunity to chat with vendors pretty much about anything. The sellers may ask about your family, or “what are you cooking today”? Or give you an impartial advice on something you try on like a coat or a pair of shoes. If you are buying flowers, they will ask for which occasion it is and they will recommend the best bunch of flowers for you to gift.

Now you know what to do and what not to do in an open market in Italy!

If you have any questions drop me a comment below.

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