3 Rules for Surviving the Italian Market

Italian market. Photo from Regione Piemonte, Creative Commons Italian market. Photo from Regione Piemonte, Creative Commons

How to survive and thrive during the open-air weekend markets.

One of the most glorious things about living in Italy are the open air markets, usually on the weekends but often during the weekdays, too.

There, with patience and attention, you can buy the freshest fruit and vegetables of the best selection and variety at the lowest price; plus bread, cheese, meat, dried beans, dried fruits, nuts, and fish. Most markets sell more than just food, too: not only shoes, purses, and clothing, but also shampoo, cleaning supplies, kitchen supplies, pillows and curtains, jewelry and scarves, kids' toys and more. But be prepared to spend at least an hour and a half to comb through it well.

Here are three rules for surviving and thriving in the Italian market:

1. Have patience
2. Be ready to walk away
3. Don't get fregata -- swindled!

Sometimes, as angering as those old women are who butt in front of you and are served first, even after you've waited twenty minutes and notwithstanding the fact that the vendor saw her butt in (and subsequently looked at you apologetically but then served her anyway), you need to let her go first. It will never be otherwise. She comes to this stall every week and buys €50 worth of fruit and vegetables. You just came by because the prices were the best, and you're only buying a pound of apples. Live with it. You can't yell at an old woman, even if she's crotchety and has put aside her Sweet Grandmother face for her Market Bull horns.

If you really can't stand waiting another ten minutes, take yourself to another booth and remind yourself to come before 10:00 am. It's less crowded, and that puts everyone in a better mood.

Italian market. Photo from Marcos.Zion, Creative Commons

And she's probably friends with those other old folks with their wheelie-bags stuffed full of market goods. They walk in slowly meandering pairs, so skirting around them is impossible. Patience. They will move slowly and pause every three steps, but your situation is only dire when one of them starts smoking and you get all the benefits of second hand smoke blown into your face. Then, I feel, it is acceptable to say, "PERMESSO" and slip on through. Push, rather. Also, please note that the Slow Walk isn't reserved to one age-range, but is practiced by all.

In the market, it's easy to haggle. I do it passive-aggressively. Here's how: I am really interested in something, and I look at it for a while, say a piece of a jewelry. I admire it, look at other colors, and keep coming back to this one. Don't forget -- be ready to walk away. It's best at this point if the seller is banking on a sale, and starts talking to you. Now ask him the price. It's too high. Look at it again, admire it some more, and then put it down and walk away, smiling at the seller and saying, "Grazie." If you're willing to possibly lose out, walking away won't harm. Most of the time, you'll hear, "Wait! Miss! 5 euro! 5 euro for you!" A euro discount may be your thing, maybe not. If so, congratulations: you've won a 1 euro discount. If not, smile and shake your head, and continue walking away. "Okay, okay, 4 euro! 4 euro just for you." If you're really daring, offer to buy 2 for €6.

This has also worked in New York City in Chinatown.

Italian market. Photo from Maurizio Montanaro, Creative Commons

Someone is usually being fregato, swindled, during the market. A lot of the non-food stuff is junk, and they're selling it to you for way more than it's worth (not all of it and not always; you can also find awesome deals). That's the simple swindle #1.

However, depending on your market's reputation, you might be at risk for the other kind of swindling: a blatant act of dishonesty.

I found a booth with sweaters for sale at €5 each, all with the Made in Italy tag (sewn in, not the sticker type that anyone can stick anywhere), and at least 15% mohair or wool. Not bad. A few had the old price tags on them: €49, €59, even €69. Better and better. So I bought three tops, paid the €15, took my bulging bag, and left to buy radicchio for gorgonzola, radicchio, and walnut pasta. I couldn't try on the sweaters in the middle of the market, but the fit seemed universal and it only cost €5!

Right as I got back home, I wanted to try on the sweaters I bought. I had been thinking about them during the whole shopping trip. Yes! I finally found that sweater-cape thing with no arms, like an elegant sweatshirt I can wear to work and be secretly unkempt underneath ... and only FIVE euros. I couldn't wait.

I opened the bag.

I pulled out the sweaters.

I pulled out two sweaters. Just two. The drapey sweater-cape (really not sure what it's called) was not there! I said out loud, "Oh, HELL no!" and put the sweaters back in the bag, running out the door to the market.  

I was power-walking with a look of death on my face and words forming in my mind. I would confront them, and when they said, "Do you have a receipt? Guess not, looks like you didn't buy the sweater after all, miss!" (because often in the market the receipt is overlooked ... no longer), I would say to the gaggle of women looking through the sweaters with interest, "Don't buy from these swindlers! They will trick you! I bought three and went home with two!" and, even if I didn't get my sweater-cape back, I would get justice as all the women scattered, buying nothing and ruining these vendors' reputations forever. Ha! 

As I entered the marketplace again, I was immediately blocked by several bag-wheeling old-timers, talking about the weather. I was very impatient, but reminded myself of Rule Number One and admitted it was much better to catch my breath so I could have cool composure for The Confrontation.

I saw through fruit, scarves, hanging purses and curtains that at least 6 or 7 women were at the sweater-stall, digging through a soft mountain of 15% mohair and wool. Perfect. A customer base to scare away.

When I arrived, I apologized to a few women I had to push through to talk to the remaining vendor that stood there.

"Excuse me," I said. "I was here a half an hour ago and bought three sweaters. When I arrived home I only had two. I also bought this one," I rummaged through the sweater pile to find the same one I'd bought. "But it wasn't there."

The man smiled at me, and without a word, bent down behind the counter and picked up a bag with my sweater in it. He handed it to me, I smiled and thanked him, and then I left, feeling absolutely victorious.

So it's possible that the guy just forgot to give me the bag, of course. I like to think that's what happened. Maybe he saw me when I returned and right away thought, "There's the girl that forgot her sweater." I didn't have to accuse anyone of anything, and was given my sweater-cape in return. VICTORY!

So don't forget the three rules for the Italian market:

1. Have patience
2. Be ready to walk away
3. Don't get fregata -- swindled!



Last modified onMonday, 16 December 2013 15:07
Diana Zahuranec

I love Piemonte’s food and wine, the city of Turin, and my proximity to the Alps! My goal and challenge is to see as much of the region as possible using public transportation, but if you have a car I’d appreciate the ride. My intro to wine was at the Univ. of Gastronomic Sciences, and I love visiting family wineries, plus discovering Piemonte's craft beer scene. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite wine, but Nebbiolo never disappoints (from Barbaresco to Ghemme). As for beer, the Birrificio San Michele makes an incredible beechwood smoked brew.

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