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Andiamo al mercato! Neighborhood markets are an integral part of Italian lifestyle


Padua’s Mercato Sotto il Salone is one of the oldest in Italy and takes place inside a palazzo built circa 1218.. | ADOBE STOCK

If you want to experience the culture of Italy, then you need to do more than just visit historic sites or museums. Markets are an integral part of the fabric of Italy, and their
existence over centuries is possible because of their relevance in the daily lives of Italian citizens. They are a great place to taste local foods, pick up a souvenir, vintage
jewelry, artwork, local crafts and much more.

These traditional neighborhood street markets take place in most Italian municipalities and can be as ancient as the cities themselves. Small towns tend to have a weekly mercato (alternating weekdays with
other bordering towns) in a designated street or square. Others may be held daily or on special occasions such as a religious festival. 

Vendors sell all kinds of products from fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, household products, books, clothing and more. There are markets which only sell specific items like the famed Rialto fish market in Venice which has been in operation for more than 1,000 years.

Porta Portese is a well-known Rome market which winds almost a mile through Trastevere’s medieval center. | ADOBE STOCK

Markets may be held in historic buildings or in set locations, while others are roving events which move from one location to another. Vendors who move from place to place often show up in vans with their products neatly stacked inside which they lay out on permanent or temporary stands (un banco or una bancarella). Food vendors may arrive with vans which are customized with refrigerated display cabinets for perishable foods and a large awning to provide shelter from the sun or inclement weather.

Then there are specialized markets which take place less often but are just as popular. This might be a market which sells chocolates, antiques and vintage items, or a medieval market which caters to patrons who take part in medieval reenactments. It is also interesting to visit a craft market where you can meet local artisans and browse or purchase handmade items such as pottery, jewelry, wood objects, metalwork, paper, glass, leather and much more. 

Rascatura is a popular choice for street food at the Ballarò Market in Palermo, Sicily. | ADOBE STOCK

Markets are especially popular in smaller towns because there may not be a nearby commercial center or smaller stores for residents to shop in. They also serve as a gathering place where people can connect with their friends and neighbors and spend time outdoors. While most products have a set price, one can sometimes bargain for a better deal. These local markets are a touchstone of their culture and a way to support the farmers and craftsmen who live in the area. In general, these markets sell new merchandise and are different than flea markets (mercatini delle pulci) or secondhand markets (mercatini dell’usato). 

One of the oldest markets in Italy (and in Europe) is the Mercato Sotto il Salone in Padua. This market is located on the ground floor of the Palazzo della Ragione which in the Middle Ages was used for administrative purposes. Construction of the building began around 1218 and the Palazzo is recognized as having one of the largest raised halls in Europe. In the great hall on the upper levels the walls are decorated with frescoes with more than 300 scenes.

Artisinal cheese comes from both local and regional producers at a local market in Como, Italy. | ADOBE STOCK

The market takes place sotto (under) the hall above and offers primarily groceries, meat, cheese, fish, wine, and sweets. Many of the products are local specialties but goods are sold from other regions as well. There are over 50 shops in the market and also areas to order coffee or wine or to eat. The market is a central part of the city, a favorite place to shop for locals and a wonderful place for visitors to get a “taste” of the city and its local food scene. 

In Palermo, Sicily, Ballarò Market is where locals and visitors head for traditional Sicilian food and other merchandise from all over the world. The markets dates to the 10th century when Arab culture dominated the island, and it was known as the Market of Mirrors. 

Goods displayed on the traditional “bancate” or counter are artfully displayed. Here you will hear the vendors calling out to customers in the local dialect in what is referred to as the “Abbanniata.” These vocal advertisements can sound like a poem or a song and are a performance not to miss! People of all ages and backgrounds gather here to find fresh fish, meat, vegetables, olives, fruit, and cheeses as well as delicious Sicilian sweets. These range from almond nougats, carob candies, buccellati, cannellini and cannoli. 

The Rialto Fish market in Venice has been in operation for more than 1,000 years. | ADOBE STOCK

Visitors can also enjoy Sicilian Street food such as sfincione (a bread-like pizza) or “u pani ca’ meusa” (a soft bread topped with sesame, stuffed with chopped veal lung and spleen that have been boiled and then fried in lard). Also available are arancini and frittola (leftover veal scraps boiled then fried until crisp and served in a paper scone). Rascatura, made with leftover dough from various breads, croquettes and arancini dough, is another favorite. Rascare means to scrape so these doughs are scrapings which are then shaped as a croquette that tastes like potatoes, chickpea flour and parsley. 

In Genoa, the Mercato Orientale is held in a former convent within the building’s cloister. The market opened in 1899 and draws both locals and tourists with its offerings of not only fruits, vegetables, meats, and fresh bread but also clothing, shoes, and costume jewelry. You can also select local cheeses, pasta, focaccia, oil, pesto basil and anchovies from the Ligurian sea.

Porta Portese in the Rione Trastevere area of Rome is the best known and largest market in the city. Many Romans make it a point to head there on Sundays but tourists also flock there because of the array of vendors offering wares and to get a sense of daily life in the city. This weekly market, open each Sunday morning, stretches over a mile in this medieval center near the Tiber River. 

It is well known for its vendors who sell a wide range of antique items, vintage clothes, second-hand books, and countless other items. It is a multicultural experience as vendors are not just from Italy but from other countries as well. 

One note of caution is that with crowded markets you will need to be aware of your surroundings because these places are also well known for pickpockets. Be aware also that as you meander through the streets of any city you may often see wares temporarily placed on the ground which are usually knock-offs of well-known brands.

While a bit smaller, the Campo dei Fiori market between Piazza Venezia and the Tiber River is another long-established market in Rome. Locals and visitors have been coming to this market since 1869 to shop and eat. The name, which in English means Field of Flowers, was given to the area because of the poppies, daisies and other wildflowers which once grew here. It was also the site of numerous public executions. 

The streets surrounding the market were also well known for various artisans whose shops were located close to the market. Adjacent streets are the Via dei Cappellari (street of the hat makers) as well as Via dei Giubbonari (street of the jacket makers). The market is well known for its colorful flowers, but one can also buy typical Roman fare like broad beans, pecorino cheese, and artichokes.

In Florence, the historic Mercato Nuovo is an open-air market covered by a loggia with an arched entry. The market is situated close to the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria. Built in the mid-16th century, the loggia first hosted gold and silk traders and later straw-hat sellers. Today its vendors mostly sell souvenirs and leather goods. 

Tourists visiting the market should also look for the Porcellino Fountain beside the arches of the Mercato. Tradition has it that if you rub the bronze boar’s nose, drop a coin in the mouth, and it falls into the grates where the water flows, you will be favored with good luck. 

Porta Nolana is Naples’ well-known market where you can buy clothing, assorted items, fresh fruit and vegetables and other wares as well as enjoy local Neapolitan Street food. While not an actual market, visitors from near and far also flock to the nearby street of San Gregorio Armeno, home to artisans who craft nativities and figurines which are sold around the world. 

Many of the markets in the larger cities of Italy have become so well known that they are often included in tour packages for visitors. Smaller town markets may not have as much to offer but they can also be a fun and different approach to better understand the essence of living in a small Italian community. 

Travelers taking in the wonders of Italy should make it a point to visit at least one market during their journey to experience a bit of the local culture which has been a mainstay of Italian life for centuries.

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