While Rome pulsates with history, vistas, art and architecture, another way to experience the exuberance and vitality of this city is through her foods and people. Italians are the most joyously fed people on earth, and every morning in outdoor food markets across the city, small vendors enact the market scenes that industrial-scale distribution has yet to suppress.
The popular Campo dei Fiori market in the historic center, occupying an entire piazza, has been an institution since 1477, when it was moved from the Piazza Navona. Cardinals and noblemen mingled with fishmongers and foreigners, making it one of the liveliest areas of medieval and renaissance Rome. Lively, indeed: Many of the piazza's inns were once owned by the 15th century courtesan Vanozza Catanei, who was mistress of Pope Alexander VI Borgia.
Today, the Campo dei Fiori market retains much of its traditional atmosphere. Starting at dawn, small producers bring their home-grown fruits and vegetables into the piazza on wooden wagons with noisy iron wheels and set up stalls under colorful umbrellas. Along with baskets of broccoli rabe and spinach already stripped, there are fish, meat, and poultry stands still using ice as a refrigerant. The flower stands remain open after the rest of the market closes down around 1 pm. On my two recent visits to Rome, I bought fruits here, and ate them in the sunshine of the piazza. However, I was paying about 60 cents a pear or peach, which is top price for ordinary fruits. For better and far less expensive produce, stay with me for the Trionfale market.
Terrace restaurants abound on the Campo dei Fiori piazza (pick shade or sunlight), and the adjacent area contains such Renaissance palaces as the Palazzo Farnese and Palazzo Spada, which powerful Roman families built near the route of papal processions. Wander the maze of medieval streets, named after the gold workers, locksmiths, crossbow makers, and tailors. Still on the Via dei Giubbonari, named for the tailors who worked there, are lots of clothing shops catering to young Romans.
Shopping and eating keep the Campo dei Fiori lively right into the night. Don't miss the Antico Forno at Piazza Campo dei Fiori, 22, for superb pizza bianco, or white pizza. The tiny place is jammed from about 5 pm on, and the just-baked bread and pizza send forth irresistible aromas. On my last visit, for about 20 minutes I stood transfixed in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass window to watch their baking operations. Four giant ovens awaited the six-foot long, 15-inch wide pizzas. The baker stretched the dough, anointed it with toppings, placed it on a six-foot paddle, slid it into the oven, and removed it to one of a stack of long boards hinged onto an entire wall arranged for receiving every conceivable pizza. Then, a worker from the public room next door came to claim the pizzas, and cut and weigh pieces for those taking them home or eating them as they walked out the door in pizza ecstasy.
Another popular market is located in bustling Trastevere, where little streets and alleys widen into the Piazza San Cosimato. Buyers and sellers negotiate in typical Roman style the price of meats and salamis, cheeses, vegetables and flowers.
The Testaccio market is another one where the baby chicory shoots, broad beans, Roman artichokes, and arrugula are both fare for the Roman dinner table and good reason to socialize in the morning by touch and taste. The late actor Marcello Mastroianni's cousin's stand sells fresh fish, with Marcello's face on the sign.
A market to die for
And now for my numero uno favorite, the Trionfale Food and Flower Market. It is in a little-known 19th century middle-class neighborhood called Prati, north of the Vatican, where the streets are safe and you don't have to watch your pocketbook. Everything in the 15 rows across and 10 aisles down is clean, clean, clean. The peonies and freesia are glorious. There are six different kinds of made-before-your-eyes orecchiette, plus gnocchi, ravioli, and fettuccine – all without preservatives. The fresh fish is magnificent, as are the cheeses, as are the huge blood oranges from Sicily, as are the mounds of perfect sun-dried tomatoes so inexpensive that I bought a kilo to bring home.
The leeks are two feet long, the artichokes have tender seven-inch stems just right for the Roman Jewish specialty, carciofi alla Giudea, the eggs are divided into regular and those with the most golden of yolks for dolci and for egg pasta, the zucchini still have their yellow flowers attached for frying, and the chickens still have their heads on. The fennel bulbs are larger than a boxer's fist, and every sign tells you the region of Italy where the fruit or vegetable originates. The pride in produce is palpable. Best of all, the market has permanent stalls, so whatever needs refrigeration is refrigerated consistently, and the colorful umbrellas shade the items from the hot sun.
This is also the place where Danilo, the guy who sells the best mortadella in Rome, has a monster hunk that is five feet long and 14 inches in diameter, set out on a sawhorse arrangement. He slices it paper thin with a machete-sized knife, and when I told him that it would be great between two pieces of pizza bianco, he said, "Aspetta!" wait a minute! Shortly, he was back with a sizable piece of white pizza which he proceeded to slice expertly. He placed just the right amount of mortadella in between, wrapped it so that I could walk around the market eating this giant panino without getting anything on me, and I did exactly that, in a haze of food delirium, for about $2.50.
The flea market, or mercato delle pulci, is the latecomer to the outdoor market scene, and said to have grown out of the black market following WWII. Stallholders come from as far away as Naples and begin to set up in the dark night for Sunday opening at 6:30 am at Porta Portese. This is a crowded endless bunch of blocks, so watch your wallet since others are doing the same. Students from Temple University's Rome program say they can find everything they need here, from sweaters to plants, to luggage, to camping equipment. One student bought himself a cheap but serviceable bicycle on the first Sunday after he arrived, and scrounged around the Porta Portese stalls every Sunday thereafter. (Foreign film buffs will remember Porta Portese from Vittorio de Sica's 1948 movie, The Bicycle Thief, where a father takes his little boy to search for the parts from their stolen bicycle.)
Be sure to go to the part of the market that has what you want: clothing is not on the same side as screwdrivers, and hammers and CDs. Porta Portese shuts down by 1 pm, and though they say that if you get there early, you may find Prada pocketbooks, I spent two Sundays there and never even got the scent. I did find some good used art books and some great old postcards.
Visiting Rome's outdoor markets is like going to a soccer game and rubbing shoulders with a Roman populace engaged in a set of its exuberant rituals.
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