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Every year, when I go back to Italy to see my family, I manage to squeeze in a visit to a mercato. As you may have guessed, the word “mercato” means “market”, but what’s a mercato (plural: mercati) to the Italians? I asked several friends from various parts of Italy to help me define it – the article you’re reading includes their collective observations.
The mercati are traditional neighborhood street markets that take place in most Italian municipalities and are as ancient as the cities themselves. Small towns tend to have a weekly mercato (on alternating weekdays among bordering towns) in a designated street or square (often called “Piazza Mercato“). Bigger cities instead tend to have several neighborhood mercati, some of which may occur daily (on weekdays and Saturdays) and take place in permanent structures that are either partially or fully covered (mercati coperti).
In the mercati, street vendors set up their movable shops to cover a complete range of needs: from food, to clothes, to household items. The stores are generally open from early morning until early afternoon, but in big cities or for special occasions (e.g. patron saint feasts or Christmas celebrations) they may remain open until late. The mercati feature products for all budgets, from affordable consumables to high-quality designer items. Bargaining is acceptable though not as common as it was in the past, with the newer generations of customers being more used to posted prices.
Even though supermarkets have become the main source of supplies, the mercati remain popular in Italy. One reason for their appeal is the reliable quality and competitive prices of their fresh produce. Italians are very demanding when it comes to food and select vendors based on an expectation of high quality and fair value. Since in the mercato vendors strive to form long-term relationships with their customers, they must honor such expectations.
Another reason for the popularity of the mercati is that small towns may otherwise not have enough stores to supply the local demand. This phenomenon has become even more significant in recent years since many small businesses closed due to the financial downturn and competition from out-of-town commercial centers and department stores.
Aside from the merchandise itself, however, a big part of the appeal of the mercati lies in their social function of being outdoor gathering places where people can meet. Those who visit a mercato are greeted by a cheerful atmosphere derived from the variety of merchandise and the excitement of bargaining. In small towns where the mercato only occurs weekly, the infrequency of the event intensifies the excitement.
There are mercati that specialize in a certain genre of merchandise, such as the famous “mercati del pesce” (fish markets) that are commonly seen in coastal cities, or the “ortomercati“, which are dedicated to fruit and vegetables. But the multipurpose mercati are the most common. In those, vendors are loosely grouped together by type, with fresh fruit and vegetables stands taking on the most prominent section.
In most mercati, the space next to the produce is reserved for bakeries and deli trucks (selling fresh pasta, cheese, cold cuts, olives and other preserves, roasted chickens and pre-made dishes). A few butchers and some fish trucks are also commonly seen in that area. As we move away from the core, the merchandise switches to clothes, including pajamas and underwear, as well as shoes and accessories such as belts and wallets. Then, it’s the turn of household items, including linens, curtains, mats, as well as hardware, tools, and cleaning products. Sometimes plants, seeds, and even birds and other small pets can be found as well. Finally, in recent years, “coffee-trucks” have been making an appearance even in small mercati, offering espresso and cappuccino, as well as croissants, pastries, sandwiches, and pizza by the slice. Some even feature a dedicated seating area.
Even though the produce sold in the mercati is often local, vendors may rely on nationwide distribution chains and as such the mercati cannot be considered as farmers markets. In some big Italian cities, however, actual farmers markets have started to appear as stand-alone venues or as distinct sections in regular mercati. Just like in North America, farmers markets are associated with smaller production volumes, organic farming (agricoltura biologica), fair trade, and the consequently higher retail prices. In Italy, however, farmers markets are still relatively uncommon, possibly because the majority of the Italians consider regular produce to be just as healthy.
It has to be mentioned that mercati sell new merchandise and should not be confused with flea markets (mercati delle pulci) and other second-hand markets (mercatini dell’usato), or with antique markets (mercati dell’antiquariato). Most major cities do have such specialty markets as unique venues, though generally only monthly or seasonally.
In order to occupy a spot in the mercato, vendors need to apply for a permit with the city. During each mercato day, the municipal police go through the aisles to check that every vendor has paid their occupancy fees. They also check that there are no unauthorized salesmen offering merchandise of dubious origin (brand name imitations) or simply items of little value and high return margins such as lighters, string bracelets, plastic sunglasses.
In recent years, Italy has seen a sharp influx of immigrants. This new multiculturalism affects the mercati by more imported items being sold, and new vendors taking over some of the businesses. Some of those long-term relationships with the familiar vendors have been lost, and until new ones are established the mercati in some towns must wait to regain their neighborhood identity.
Some markets, however, have strongly maintained their traditions. This is the case, for instance, in the yearly fairs that many towns hold to honor their patron saints. Years ago, these town fairs were often the setting of small cattle shows (fiere del bestiame). Nowadays, instead, they are essentially big mercati, but with an emphasis on delectable and extravagant products such as cheeses and salumi from the various regions of Italy, marzipan fruits, torrone (nougat), croccante alle mandorle (almond brittle). You can also find an abundance of ornaments, toys, and even the latest kitchen gadgets! Some yearly fairs may also host traveling funfairs (giostre), with elaborate carnival rides.
Other yearly fairs, instead, celebrate a seasonal harvest and are sometimes called “sagre” (festivals). The products that are showcased may be sampled in dedicated food tasting stands (which are sometimes equipped like full restaurants) and are generally available for purchase at wholesale prices. For instance, the world-famous white truffle fair is held every fall in Alba, near Turin.
Finally, a different kind of seasonal market is, of course, the one that is held in many towns during the Christmas period. Mercatini di Natale (Christmas small markets) are especially dear to the Italians, in part for their whimsical atmosphere. Like other winter markets, they often feature warm treats including roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (vin brule). Naturally, they also focus on giftable items such as fine foods, clothes, accessories, and crafts.