Italian for Travelers: At the Market

Jun 27, 2013

Orbetello mercato

fare la spesa

shopping for food

On a Saturday morning at the mercato (open market) in Orbetello, I found everything from la frutta (fruit) to la verdura (veggies) to formaggio (cheese) to carne (meat) to pane (bread) to piccoli aggeggi (small gadgets) to scarpe (shoes) and camicie (blouses).
At the town’s gigantic new "Co-op," a match for any American mega-warehouse store, I could have bought all sorts of groceries (alimentari) as well as a flat screen television (televisore a schermo piatto) or lawn furniture (arredamento da esterni).

I always enjoy heading for a market square (piazza del mercato), local street market (mercato rionale) or an indoor or covered market (mercato coperto). These are the places where I'm most likely to find seasonal fruit (frutta di stagione) at a good price (a buon mercato, literally at a good market).

Wherever you shop for food in Italy, some rules still apply–such as never touching produce with your bare hands, a mistake I first made in Venice years ago. The horrified grocer wagged a finger at me and frowned. I didn’t know any Italian then, so I meekly pointed to the apples and oranges on display and he personally made the selections. In larger markets you can pick your own produce — as long as you put on the plastic gloves provided for unsanitary fingers. In other places, I always ask, ”Mi posso servire?” (May I serve myself?)

Buying formaggio or mortadella (Bologna sausage) involves nothing less than that scourge of mathematically challenged Americans like myself: the metric system. When I asked for un pezzo (a piece) of parmigiano reggiano, the bancarellista /venditore del mercato (market stall holder) wanted to know how many “etti” I wanted. I had no idea that an etto is a hectogram, 100 grams or the equivalent of 3.527 ounces. Fortunately, you can use your fingers to indicate “this much” in any language. Più is more; meno, less.

Prosciutto, both crudo (raw) and cotto (cooked), is sold by the fetta (slice). Una fetta sottile usually refers to a small (thin) slice of meat; una fetta grossa, a large (thick) slice or hunk. And you can buy all sorts of things—from cut flowers (I bought long-lasting ones called sempre vivi or “always alive”) to fresh herbs—by the mazzo (bunch).

At the seaside Orbetello mercato, I expanded my vocabulary by reading the signs for common vegetables, such as:

pomodori — tomatoes

lattuga — lettuce

cipolla (dorata) — onion (golden)

aglio — garlic

cavolfiore — cauliflower

fagiolini — green beans

patate — potatoes

lenticchie — lentils

piselli — peas

porro — leek

sedano – celery

The names of other fruits and vegetables, such as limoni and asparagi, are similar in Italian and English. Yet, as I never fail to marvel, they taste so much better in Italy!

Words and Expressions

mercato del pesce — fish market

prezzo di mercato — market price

mercato nero — black market

mercato delle pulci –- flea market

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on her "writer's studio" in Capri this fall. 



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