[Thoughts on the Table – 99] Taste and Flavor Flashbacks with Jason and Paolo

As Thoughts on the Table approaches 100 episodes, I chose to dedicate episode 99 to the series’ beginnings, dating back to August 2013. I was an avid podcast listener and, inspired by great productions like This American Life and Stuff You Should Know, I involved my friend and then-coworker, Jason, and branched off from my blog to try the more colloquial format of a podcast.

Today’s issue contains extracts from the first six episodes where Jason and I discuss taste and flavor, as well as cultural differences between Italy, North America, and Japan. Among other topics, we touched on why as an Italian I would never try to put salt on pasta, whether eating spicy food can damage our taste buds, the reason why desserts tend to end the meal, why many people learn to appreciate “spoiled” foods like Gorgonzola and Nattō, what exactly astringency is, and the path to appreciating subtle flavors. To wrap up the selection, I couldn’t help but include extracts from episode seven, a recording that took place right in the center of Milan on Jason’s impressions from visiting Italy for the first time.

After these seven episodes, Jason could no longer continue as a co-host. So I started looking for a new podcast partner by enlisting some of my dearest blogger friends as collaborators. This eventually gave me the idea to turn the podcast towards the format of the interview. I enjoyed it a lot. With practice, I learned to connect with my guests in a way that would capture their spontaneity in entertaining and informative chats, and I made many lasting connections as a result, for which I’m grateful. My guests included food bloggers, writers, cookbook authors, chefs, food professionals, food photographers, event organizers, cooking instructors, and fellow podcasters. Overall, in nearly nine years of activity, Thoughts on the Table saw a total of 65 collaborators for a combined playback time of 39 hours, 19 minutes, and 13 seconds.


Eleven years of blogging, eight of podcasting

Another year! The good news is that this blog is still active and luckily keeps being found by those searching for Italian specialties like pizzoccheri or canederli or Italian misconceptions like my 6 Italian myths. The bad news of course is that I haven’t posted any new articles or recipes this year. I know, it’s terrible – but it’s also okay, given that social media has taken the place of blogging in many ways.

But I did resume podcasting (yay!) and produced 16 new episodes with as many guests and collaborations this past year! This continues to be a lot of fun for me and I’ve already started to work on a new round of episodes to hopefully reach my dream milestone of 100 episodes very soon!

Here is a list of the episodes this year. Thanks again to all of my wonderful guests!

On a personal level, we keep well here in southern England, still working from home and enjoying plenty of homecooked food. We pretty much spend our time planning meals, cooking, cleaning the kitchen, and being grateful for having a dishwasher. As the government lifted all social distancing measures exactly two weeks ago, we are far from back to normal, unfortunately. Traveling is still not really possible, including to and from Italy which of course breaks our hearts. But we enjoy our area, which is wonderfully green after a very wet summer, and spending time with our cat Rascal, who just turned 19, overall doing great and still a great source of comfort and inspiration to us both.

I hope you’re all well, wherever you are, and please get in touch for collaborations, to be on the podcast, or just to say hi – I’d love that 🙂

[Thoughts on the Table – 86] Christmas Traditions from Growing up in Sicily, Canada, and Milan

A classic Christmas special, featuring two very special guests: my wife Candace and our dear friend Miriam. Join us to hear us compare our different childhood traditions between a farm in Saskatchewan (Canada), an apartment in Palermo (Sicily), and one near Milan.

During the episode, we talk about how Nativity scenes can take on a local flavor, Miriam’s riveting performance in her childhood Christmas play, stockings, the presents-opening ceremony (between candlelight and spotlight!), and of course and at length about the food of the holidays!

The music in the episode is by www.purple-planet.com.


[Thoughts on the Table – 69] Introducing Food Blogger Pina Bresciani

This episode’s guest is Pina Bresciani (pinabresciani.com), a talented food blogger based in Vancouver, Canada, with strong ties to Italy.

Join me as I learn more about Pina, starting from her upbringings in an Italian family in Vancouver, speaking Italian at home and English at school, and spending her summers at her grandparents in Sperlonga, a seaside town between Rome and Naples. Growing up, Pina continued to keep close ties to Italy, while growing fond of Vancouver’s natural beauty and multicultural vibe. In 2015, Pina decided to start a blog as a creative outlet and, naturally, she gravitated towards Italian culture, and, just as naturally, food became the main focus. Pina’s recipes show her continental Italian roots, at times incorporating a west coast influence, beautifully presented thanks to her amazing food photography.

During the episode, we touch on some of Pina’s posts:

We also talk about the Italian bar “etiquette.”

You can follow Pina on her blog, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

The music in the episode is by www.purple-planet.com.


An Italian in Canada – From the Food of Italy to “Italian Food”

I came to Vancouver in 2001, right after getting my Electronic Engineering degree. I had a six-month contract as a software engineer, joining an Italo-Canadian development team. Naturally, I was very excited for the professional experience that awaited me, but I was even more excited for the opportunity to discover a big new city in an enormous new continent – along with its language, its culture, and its food!


During my first few weeks, I trusted my Italian coworkers for food recommendations. They had been living in Vancouver for over a year already and had developed a liking for a pool of Asian and south Asian restaurants, but also for some Ethiopian and Greek establishments. I always loved discovering new cuisines, so I was happy to follow my coworkers around (also because I didn’t quite miss Italian food yet). During those days I learned how to use chopsticks and got to try a whole range of new dishes, including sushi – still one of my favorites.

When on my own, despite trying to expand my horizons to North American food, I kept going back to foreign food. Thinking of it, this is probably because “ethnic” restaurants were meant for foreigners – there, I could order my meal simply by pointing at a picture on the menu, or by reading the number next to it. In North American restaurants, instead, my Caucasian physiognomy was probably deceiving with regards to my language challenges – people expected me to speak English and therefore adjusted my words to their closest logical interpretation. This sometimes resulted in a different dish being brought to me instead of the one I ordered, like that time I was served a Caesar salad instead of a sesame salad, simply because I didn’t know the final ‘e’ in sesame is not silent.

Eventually, through trial and error, I learned how to order food. But I wasn’t totally immune to misadventure. One day, being quite desperate for something a bit more familiar, I stumbled into a McDonald’s and I distractedly ordered: “One cheeseburger and a beer.” In Italy every McDonald’s sells beer, so I mechanically assumed it would be an option in Vancouver as well. The guy at the till probably thought I skipped a word and gave me a burger and some kind of pop. Even though I realized quickly that it wasn’t beer (the fact that it came with a straw gave it away), I wasn’t really in a position to complain, as you can imagine. As I was eating my burger, I gulped down this strange soda. At first, I didn’t mind it, then I started experiencing the horrible feeling of having swallowed a cup of mouthwash! It took me months to realize that that day I had my first root beer. As of today, that root beer was my last!

I then moved from the hotel where I was staying into a small apartment. The kitchen wasn’t fully operative, but it had a microwave oven, so I thought I could try to cook some food for myself. Wandering around in a Superstore, I came across these large frozen “ravioli” filled with potatoes and cheese (the bag probably had the word ‘perogies’ written on it, but it didn’t register with me). The instructions on the package said that these dumplings could be cooked in the microwave, so I was hopeful they would be OK. I was completely wrong! These big, puffy semicircles were made of a thick, chewy dough which, despite having followed the cooking instructions, was definitely way undercooked and tasted quite funny. I ended up squeezing out the filling and eating it like mashed potatoes*.

“I was especially fascinated by the “marbled” one in which bright orange and pale orange cheese are twirled together.”

While at the Superstore, something else caught my attention. I noticed some big blocks of orange cheese, which I recognized as the same cheese that McDonald’s puts in its cheeseburgers. I had never seen the “real thing” in block-form before, and I was especially fascinated by the “marbled” one in which bright orange and pale orange cheese are twirled together. So, after the perogies disaster, I went to the fridge hoping to improve my meal by finishing it with a piece of cheese. Well, that night I realized that this crustless, rubbery orange product is not something you want to just eat with bread like you would for a piece of Fontina or Scamorza… it’s so dry that it’s almost impossible to swallow, and it really tastes quite bland.

After a few months of sushi, dim sum, moussaka, chicken korma, and unsatisfying cheese, my excitement for new foods was starting to wear off. One day, I suddenly craved pasta. Luckily, I happened to walk past a restaurant chain called: The Old Spaghetti Factory. Of course, I didn’t expect to find my mom’s pasta there, but I also didn’t expect it to be too different from it. After all, a pasta dish is a pasta dish, right? Not at all. I had found a completely different kind of Italian food. I was outraged! Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken Pesto Penne, Linguini Alfredo… I had never heard of any of these dishes when I was living in Italy. I had discovered a parallel universe!

50% tagliatelle 50% sauce
“A pretty unappetizing one […] the portions were too big, the pasta was either drowning in sauce or looked pale and overcooked, and the sauces looked overly rich.”

A pretty unappetizing one as well… the portions were too big, the pasta was either drowning in sauce or looked pale and overcooked, and the sauces looked overly rich. I ordered something which seemed a bit more familiar to me, clam linguini, but even that dish didn’t compare at all with the one I knew. I thought that maybe I had ended up in a strange “fusion” restaurant, but the more I looked around for other Italian restaurants, the more I became aware that they all served the same kind of unfamiliar dishes.

cinco fromaggio
“Don’t they know that Italians very rarely make spelling mistakes? It’s a phonetic language!”

Looking more closely at some of these self-proclaimed Italian restaurants, I was particularly surprised to find a slew of spelling mistakes printed on their menus, which I actually found quite offensive. Don’t they know that we have spell checkers in Italy? Don’t they know that Italians very rarely make spelling mistakes? It’s a phonetic language! In a few cases, I almost offered to correct the menus myself, but then I realized that maybe these errors were for the best after all, since they acted like unintentional warnings to native Italians, hopefully sending them off to the Chinese restaurant next door, perhaps with an equally misspelled menu, but that they would have never been able to call out.

Meanwhile, my first work contract had ended and I was offered a full-time job, which I actually still hold now, 15 years later. During the following years I kept running into distorted Italian food, and somehow Italian food was becoming even more popular in Vancouver. In 2010, I decided to have some fun and start a pretentious blog aimed at fixing Italian food in North America. In my opening post, I wrote: “I will say the proper ways to write the names of Italian dishes. And, from what I know, I will also try to say how the dish should look and taste… for sure I will say how the dish most definitely *shouldn’t* look or taste!”

This was just the beginning, though, and as I continued blogging my initial rant turned into something a bit more useful. I started investigating the root differences between the food of Italy and the food of North America, which are as much in the ingredients as in the culinary culture. I also learned that Italian-American food is a cuisine in its own right, historically rooted and not less authentic than the cuisine of Milan. However, I think that Italian-American food should be labeled as such, and I hope that going forward more restaurants and chefs will celebrate it by calling it out on their menus instead of labeling it as generically “Italian.”

Since I started the blog, however, things have begun to change. I am not sure I can take credit for it, but it’s indisputable that thanks to YouTube and true Italian food blogs people can get accurate descriptions of all kinds of cuisines directly from the people who grew up eating them. In this changing landscape, more and more Italian restaurateurs are discovering that they can be successful outside of Italy without compromising by adapting their menus to local expectations. As a result, the Italians abroad can more easily find the Italian food they’re familiar with.

I think that the new global awareness is also reflected in an increased availability of ingredients. Naturally, North America’s produce is still very different from the Italian because of climate and composition of the soil, but, at least in big cities, it is now easier to find Italian grocery stores and to cook traditional continental Italian without having to substitute any key ingredients. Overall, I don’t see this as globalization, but quite as the opposite – it’s a phenomenon which validates local realities and traditional cuisines, ultimately preserving them in their immense richness and protecting them from accidentally merging into one another. Cross pollination and fusion cuisine will of course still happen, but, hopefully, they will become more deliberate than they have been in the past.

* It took me years, but I eventually came across properly cooked east European perogies and discovered that they are actually delicious.

[Thoughts on the Table – 48] Introducing Ale Gambini and her Cookbook: A Queen in the Kitchen

This episode’s guest is Cannolo Award winner Ale Gambini, food blogger, recipe developer, and web series host. Ale just published her first cookbook titled A Queen in the Kitchen, which she dedicates to her grandma Fernanda and to the cuisine of her Milan and of northern Italy (which is where I’m from as well). Join us in our chat to hear us compare our notes and memories, and to learn more about northern Italian dishes which are largely unknown around the world.

You can follow Ale Gambini on her blog A Queen in the Kitchen, as well as on Twitter ‎@alegambinidt.

The music in the episode is by: www.purple-planet.com.


[Thoughts on the Table Transcript] Grandma’s Wartime Memories: Food in Northern Italy

Back in May 2014, I published an unusual episode of Thoughts on the Table, but also an episode that meant a lot to me. I had just returned from a trip to Italy, where I had a chance to record a conversation with my grandmother, Chiara, on her life in northern Italy during World War II. In this conversation, I realized that I didn’t actually know most of these stories, so I asked a lot of questions focusing specifically on food and cooking during those difficult times.

This post presents the same interview in textual form.

Grandma Chiara has since turned 95, she still lives in her home and is doing great.


Listen to the original episode


I wanted to ask you a few questions on when you were young, so we're talking about… You were born in 1920, right?

Oh, I have to say my age? Well, I was born in 1920, so, in 1941 the war began. When I turned 25, the war ended.

‎And what did you have to eat during the fascism?

Well, during fascism, before the war, people used to live well. It's when the war started, that scarcity began. Scarcity of food, and the bombing of the wagons that transported food… Uncle Mario, my brother also fought in that war (World War II), when I got married he hadn't returned home yet. Instead my father fought in another war (World War I). Mussolini, il Duce, used to hold speeches in the squares – it was a mess…

And so, during the war, how was it? What did you manage to eat?

During the war we ate what we could – not everyone had enough even for basic needs. For me, in the home I grew up in, near Milan, before the war, I didn't suffer hunger because farmers had everything – we had bread, because we had flour, and also we used to raise our own cattle… Pigs we didn't have but other farmers did… and when they used to kill a pig there was a lot to eat. Take those farmers with pigs – they were able to raise the pigs because they had hay, bran, all those things. So when they killed the pig they had food in abundance. But there were also families which didn't even have bread to eat.

But was there a "minimum" provided by the government? Did you use to have a rations badge?

Yes, the badge was established by the government of war – that set amount of food per person: e.g. 100 g of bread per day, one kg or 2 of rice however often they gave it to you (must have been 2 months, 3 months – whenever the truck arrived, with 2 cardboard boxes of rice, those with the badge would get it – the last ones in line sometimes had to return empty-handed). But there was also the black market – those who could get oil under the table, maybe from warehouses, I don't know where they used to get it from, it was really expensive, but at least you could get it.

During the war your grandpa used to work with a person whose father worked on the railway. On the railway line from Milan to Switzerland, they used to put salt on the tracks – for winter when there was ice, so the trains wouldn’t slip. The father of this friend of grandpa – he used to collect the salt! He brought home big sacks of 4 or 5 kg. We used that salt for cooking – because there was no salt otherwise, they gave you maybe a 100 g of salt per month – so, you know what we used to do? That salt from the tracks, we used to boil it in water, then we strained it, and it would turn out still brown, because it was from the railway and there was iron in it! My father in law used to use a cloth as a strainer… and it was still full of debris! They used to put it into a jar, and we had it there to salt the food during cooking… like 1 or 2 tablespoons for every time that we made pasta, or soup, or something that needed salt. So it was salty water that we used to collect from the tracks… Look what I have seen!

No, I wouldn't have guessed that you had to do that… How was the kitchen? Did you have a wood stove?

Yes, we had a wooden stove.

Was it easy to find wood?

Wood, we used to go to the bushes. And heating was also wood… nobody had heaters… maybe the rich? Perhaps they already had it. But us, the farmers, we had just a wood stove… or the fireplace – not even the stove! I didn’t have a stove until the last years, before getting married. Before there was only the fireplace. And we would go get wood in the bushes, long thin branches, with thorns. At home we had big chests in the corner for storing wood. When we had to start the fire, we would go get some of those branches, we would break them up (poking our fingers with the thorns), and also we would use some straw – we always had it from harvesting the wheat and rye.

We used to hang the cauldron on the fireplace, and it turned all black underneath, and then we used to get burnt flying debris, that would end up in the food. Any time you used to make soup or pasta, or you boiled water to make soup, there were those things in it, the things that when you burn wood fly in the air…

So you had your own wheat… did you make your bread?

Yes, I did make bread.

So this is because you were farmers and had flour?

Yes, because we were farmers and farmers didn't suffer as much from hunger because had the land and cattle. But those who used to work in factories had more issues finding food.

But the government, did they ever take some of your harvest? Did you have to pay taxes on your harvest?

No, there was nothing to pay – whatever the farmer wanted to cultivate for themselves on their land, they were allowed to. With the rations badge you would pay for what food you bought, but it was cheap. Though there wasn't much to buy, so the amounts allowed to each person were very limited… There was also the black market, the black market was expensive because it was dangerous… if they caught you selling things, they would put you into jail…

Like for example those who had the pig. If they ate it and keep it in the family, that's one thing, if they sold it in the black market then it's a different story: if the authorities found out they could have come to confiscate everything.

Anyway, was there any meat from time to time?

Ohh, meat – there was 100 g per week.

This with the badge?

Yes, with the badge.

And outside of that? When they killed a pig was there extra?

Yes, but it wasn't much. In fact our cow once had a calf – are you recording? – that then the calf died. So my father wanted to eat it, but you had to get the city veterinarian's approval that it was OK to eat. So the veterinarian came and said: "No, you have to dispose of it, throw it in the cesspit". So my father threw it out in front of the veterinarian. Then he waited until he exited the gate and he pulled the calf out. We washed it inside and out and we ate it.

What did you use to cook for dinner? Let's say, a common meal? A bit of everything?

Oh… in my home there wasn't much to eat… also because they weren't really good cooks. We used to prepare big pots of soup, and that's what we used to eat. We had soup, we cut down bread slices and soak them with milk or hot water and ate them. And then we had chickens – those we ate, boiled. And for Christmas – look what we had to do to make a bit of money – we used to raise ducks. So my father, to make a bit of money which we really needed, he used to keep one duck for us and another 4 or 5 he sold to people he knew, before Christmas. Every year we had those who we used to sell the duck to. But they would pay for it. It would be now, let's say, 10 Euros. Those days it would have been 1, 2, 3 Lira, it wasn't much but it was to have a bit of extra… Life was hard, really.

And then, with the money, we're you able to buy some extras?

Yes, also something to wear… Also: there was no soap! They used to give me the sugar badge and…

Paolo, on Saturdays, when I was riding my bike home after work, to be able to have soap to wash clothes, to wash ourselves, to wash the sheets, we didn’t use the kilogram of sugar that they used to give us monthly. But instead, my coworkers and I, who used to work together on the looms, we had a store in town that would take the sugar and give us soap, or a bit of money. For instance, for 1 Kg of sugar we would get a piece of soap. The soap they used to make themselves, with animal fat – not like the soap that we have now… it was what it was – we used it to wash clothes… Look what we had to do in war times…

So, sometimes you had excess sugar, that you didn't need, and you traded it for soap or money…

Yes, for us using sugar seemed like a waste, we had more use for a piece of soap to wash ourselves, to do laundry… soap was more useful, they didn’t give you soap.

Maybe for those who had kids, they needed more sugar.

Yes, probably. Soap: you use it all the time – when they came home from the fields, all dirty, the clothes all covered in dirt… you needed soap. With a brush and some soap you cleaned them a bit. There was no laundry machine; it was a "disaster".

Well, off course – there was no hot water, right?

Hot water?! No, the water was always cold. There were those who used to wash clothes with ash, the fireplace ash.

How could they wash with ash?

I'm asking you!… they used to boil it, then strain the water and use it to wash – they used to say that things turned out clean… I don’t know.. . My mother never used ash – we always were able to go get some soap.

And also you were saying that there used to be curfew. RightÉ

Yes, but what I am telling you right now refers to the first period of the war – then towards the end we started to live a bit better… I don’t know why. In the month of April 1945 there was the armistice and thing gradually improved. Then from April to September (the actual end of the war), we started to live better those months… provisions started to arrive, there was no more curfew, and food started to be available. I remember I was in the field with my father and I heard church bells from all neighboring towns… And one person was coming on a bicycle saying "the war has ended! It's over, it's over!" This was the month of April. I got married the 12 of May – the month after. My brother (uncle Mario) was serving in the war and he couldn't come in time for my wedding. He came home in September when they started to discharge the soldiers (those who didn't die, of course).

I see, and then the post war times – how was it? I know there was crisis…

Yes, for some time there was crisis, but then jobs started to resume, the factories started to increase in number… I was OK, I never stopped working.

So the crisis in the first after war you didn't feel it?

No, we were ok, we didn't lose our jobs, there was no unemployment – we, my family and friends, all worked. I remember that during war times they used to take us to the city square, in Arconate where the plant was, on the street to Busto Arsizio, they used to take us to the square because Mussolini was speaking. And he used to go up on a balcony of a house in the square, and repeat in the microphone: "Believe! Fight! Obey! – Believe! Fight! Obey!" And it was loud, speakers everywhere…

How many times did you have to see him? Did the dictator come around often?

Yeah, he came – during war times il Duce was in command – he was the dictator. And us, in the factory, along with those that used to live in the area, other factories (foundries, mechanical) used to gather in the square to listen to him. He was talking about the war; and he was talking about the rations badge: "We will give you a badge…" Every now and then he would talk, there was a set day: in the factory they used to put out a sign, like: "this Wednesday at 3pm, il Duce will speak in the square", they used to stop all work, stop the looms, and get all workers out to the square. And the square was full of people, and he was up high on a balcony, with the flag, and he talked. He used to say all that was happening, for example: "we will give you the rations badge, don't worry – now we are at this stage of the war…". And he continued talking all throughout the war… until they caught him, and they killed him! He had a mistress named Petacci and "donna Rachele", his wife. And the story continued that way, until the end of the war. Then in September everything ended and we could all do what we wanted again. Before, there was the curfew and we had to cover all lamps in black fabric, so you wouldn't be seen, also in our home. This was so we wouldn't be seen by the airplanes. Because when they were coming we had to escape to the fields! During war time, when we heard the airplanes we ran to the fields in our pajamas – my father used to take me inside the irrigation canals, because we were worried that they would bomb and kill us. So without flashlights or anything we used to go down on our knees to hide until there was the end of the alarm… this because before the airplanes arrived they used to sound a siren "uuuuu…" and then go! We were all running to escape. You used to see everyone running to the fields. So, we were going into the fields, lying down on the ground. In Milan they bombed – so much bombardment there, also in Legnano – Milan though it was very bad.

So the big cities, the most populated centers were bombed more, whereas the countryside was left more alone.

So when we were hearing the alarms, we were ready – the head of the family always had a bag with the documents, the little money that he had and all the documents demonstrating property of the house, any insurance, etc. Because – if they were to bomb the house, you would have ended up with nothing. You wouldn't have had anything that said that it was your house – so they had a bag with all the important documents.

Grandma, you know I did not know all these things… Thank you so much, very interesting – and also hearing from your voice was incredible. Thank you, we are closing here the recording – then when it comes out I will let you know, OK?

Oh Lord! (laughs)

Il Mercato – The Tradition of the Italian Street Market

~~~ This article is available in narrated version. Check it out! ~~~

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).

Produce stands
Produce stands usually occupy the biggest and most prominent section of the mercati.

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.

“At the regular neighborhood market, you can buy all sorts of things, bargain, and you can also find prestigious brands and products, such as leather boots.[…] In Turin, there’s the biggest open market in Europe: Porta Palazzo which has a covered area for meat, pasta, and fish.” Lucia

“Bologna has a covered market in the city center (The Herbs Market – Mercato delle Erbe), some permanent markets in the style of Alger’s kasbah (via Pescherie’s market […], Aldovrandi’s square’s market) and some temporary markets […], plus a number of neighborhood markets all over the city.” Nando

“In the past, all cities had covered markets. Now in the Emilia region, the only famous market left is Modena’s – a spectacular market with a lot of high-quality foods […] [which are] also sought after by tourists.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes

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.

Outdoor meeting spaces
The mercati are also outdoor meeting spaces.

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.

Coffee truck
Even a small Italian street market can feature a fully equipped coffee truck.

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 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.

“In Milan, the first farmers’ market, organized by Coldiretti [a national agricultural organization] opened in 2008 in the headquarters of the farmers’ cooperative (Consorzio agrario) of Milan and Lodi. The number of farmers’ markets reached 120 in Lombardy in early 2013.” Simona from Briciole

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.

“As for second-hand/antiques, in the area of Porta Palazzo there’s the Balon market, which has some rare pieces. The “Gran Balon”, takes place the second Sunday of every month, and there you really have the chance to find treasures.” Lucia

“Then there’s the «small» antique market of Santo Stefano’s square in Bologna [the second Sunday of each month, and the preceding Saturday].” Nando

Municipal police
The municipal police verifying all vendors’ permits.

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.

Yearly town fair
Beautiful stands in a yearly town fair. In the foreground: a stand showcasing artisan bread, olive bread, raisin bread, and panzerotti. In the background: a display of ethnic rugs, vases, and paintings.

Polenta and fried fish
Freshly made polenta and fried fish are common treats in northern Italian fairs.

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.

“[There are] also fairs that are centered on seasonal products. For instance, near Turin in October there’s the pumpkin fair.” Marta“They have fairs dedicated to some specific local food and its gastronomic specialties for each area. […] These are more like restaurant-style gastronomical stands (e.g. the truffle festival – “sagra del tartufo”, the garlic festival, the festival of the pear, of the asparagus, of the cappellaccio [a pumpkin-filled dumpling characteristic of the town of Ferrara], etc. […] You order food to be cooked by locals (renowned for their traditional cooking knowledge) and you sit at communal tables to eat.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes

“Every year in Perugia there’s the Fair of the Dead, which dates back to the Middle Ages.” Simona from Briciole

Oh bej! Oh bej! market
The Oh bej! Oh bej! market held in historic piazza Mercanti, in Milan.

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.

“There is the Christmas market under the Portico dei Servi (which lasts from Santa Lucia, – December 8, but it opens on December 6th -, until January 6th) and the market of independent artisans [called] «Decomelart» in via San Giuseppe and one of sweets and random gadgets in via Altabella.” Nando

“Christmas markets are mostly located in northern Italy but are not absent in the south. You can check out the website: mercatini-natale.com for a list of the locations.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes

“The Christmas market that I know best is the Fair of the “Oh bej oh bej” that is done in Milan for Sant’Ambrogio [the city’s patron saint, on December 7th].” Simona from Briciole

[Thoughts on the Table – 21] Introducing Fiona from Nuts About Food

Hi and welcome to Thoughts on the Table! As you may already know, I am just back from a brief trip to Italy. This time, I managed to bring back a special podcast featuring my friend Fiona, an amazing food blogger based in Milan.

Join me as I chat with Fiona about her life in Italy, where she moved from New York as a child. In this episode, Fiona focuses on the food of Milan: from its deep traditions to its growing multiculturalism. In the second part of our chat, Fiona shares what brought her to starting Nuts About Food and what motivates her to continue posting new recipes.

NOTE: In the podcast, Fiona mentions “Mondeghili” and “Riso al Salto“. Follow the links for more info on these traditional Milanese dishes (thanks to Giallo Zafferano and Manu’s Menu).