Open Air Market Treasures, in Italy and at Home

Just like fresh air revitalizes the soul, open air markets stimulate the senses. Rain or shine, tented tables regularly bring neighbors, tourists, and communities together from spring to fall, providing a taste of Earth’s bounty and a vast assortment of handmade collectibles and vintage wares. Grab your family and meet your friends at an open air market, because a visit is not always about what objects you procure but rather the experience you’ll savor.

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Crates overflowing with just-ripened fruits and vegetables, iced pallets of succulent seafood pulled from the water earlier that morning, and bunches of aromatic flowers at the peak of color abound in a random assortment of tables along the street or grass. Artisans and collectors mingle, too, celebrating hand-made works, like tapestries, pottery, jewelry, or paintings that are all unique among any other. Vendors also pile tables high with vintage items like leather goods, music, small appliances, shoes, ravioli cutters, or any odd thing — sometimes authentic and sometimes not. Here, one person’s “stuff” is another person’s treasure.

In Italy, one doesn’t have to venture far to find a local open-air market, but there are some in bigger cities that are worth noting for their size, variety, and ambience, such as Campo de’ Fiori, a fish and vegetable market in Rome dating back to 1869. Open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday, the cobblestone piazza is filled with vendors even before the sun comes up. An Ape Piaggio (one of those compact, three-wheeled trucks) sits beside nearly every tent, piled high with crates of fresh food. Before it opens, restaurant buyers examine the selections for the highest quality ingredients, and by noon, tourists stare in awe at the shouting matches between the elderly locals haggling with vendors in preparation for their pranzo meal.

The Porta Portese market in Trastevere, Rome, open Sundays, showcases table after table of anything imaginable, including terra cotta, oil lamps, and toothbrushes. In college, that’s where I bought a cheap bootleg copy of Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles cassette tape (yes, cassette tape!). When I got home, I was disappointed to learn that the B side of the “hot” tape featured an entirely other band, named Zucchero. Little did I realize that this was one of Italy’s hottest musical names, and that I would later watch both Sting and Zucchero perform at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, spurred on by this bazaar treasure. The value of some things truly surpasses dollars and cents.

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A few years ago, my parents accompanied my family to Venice, where we hit the famed Rialto Market early enough that the garbage boats were still hauling away rubbish left by the overnight revelers. Vendors slapped enormous large fin salt-water monsters onto their tables of chopped ice, while my dad giggled like a kid in a candy store. My children’s eyes were almost as big as those of the enormous, multi-colored fish they ogled. After a couple hours, I spied my mom and youngest sharing a lovely moment beside a canal, legs dangling over the Adriatic inlet, red juice dripping down their fingers, their only market takeaway having been a quart of the juiciest strawberries sold beneath the Rialto Bridge. Some treasures are meant to be consumed without delay, and with abandon.

The town of Camucia, near Cortona in Tuscany, opens its market on Thursdays, cordoning off about 10 city blocks. Here, a delectable pulled pork sandwich is just as easy to find among its multitude of merchants as a new suitcase. And in Palermo, Sicily, one can peruse seaside tables of sea urchins and other such delicacies that are just as plentiful as oranges. The art of seeking out-of-the-way treasures may be just as decadent as the object itself.

But, one need not venture far for a great open air market. There’s probably one within driving distance from you, and it’s so worth the time and gasoline.

Growing up in Buffalo, my dad used to drive my grandpa to the Clinton Market whenever it was time to buy the perfect crops for their new gardens. Now, my brothers take my dad whenever they’re ready to plant theirs. Easter week, my family would head to the Broadway Market for freshly packed sausage, homemade bread, and the best fire-breathing horseradish around. We still go there, but now we also frequent the food trucks and vendors at Larkin Square and Canalside, among many others. The buddy-system always makes for a memorable market experience.

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Haymarket, Boston’s historic market near Faneuil Hall since 1830, is renowned for its produce and fish at bargain prices. Haggling here is a must-see tourist attraction in the city. Head over to Copley Place Farmers Market in the Back Bay for homemade apple pies, jams, and spreads, or armfuls of bright yellow sunflowers. Lose yourself for hours at the SoWa Market (“South of Washington Street”) for an eclectic mix of handmade items, like jewelry, crafts, pottery, shoes, and baked goods, as well as antiques and fresh produce. Other local open markets include the Salem Open Market, the Cambridge Open Market, the South End Art Market, the Greenway Open Market, and the South End Food Trucks.

If you’re like me, an Italian who loves to buy fresh and buy local, you’ll want to be sure to experience a glorious open air market near you, as the season warms and the treasures are ripe for the picking. Bring your family and friends, and revel in the spirit of “abbondanza!”

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