Text and photos by Jesper Storgaard Jensen
Campo dei Fiori, Trionfale and Esquilino are just three of Rome’s many local fruit and vegetable markets. They’re colorful, characteristic and historical. The oldest dates back to 1869 and the latest addition is just three years old. Low prices and high quality are the common denominators. In addition, this is where you'll meet the real Rome.
In a country like Italy where quality - especially when you speak about food - is still the name of game, the fruit and vegetable markets will probably never go out of fashion. This is where you'll find the best raw materials at the lowest prices. This is where you find colors, local spirit, yelling and shouting and this is where you'll meet the real Romans when they do their shopping.
Rome still has about 130 so-called mercati rionali, neighborhood markets, scattered around the city. In recent years several of these open markets have been covered due to a recent law regarding hygiene regulations. And more might soon follow. For now, however, travelers can still experience the unique atmosphere of various Roman markets ranging from multiethnic to historic to chic.
Romewise went shopping to taste six of the Italian capital's best and most famous markets.
One of Rome’s best known fruit and vegetables market is Mercato Trionfale, located not too far from the Vatican Museums where tourists gawk at Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. This market - which was covered in 2009 - really seems to be a living museum for Italy’s other art – food. Stand owners shout out offers to passing shoppers and Romans gather at the wine stands awaiting a refill of the giant wine bottles that they’d dragged from home. The fish stalls offer the day’s catch just pulled from the Mediterranean Sea, the bread is super fresh and the butchers’ stands display rows of Parma hams on the counters. Homemade pasta, mounds of colorful spices, quality eggs and endless varieties of olives are available. Merchants and clients joke and gossip while conducting business. This is definitely not your ordinary sterile supermarket. The market's history dates back to 1928, and with its about 175 stalls it's probably Rome's biggest market.
Address: Via Andrea Doria, 40.
Hours: Monday to Saturday: from 6 AM – 2:30 PM. Closed on Sundays.
Rome's most multiethnic market, the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, dates back to the 1930'ies and is located close to Piazza Vittorio. The Esquilino neighbourhood has a quite high concentration of multiethnic communities, especially people from China. So no wonder, that the market's offerings are reflected in the ethnicity of the neighbourhood. Stalls sell Indian spices, Arab specialties, traditional African cooking ingredients and even South American gourmet food, sold by South Americans who can be heard chatting in Spanish with their clients.
In 2001 the market was moved to the nearby Via Principe Amedeo where it’s now covered by a roof. Fortunately, the market has retained much of its multiethnic charm. In fact, the new, long, slightly dark and labyrinth-like corridors of the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino recall, in quite a fascinating way, an Arab souk. Here you'll find many stalls selling spices from Asian countries, and in many of these stalls you’ll be able to hear the Indian owners speaking Italian with a charming Peter Sellers accent, as in the famous film "Hollywood Party". And if you be impressed by chopped of pigs' heads, be ready to close your eyes here and there.
Address: Via Principe Amedeo, 184.
Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5 AM – 3 PM. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 5 AM – 5 PM.
Closed on Sundays.
Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood starts where the more well-known quarter of Trastevere ends. The top attraction for foodies is without doubt the market on Piazza San Giovanni di Dio. It’s an institution with stands that were opened shortly after the Second World War. This is an authentic Roman market frequented by locals. You won’t see tourists loaded with Gucci bags, peering at the Lonely Planet guide book and occasionally exclaiming, “Ohh… how wonderful”! As I meander inside the market, the first thing I see is a fish stall where the shimmering silver and gold fish are displayed like museum pieces. They seem almost too beautiful to eat. Long eels are twisted in buckets like a sort of sea sausage. You can buy salmon, mussels, lobsters, prawns, sea bass, cut fish, tuna and much more. The stand’s owner senses my curiosity and begins to tell me about his offerings. “All the fish you see here is freshly caught.
They mostly come from the Tyrrhenian Sea and the waters north of Sicily”, he says proudly, holding up a crate of seafood as I snap a photo. I continue my journey through the two rows of stands made from cobbled together tin and wood where sellers of fruits, vegetables, meats and more have worked for decades. Rays of sunlight peak through the cracks in the tin roof. The light shines on piles of eggplants, mountains of red and green peppers, dangling sausages and hams hanging in rows, bundles of asparagus, the bakers’ freshly baked bread and the characteristic Roman squash which has a particular sweet flavor. When attending this market you'll probably get an authentic Roman feeling.
Address: Piazza S. Giovanni di Dio, 28.
Hours: Mon - Thu from 7 AM – 2 PM; Friday and Saturday from 7 AM – 3 PM. Closed on Sundays.
Campo dei Fiori, in the very heart of Rome, is one of the city’s most famous piazzas. Once there was a field of flowers – that’s the piazza's name in Italian – and it was only in 1456 that Pope Callisto III had the piazza paved with stones. The Campo dei Fiori area is steeped with history in part due to the piazza’s central monument, the statue of the philosopher Bruno Giordano. On February 17th 1600, he was burned at the stake after having been condemned of heresy during the Catholic Inquisition. The statue was erected in 1888 at the very spot where were Bruno was burned. Today, Campo dei Fiori’s location in the middle of a motley crew of somewhat crooked buildings is a stage for Romans and tourists alike.
The principal performer is Rome’s oldest fruit and vegetable market which was founded in 1869 and is a true magnet for tourists. The market has managed to maintain its authenticity despite time and the beginning of an invasion of football shirts and other tourist knick-knacks. Experiencing Campo dei Fiori’s market and daily metamorphosis - from the morning throughout the day until evening - should continue to be part of every traveler’s visit to Rome. Actually, visiting the market in the morning and drinking a Prosecco at the open-air tables at the piazza is really a must for every Rome traveler.
Address: Piazza Campo de' Fiori.
Hours: Open daily from 7 AM – 2 PM.
Rome’s market scene doesn’t offer just tradition and history. You’ll also find innovation. The new farmer’s market trend testifies to Rome’s ability to reinvent itself. In 2009 the farmer’s markets opened close to Circo Massimo. It has become very popular among the Romans. In fact, one of the most chic things an environmental and quality-conscious Roman can do is to be seen with one of the yellow biodegradable bags containing fresh fruits and vegetables from the Farmer’s Market. The principle of the farmer’s markets is quite simple. The farmer or producer sells products directly to the consumer skipping the involvement of any middlemen. This means that the price of goods is often significantly lower compared to supermarket prices. In addition, the face-to-face contact between producer and consumer means that the consumer can easily learn about the products’ origins and growing conditions. Farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, many organically grown, aren’t the only offering. The farmer’s market is lively. You feel as if your purchase is not only helping the farmer but the environment. On the opening days of Saturday and Sunday, Romans who buy mostly organic products frequent the market.
They can taste many of the products before they decide to buy: wines from local producers, beer from microbreweries, bruschette with truffle pate, a huge variety of local cheeses, salamis, freshly baked bread, olive oil and much more. One particular spot becomes very popular around lunchtime. In a corner of the market, you’ll find a small, simple kitchen where a few different dishes are prepared. I queue up and order a wonderful pasta all’amatriciana and a glass of local red wine poured right to the edge. I sit down next to a Roman family. The family’s teenage son tucking into his first forkful bursts out, “Che buooooonnno ….! (How goooooddd…)”. And he’s right. The pasta is flavorful and the wine pairs perfectly with the dish. Together they constitute an almost too obvious metaphor for all the taste and pleasure that can be found at Rome’s colorful markets.
Address: Via di S. Teodoro, 74.
Hours: Open Saturday and Sunday from 8 AM – 3 PM.
The Testaccio neighborhood can be found right after Trastevere when moving from Rome’s center towards the suburbs. Testaccio once had a historic fruit and vegetable market, located on the neighborhood's central Piazza Testaccio. It was opened in the 1950s and due to its very intense and typical Roman atmosphere, for a number of years it was quite an attraction for tourists and Romans alike.
However, a few years ago it was shut down due to the fact that it did not comply with modern hygiene rules. Today, a few years after this closure - which had sent shockwaves through Testaccio - the old market has now been reborn in a modern version, this time with a huge number of informal-style eateries, commonly referred to as street-food. Today, you will find more than 20 different food stands where the freshly prepared street food of almost any kind can be enjoyed. Some examples are the Food Box (stand 66) where you can get small delicious lunch portions which chef Marco Morello has composed with inspiration from Italy’s many regional kitchens. You’ll also find Le Mani in Pasta (stand 58), where you’ll find freshly made pasta dishes. Also Mordi e vai (which means "Take a bite and then run off") is great and so is Zoé - a Greek word that means "essence of life" - which serves a variety of veg dishes - sandwiches, vegetable smoothies, large salad mixes, gourmet-paninos etc. And then, at Chicchi e Lettere you’ll find the great Italian coffee made on freshly roasted coffee beans. The best time to visit Testaccio's market is Saturday morning. It’s, obviously, perfect for a stop-over-lunch.
Address: via Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Hours: Open Mon - Sat from 7 AM – 3:30 PM. Closed on Sunday.