At the very end of May, we left Buffalo for Florence via Philadelphia and Brussels, Belgium, to spend our summer vacation in Italy. I have been looking forward to this trip. After a year far away from my native country and my hometown, together with my husband Alex and our daughter Sofia, we will spend a couple of months in my beloved Tuscany, surrounded by family, friends, and certainly good food!
For the first time, I traveled to Italy with my new blue passport, since I became US citizen in November of 2011. In my purse, I also had my red passport, testifying that I am still an Italian and European citizen, which is important for my identity. As my late father wrote in his dedication to the three volumes of the Divine Comedy by Italian and Tuscan medieval writer and poet Dante Alighieri, I will always carry my Italian roots with me, wherever I will be and wherever I will live.
For sure, I recognized my roots as soon as I arrived to Colle di Val d'Elsa, where I was born, grew up, and lived until 2006, when I moved to the U.S. Now, a few days after our arrival, I am still adjusting to few little things, such as the fact that Italians generally don't greet you on the street, unless they know you personally. However, my co-citizens have a very positive image of Americans, who always greet the locals with courtesy and big smiles.
Oberdan Street with a delicatessen cart.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I certainly have missed the local markets here. I know that many American tourists are enamored with our local markets (mercati), which are comparable to Fredonia's Farmers' Market, but with some notable differences. Italian markets are not seasonal, but run throughout the year. Each village or town has at least one, while the bigger cities can have several.
The market is organized once a week, in the morning. People start preparing their carts with the merchandise around 6:00 in the morning, already disassembling everything around 1 p.m. Smaller towns are often networked so that their markets operate on different dates, allowing the merchants to travel and sell their goods in different markets on different days. For instance, Colle di Val d'Elsa has its own market on Fridays morning, Poggibonsi (3 miles away) on Tuesdays, the tower city San Gimignano (5 miles away) on Thursdays, and Siena (10 miles away) on Wednesdays. These days were decided on far back in history and have never changed. The markets are hosted in squares, streets, and parking lots, which are cleared for those days.
The market size is based on the number of inhabitants of the towns. Siena, the capital of our province, has the biggest market with merchants traveling there from throughout the region, and has the biggest and most well-stocked market. Conversely, where my mother lives, namely in a frazione (hamlet) called Gracciano, which is administratively still part of my hometown, a local market was established quite recently on Wednesdays morning to cater to those who face difficulties in visiting the other markets.
What can people buy in these mercati? Everything! You can find carts full of veggies and fruits from local farmers, exactly like our local Farmers' Markets, but you can also find food products such as cheese (formaggio), cold cuts (affettati), butchered meats, fish, oil, wine, chocolates, or other candies. You can see roasted chicken (polli arrosto) slowly turning on a spit, but also kebabs (spiedini), sausages, our famous porchetta, namely a spit roasted pig flavored with seasonings with a very thick skin, French fries (patatine fritte), potatoes baked in the oven (patate arrosto), croquette potatoes (crocchette di patate) or lasagne. Certainly, food differs from region to region, so one would find different food and pre-prepared dishes in different parts of Italy.
The local markets also offer other everyday goods, including leather goods such as purses, bags, and belts, clothing and shoes, toys, kitchen utensils, flowers (fresh and fake) and plants, or fabrics. Each cart is very specialized, only carrying particular wares. Prices can be very competitive, but one often needs to pay attention to the quality! Markets are always full of local buyers, who treat them as much as social events as for making purchases.
As one can imagine, Italians excel at making small talk and being social. During the summer months the markets exact an even greater pull, and one sees more teenagers around the markets as well as an influx of tourists, who really enjoy the authentic Italian market experience. You can see many of these tourists leaving the mercati full of white plastic bags, certainly indicating that they embraced this special, Italian tradition. So, if you travel to Italy, make sure to visit our mercati!
Chiara De Santi is a professor of Italian Studies at SUNY Fredonia. Her travel series will be running Sundays on the Travel page. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org