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What you need to know about shopping at Italian food markets

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What you need to know about shopping at Italian food markets
Biking to the market to get your fresh fruit and vegetables is part of life in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
11:14 CEST+02:00
One of the very best things about visiting (or living in) Italy is having the chance to visit the country's famously wonderful food markets. But they can be a little daunting for a first-time visitor, especially if you don't speak much Italian. Here's a quick guide to what you can expect.

Why shop at the markets?

In some countries, shopping for your food at a farmer's market is seen as a treat that not everyone can access or afford. But in Italy, it's the only way to go.

Here, the difference in price is usually small or nonexistant, and the difference in quality is enormous.

Fresh fruit at the Porta Palatina market in Turin. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

But more importantly, as an Italian flatmate once once tutted at my supermarket haul: “eating food from the supermarket is no way to live.”

Let's face it, he had a point.

We all know about the importance of quality fresh produce to Italians, and that's why local markets are still enduringly popular here.

There are plenty of food markets in Italy, and choosing to shop at them gives you the chance to eat fresh, seasonal produce, contribute to the local economy, practice your Italian, get a few recipe tips and maybe even make some friends.

Market halls vs. outdoor markets

If you're looking for the big, covered market halls you'll find them in cities like Rome, Venice, Florence and Turin. Elsewhere, you'll have to find out which day the weekly market descends on the village square, or on the outskirts of the town centre.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Both kinds of food market usually offer incredibly good value for money, and as well as doing your food shopping you'll be able to pick up other bits and pieces. Outdoor markets in Italy have a mixture of fresh produce stalls, cooked food stands, and stalls selling flowers, clothing, shoes, bags, bed linen, pots and pans and more.

Don’t be shy

This is the number one rule of visiting an Italian market. Feel free to ask questions about everything, and ask for (or point out) exactly what you want. Many stalls will offer you a taste of their produce, and you can also ask to try things. Sellers expect this and are usually happy to oblige.

Just a taste: here's what I got when I asked to try a piece of cheese at the market in Turin. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

And even the most socially awkward person will come to love small talk and chit-chat if they visit enough Italian markets.

Don't be surprised if market sellers start asking about your family and what you're having for lunch. And if you ask for cooking tips, you might just get a family recipe.

The chatting isn't just pleasant, though. If you're buying something, it's almost part of the transaction - particularly in the south, where personal connections are everything. I've lost count of the number of times we've been given a discount or extras just because the seller found something in common with my very chatty Italian husband.

But if you're not a confident Italian speaker, don't worry – a smile goes a really long way, too.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Be careful about haggling

Whether you love or hate the idea of haggling, it's a thing here in Italy.

But as with so much else in this country, it varies from one region or town to another. Haggling is usually fine at any market in Italy, though in the more touristy markets (such as Florence's Central Market) it probably won't get you very far. While in some places, the seller will actually be disappointed if you don't at least try!

As a very general rule, the further you are from tourist areas and the further south you go, the harder you can bargain. Use your judgement. And If in doubt, always keep it gentle and low-key - remember you were probably getting a bargain to start with!

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Learn how to queue (or not)

As you probably know, Italians have their own ideas about queuing. You might hear someone ask “chi è l'ultimo?” (“who's last?”) in order to find the end of the “line”, but that's about as orderly as things are going to get.

If it's busy, make sure you know who was in front of you and make eye contact with the vendor to let them know that you're there to buy. And early in the morning, watch out for the sharp-elbowed nonnas, who treat weaving their way to the front like a kind of competitive sport.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Time your visit

The stalls usually open from 8am and, if you're driving, the earlier you arrive the more likely you are to get a good parking spot.

As the morning goes on the market will get busier, making for a better atmosphere but bigger crowds.

Look but don't touch

As at any market elsewhere in the world, don't go around touching the produce. The sellers will not be happy.

This one may sound obvious, but market stalls often put signs up warning non toccare (don't touch), so obviously someone must be doing it.

"Don't touch for any reason". Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

And another word of warning: as in any crowded place, stay alert and take care of your belongings. Pickpockets don't usually hang around markets in small towns, but in big cities this is always a risk.

And while being short-changed is rare at food markets, it is still always best to check your change.

Beware of seasonal timetables

One of the reasons it can be hard to keep track of when and where the markets are taking place is that some will only happen at certain times of the year.

And some markets can change their hours or stop altogether in January (when it's too cold) and July and August (when it's too hot.)

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Check online

If you don't have an Italian neighbour to point you in the direction of the nearest market, the most reliable source for practical information about local markets is from your town hall (or the town hall's website). That's because the city council has jurisdiction over the organisation of the markets.

Happy shopping!

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

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