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January 10, 2012

Visiting the market is always on my to do list when traveling. Markets are total eye candy, an education in what locals really eat and when they eat it. In Italy, the markets are what we would call seasonal. ‘Seasonal’ to us is a thing; ‘seasonal’ to an Italian is not a thing – it’s just how it’s done. Stuff grows at a certain time and then you eat it when it’s ready.  Italians don’t pat themselves on the back about eating ‘seasonal’ the way we do.

Puntarelle in season at a Roman market.

Not only will you learn when fruit and vegetables are in season, but if you’re not an Italian speaker like me, you’ll also learn what is what. Each item has an edifying sign, telling you its name in Italian. In late November at a Roman market, I spy puntarrelle. Aha! That’s what it looks like! I’ve only read about it in cookbooks. It comes into season in late fall and is eaten with an anchovy sauce. It’s sold either exactly as it appears when harvested (like in the photo) or trimmed and cleaned up ready to be dressed.  I hear it’s a complete pain in the ass to trim and clean puntarelle so it’s regularly sold with all the hard work done for you.

I love the bustle and watching all the people chat with the vendors, eyeing up the selection, and picking what they’ll be taking home with them. I hover closely (but not in a creepy way) and watch how people approach the vendor and how they size up the produce so I can do the same. At some markets, there is a procedure to getting your veg and fruit. One of the procedures, is not to touch the produce. You say what you want (or point) and how much. The vendor then grabs it for you, weighs it and tells you how much you owe them. At some stalls, they have these bowls or small buckets: you grab one, and fill it up with what you want and then hand it over to the seller to weigh.

One of the butchers at Rome's Testaccio market.

Maurizio, a fishmonger at the Testaccio Market.

Honest to goodness tomatoes like from your mamma's backyard. Dirt included.

When in Rome, I went to three markets: Campo de Fiori, Testaccio and Trionfale. Campo de Fiori is mostly for tourists.  It’s small compared to Testaccio and Trionfale and only has a handful of real vendors that aren’t selling prepackaged food souvenirs like Tuscan Dried Herb Mix For Soup! that no Italian uses. But it’s in the centro storico, in a pretty square with lots of shopping around and there you go. The first two photos above are from Campo de Fiori. It looks pretty, right? But not much substance there.  I read that years and years ago it actually was a real market where Italians shopped regularly. But not really anymore.

The Testaccio market is in Testaccio, which is between Piramide and Trastevere.  The neighborhood is working class and this is a proper neighborhood market. It’s not fancy and not that big and it’s not in a picturesque square. It’s housed in a quasi-dilapidated unremarkable building. Locals shop here and the food is quality.  Like real markets in Italy, you can pick up more than things to eat at the market; you can also get a fine pair of shoes at a good price.

Strolling over one block from the Testaccio market, I spied a man selling garlic out of his little truck on the street.

This wee truck full of garlic is why Italy is magic.

And then there’s my favourite market in Rome: the Trionfale Market. This market is in Prati, one neighborhood over from the Vatican. I rented a room in a shared flat in Prati after escaping from a horrible farm in Tuscany. I call it the dishwashing farm because that was mainly what I did – wash dishes. It wasn’t even organic dishwashing. Ugh. That’s all I can bear to say about that place.

I had a kitchen in my Prati flat and I couldn’t wait to shop and cook. My landlady mentioned there was a really good market just down the street. She showed me the way on a map and off I went. I walked into the Trionfale market and “really good” didn’t come close to what it was like –  I was blown away.  It’s bustling, big, and full of food action. If you want to see Italians shop for food in their natural habitat, this is the place to observe them. I was pretty intimidated when I first went there and completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things I wanted to buy and eat. I spent what felt like an hour just doing laps around the place trying to figure out what I wanted aside from everything. The vendors greet the customers by shouting out “Buon Giorno!” They did the same for me…the first, second, third time I cruised by their stall. By the time I was on my fourth lap, they stopped saying hello except for one butcher who would say it with a smile/borderline laugh. I giggled back at him, telling him “Buon Giorno” for the fourth time.

Before one of my trips to the Trionfale market, I put together a list of what I wanted to buy. I thought this would help me with my indecision and cut down the amount of laps I would do around the market. I had my heart set on some lamb for dinner. Lamb is agnello. I memorized the word and set out to find some.  I checked out every butcher’s stall to see if they had lamb. No one did. Everyone had tacchino, though. I stared hard at tacchino. I went to about every stall, looking at all the different cuts of tacchino trying to figure out what it was. No idea. (In my defense all the tacchino was in cutlet or scallopini form that gave no indication to the shape or size of the actual animal.) The meat looked a bit dark. Was it veal? No…veal is vitello. This husband and wife butcher team seemed really friendly, they had tacchino, too, so I approached them and finally just asked them. The butcher replies in English, one word: turkey. Aha! Now I get it. Lamb wasn’t in season that’s why no one had any. Turkey, though, was in season and everyone was selling it. The husband and wife were selling little turkey scalloppini. The butcher holds up half a whole turkey he’s butchering and points to where on the turkey the scalloppini come from – the thigh. I rub my own thigh to show him I understand. As he hands me my turkey scallopinni, he says: sale, pepe e poco limone. That means salt, pepper and a little bit of lemon. He flips his palm over twice and makes a sizzling noise with his mouth and then says, “buono.” I follow his instructions when I get home and it is buono.

Here are just a few pictures of the bounty at the Trionfale market.

Artichokes were in season when I was in Rome. You couldn’t walk through the market without almost running straight into a huge stack of them. They’re a menace!

I realized when I was staring at these porcini mushrooms that this was the first time I had ever seen fresh ones. I’ve only ever seen dried, sliced up ones in plastic bags. Fresh porcini mushrooms look like cartoon mushrooms; you can image a little woodland elf or troll (elf is cuter) sitting underneath the cap of one of these, smoking a pipe.

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