"Would you like to buy my cheese? It's the best on the island." The speaker, a Sicilian farmer whose family business has been making cheese for generations, was beaming with pride. In the midst of the teaming street market of Siracusa, he had singled me out as a potential customer. That he chose me, tall, blond and blue-eyed and thus obviously not a local, is a tribute to the native friendliness of Italy in general and Sicily in particular. I was compelled to respond with more than a smile.
"Not today, thank you," I replied in my best Italian.
The farmer/cheesemaker looked askance. "What is the matter? You Dutch do not like anyone else's cheese?"
"Ah, but I am not Dutch."
"Well, then you Englishmen do not like anyone else's cheese."
I felt the need to elaborate. "I am an American. I am from Los Angeles."
The fellow smiled. "You can't take the cheese home with you, then. But you must taste the cheese. It is the best." And of course, it was truly remarkable cheese.
Every morning, all over Italy, there are hundreds of street markets where farmers, fishermen and various food merchants display their wares in open stalls. Both the sellers and buyers clearly enjoy these markets: the former love to show off their jewels, while the latter come to haggle and socialize with their neighbors. These colorful outdoor emporia make for exciting street theater and give the visitor a glimpse into the heart and soul of Italian cuisine.
The most famous of Italy's street markets is at Campo dei Fiori in Rome. Set in a gracious piazza lined with restaurants and cafes, it is open every morning (except Sunday) and the vendors' presentations are truly dazzling. Even things like tomatoes are interesting here, because there are more and different varieties than you find elsewhere. One time I saw five kinds of strawberries displayed side by side, all different sizes and colors. You must come before noon; by one the teeming crowds and assorted booths will have vanished.
In smaller towns, street markets occur only one or two days a week. It is best to check with the locals to find out the time and day in the area. Click here for a list of the most interesting outdoor markets.
One market of note is that of Bassano del Grappa, in the Dolomite foothills of the Veneto. Farmers in the surrounding region are well-known for their vegetables, especially the white asparagus which appears every spring. A trip to the market in the morning will let you know what to order for lunch, since the same farmers who offer their produce here usually supply the local restaurants. If there's asparagus on the stands, you know the regional specialties, such as asparagus risotto or asparagus alla parmigiana will be on the menu.
The market in Siracusa is best known for its seafood. You will find every type of fish and shellfish from the Mediterranean, almost all presented in their natural state, providing sights which in no way resemble the seafood section of an American grocery. Squid, octopus, clams, sea urchins and fish unknown in other regions remind you of creatures from horror movies with their brilliant colors and strange shapes.
Many local mercati offer opportunities to buy products which you can bring home. In Piedmont, the market in Alba attracts sellers of jams, jellies and honeys which reflect the earthy intensity of this region's produce and cuisine. There are also home bakers who offer hazelnut cakes that make excellent midnight snacks in your hotel room.
Farmer's markets are becoming more and more popular in America. In Italy, they have never gone out of style. Visiting a street market is one of the most enlightening and enjoyable ways to spend a morning, and the pleasure continues later when you taste your purchases. Happy shopping!
The Slow Food movement, which started in Piedmont and has spread like wildfire throughout the world, has a new offshoot called Earth Markets. Click here to find a list of the outdoor markets in Italy, and details in English.