I strode through the seafood entrance. I knew it as soon as the sliding doors bust open and let out the scent of freshly caught squid, shrimp and octopus vulgaris. I quickly pass the first few sets of iced displays and catch the eye of a decapitated salmon head. Sorry bud. Now it’s a merge right for olives at Claudio’s stand, merge left for fresh produce. Last time I was here I accidentally ordered over a pound of thinly sliced prosciutto but today is a new day at the market. I swear the butcher kept slicing that meat like it was her job. Well in fact it was, and she was too concentrated for me to interrupt.
The truth of it is that Central Market has become such a staple in my daily Florentine life. The quality, price and variety of products are unbeatable. I knew it was a good deal when my excessive amount of prosciutto cost me less than 10 euros and in case you are wondering I did eat it all. By myself. For those traveling to Florence or merely passing by, Mercato Centrale is an off-the-beaten-path destination that will give you a unique insight into such an important part of the Italian lifestyle: cuisine. Once you are aware of the markets few unspoken rules, language barriers and navigational complexities, you will be free to roam down the aisles to your culinary bliss! It is indeed possible to enjoy Mercato Centrale without ordering an excessive amount of cured meat.
- B I G T I P S
If you speak to a Florentine and ask about Mercato Centrale, they will be able to tell you a few unspoken rules that seem obvious to an Italian but surprising to a foreigner. I think of the market as a cultural hub that I would like to infiltrate in the most inconspicuous way possible. If you, too, would like to act like an undercover Italian in the market place, there are a few key tips to help you blend in. Firstly, all vendors only accept cash so hit up your local ATM for some euros before you decide to go. I find it funny that street and market vendors rarely ever have credit card machines but then again, there’s something satisfying about handing over some coins for a bag of apples in a classic exchange-of-goods. When you can, give exact change to the vendors and you may receive a nice smile in return! Lastly, just make sure you never touch the products, especially produce, because the vendors find it unsanitary and you will risk being sworn at in Italian (it’s such a beautiful language that it doesn’t even sound that bad). Not to worry, just ask for your apples and the vendor will pick out the best ones for you and bag it up.
C O M M U N I C A T I N G M E A S U R E M E N T S
Although it is true that most of the vendors speak some English, for the sake of your immersive experience, it’s best to try to order your groceries in Italian if you can. You do not need to be fluent to have a few good phrases that help you get by. According to my wise Italian professor, the first phrase to keep in your back pocket comes from the verb “volere” which means “to want”. When asking for something, it is the most polite to use “Vorrei” which means “I would like” instead of “Voglio” which means “I want”. These two conjugations come from the same root verb but the subtle distinction communicates differently. If I was ordering “un petti di pollo” or chicken breasts I would say: “Ciao. Vorrei un petti di pollo.” Done and done.
The next thing to address is that most food items will be displayed in large quantities with the price in terms of kilograms. One kilogram is equal to 1,000 grams so it is easiest order in terms of grams unless you want a hunkin’ piece of meat. For sliced meats, I found that 200- 300 grams is a good amount to buy when in doubt. This will last you for multiple sandwiches or your late-night salami cravings. When I am unsure of how many grams I want, I usually tell the vendors how many people I am buying for. Some simple counting in Italian goes “uno, due, tres, quattro, cinque.” Ordering salmon for three people sounds like this: “Vorrei salmone per tre persone.” Lastly, for produce, I suggest telling the vendor how many euros you would like to spend on each item. For example, I may ask for one-euro worth of clementines so I know exactly what I will be paying: “Vorrei uno euro di clementine.”
- P R O D U C T B R E A K D O W N
The three categories of food that I buy most at the market are produce, meat/fish and olive oil. For produce, again remember to ask the vendor for what you want without touching anything. There will also be signs everywhere that say “Non toccare/ Don’t touch!” in case your brain fails you at the sight of all the pretty rainbow colors. Of the fruit at the market I have tried, my favorite is definitely the arancia rossa or red oranges. You may also want to do some research about what is in season when you go and if in doubt, ask for a recommendation!
For meat/ fish, you may see parts of the animal that you have never seen before, not to mention that chicken breasts come together in twos, which makes sense but is a rarity to find in the United States. Just be prepared to see some things that could surprise you. If you follow the guidelines of ordering per gram or per person, everything should go smoothly in terms of meat and fish. Lastly, because the fish are freshly caught, they do have bones in them and the shrimp are not deveined (you will have to do this yourself). For salmon in particular, you can ask for a filet or “filetto” to avoid having to remove bones yourself. The kind gentleman at the fish stand will then cut the salmon pieces into more recognizable halves and remove the spiny bits.
To me, olive oil is holy and eating Italian olive oil in particular may be the closest thing I’ve had to a spiritual awakening. You can use that golden oil for most everything from cooking to hair masks. It happens to be true that Central Market is one of the best places to get fresh olive oil at a fair price. What you may not have known is that freshly pressed olive oil does not look the same as you are used to seeing on the super market shelves. Instead of clear and yellow, it should be green and cloudy when you first buy it as an indication that it was recently pressed.
- V E N D O R I N T E R V I E W
Pastificio Mortea is a traditional Tuscan stand that has everything you need from aromatic spices to dried pasta. Andrea, who works at the stand every day of the week described their inventory a little better: We sell pici, dolce, chianti and limoncello. Most of this is from Florence, but it is all found in Tuscany.” Pici is a special type of gummy-textured pasta made solely out of flour and water, dolce are sweets like candy, chianti is a classic Tuscan wine and limoncello is some lemon cleaning product tasting liquor if you’re into that.
Pescheria Dolfi is one of the first seafood stands you will see when you enter Mercato Centrale from the front entrance. Today the display housed an entire swordfish that must have been at least five feet long. I spoke to the vendor’s daughter about the stand and then to the man himself. Their fish comes mostly from Greece, but also the Atlantic and the Mediterranean (Italian seaside). To make it into the display case in the morning, the process begins earlier than expected: “All of the fish arrives here at night in trucks. In the morning around 6 am I set it all up in the stand.” The vendors must wake up before the sun so that when the market opens at 7, the food is fresh and ready to be in your basket and then your belly.