Among the many risotto variations, asparagus risotto (‘risotto agli asparagi’) is one of the most successful, and one of my favorites. There are a few different ways to incorporate asparagus in a risotto. In my recipe, diced asparagus are added in stages, from the bottom of the stalks to their tops, to ensure uniform cooking and to get the most in terms of flavor. For best results, however, it’s recommended to use the freshest possible asparagus. Since the shoots are still actively growing, even if kept in the fridge and in the dark over time they tend to consume their own sugars and to dry out(1).
For this risotto variation, I made use of the Parmesan rind as a way to add more flavor, and because I love eating it in small bites together with the risotto. As I mentioned in a previous risotto recipe, the rind is added at the beginning of the preparation so that it cooks and rehydrates along with the rice. If you haven’t had Parmesan rind, however, you may find it chewy and too strong. In that case, you may want to use it just as a flavoring aid during the cooking and then discard it.
(1)Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004)
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 25 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
2/3 cup Carnaroli rice (Arborio can also be used)
10 oz (300 g) asparagus (about 12 thick stalks)
1 oz (30 g) unsalted butter
½ glass of white wine (at room temperature)
3 cups of vegetable stock
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano
some Parmigiano rind, scrubbed and washed
salt and black pepper
Wash and trim the asparagus. Thinly slice the shallot.
Cut the asparagus in three sections: lower stalks, middle stalks, upper stalks.
Cut the lower stalks lengthwise and add them to the vegetable stock (which you'll have boiling in a second pot).
Slice the middle stalks in ½ inch cylinders.
Slice the upper stalks thinly, but leaving the buds whole.
Sauté the shallot in the butter for a couple of minutes at medium heat, then add the middle stalks.
Add the rice and "toast it" for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the wine and set a 18-minute timer (15 if you're using Arborio rice). Stir until the wine evaporates. Then add the Parmesan rind.
Add the asparagus-flavored vegetable stock, on ladle at a time, stirring constantly until absorbed.
When there are 10 minutes of cooking remaining, add the upper stalks and buds.
When there are 5 minutes of cooking remaining, add 2/3 of the grated Parmigiano.
Continue adding the vegetable stock, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly until absorbed.
Add the last of the stock when the rice is a couple of minutes from being ready: at the end, the risotto will need to be slightly runny.
When the time is up, take the pot off the heat. Add "a nut" of butter and stir gently for one extra minute.
Serve sprinkled with the rest of the Parmigiano and a hint of black pepper.
Originally born in Naples, Marzia Molatore grew up near Valtellina, in northern Italy. About 15 years ago, she moved to Vancouver, Canada, where she teaches traditional Italian cooking.
Her case, however, is far more extraordinary than this. Recently, she shared on her blog the truth about the events that affected her life in Italy and which she has now started to leave behind. In the episode, Marzia shares more on her story and I am proud to have had the opportunity to record it directly from her own voice.
In the second part of our chat, Marzia talks about her cooking school and her goal to spread her love for cooking and dining together, as well as inspire more people to cook real food – an objective with which I couldn’t agree more!
You can follow Marzia on her blog, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Please join me in congratulating her for her incredible strength and fantastic attitude in life.
My friend and recurring guest Nick Zingale is back on the show with his great storytelling to talk about Christmas and the way he and his Italian-American family celebrated it over the years: from the anticipation leading up to Christmas Eve, to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, to the many family gatherings. In the episode, I also share my Christmas memories from growing up in northern Italy, with a special emphasis on the food.
This post’s featured image was derived from “Christmas Tree Fruit” by Sergé, licensed under Creative Commons.
Hello and welcome back to Thoughts on the Table! This episode’s guest is Cannolo Award winner Enzo De Chiara from the fabulous blog The Italian Guest.
During the interview, Enzo explains his link to the United States and how he started his blog to document his food, travel, and lifestyle experiences across from his hometown of Bergamo (in northern Italy) and his adoptive city of Columbia, Missouri.
In the episode, we also discuss some of the differences between Italians and Americans in the context of social interactions, lifestyle, and of course food. Enzo also introduces his latest post which he dedicated to The Magic Tree.
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.
Squash risotto (or risotto con la zucca), is a traditional risotto common in all northern Italy. The squash gives an especially mealy texture, and a sweeter flavor to it, along of course with a beautiful orange color. But what is squash, exactly?
Along with melon, watermelon, cucumber, zucchini, pumpkin, and gourd, squash belongs to a plant family called cucurbitaceae. Even though they’re all fruits, with the exception of melon and watermelon, the cucurbitaceae are used as vegetables. There are two kinds of squash: summer squash (e.g.: zucchini, straightneck squash), harvested as they ripen in the summer, and winter squash (e.g.: acorn squash, butternut squash, spaghetti squash), harvested in fall, when they are fully mature, their seeds have dried out, and their skin has hardened. Winter squashes have historically played a significant role in the kitchen because they can keep for several months (lasting well through winter) and because when cooked they develop an agreeable flavor, and a starchy, mealy texture similar to sweet potatoes*. Out of the various kinds of winter squash, the sub-family called ‘cucurbita maxima’ is particularly notable because of its size. In Italy, it’s generally called zucca gialla o dolce (yellow or sweet pumpkin), an example of which is the zucca mantovana (Mantua’s pumpkin) used to make the renowned tortelli con la zucca (pumpkin tortelli). In North America, cucurbita maxima includes several common squashes: hubbard, turban, kabocha, buttercup, and banana squash. Banana squash is especially suitable for this recipe because of its moderate sweetness and firm texture.
*Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004)
Squash Risotto, a Dish for Winter
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 25 minutes
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
250 g winter squash (e.g. banana squash)
¼ white onion, sliced
1 tablespoon of butter, olive oil, or a mix of the two
2/3 cup Arborio rice
2 ½ cups vegetable stock
½ glass white wine, at room temperature
20 g Parmigiano, grated
Salt and black pepper
Finely chop onion and dice the squash.
Bring the vegetable stock to a simmer in a small pan.
In a larger pan, roast the onion in butter, oil, or a mix of the two until translucent, then add the squash.
Season with salt and cook until the squash is soft. Put a couple of tablespoons of it aside and keep warm, mash the rest with a ricer (or in the blender).
In the pan where the squash was roasted, add a bit more butter or oil, then toast the rice for a couple of minutes at medium heat until translucent. Add the white wine and stir until it fully evaporates.
Add the mashed squash and stir in the stock, one ladle at a time, allowing it to be absorbed before adding more stock.
Continue stirring and adding stock ensuring that the risotto and the stock continue boiling gently throughout the process.
After 15 minutes of cooking, at a time when the risotto is quite moist, remove it from the heat, stir in the Parmigiano, and let it rest for a minute.
Serve the risotto in bowls and decorate with the cooked squash and a sprinkle of black pepper.
I’m from northern Italy – only been to Sicily once – and I only had heard about this dish before moving to Canada. Thanks to my friends food-bloggers, however, this dish tickled my attention, I starting making it, and I think it has already become part of my repertoire! What I love about Pesto alla Trapanese is how fresh it tastes, and that it can be prepared quickly (as the pasta cooks) and pretty much all year-round (unlike Pesto alla Genovese which requires large amounts of fresh basil, which is best in the summer).
Since I’m far from an authority on this dish, I’m presenting a variation over Frank Fariello‘s rendition. Similarly, it makes use of uncooked cherry tomatoes that are mixed in with other ingredients in a blender – a method quite common these days, as opposed to using mortar and pestle (which is traditional and at the origins of the name “pesto”). Aside from the blending technique, I substituted Pecorino for the milder (though geographically incorrect!) Parmigiano, and increased the amount of almonds for a grittier and drier sauce.
Pesto alla Trapanese, with almonds and fresh tomatoes
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 15 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
6-8 (140 g, 5 oz in weight) cherry or strawberry tomatoes
1 garlic clove, minced
8 basil leaves
40 g (1 ½ oz) almonds, blanched (chopped or whole)
40 g (1 ½ oz) Parmigiano, coarsely grated
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
140 g (5 oz) spaghetti, linguine, or even short pasta like farfalle or fusilli
coarse salt (1/2 Tbsp per liter, 2 Tbsp per gallon of boiling water)
Bring a big pot of water to a boil.
Toast the almonds in a pan at high heat for a couple of minutes until they get some color, but before they turn dark.
Core the tomatoes and score their skin (see illustration on the side).
Boil the tomatoes for 20 seconds, then dip them in cold water to stop the cooking. Keep the water boiling, you’re going to use it to cook the pasta.
Salt the water and cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box.
As the pasta cooks, peel the tomatoes and squeeze them to remove seeds and excessive liquid.
In a blender, mix all ingredients so that they turn creamy, but still a bit coarse. I used an immersion blender and it worked very well.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it and put it back in the pot along with the pesto. Mix gently and serve immediately.
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.
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?
~~~ 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).
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 Palazzowhich 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.
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 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
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.
“[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
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
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