Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To market, to market, to market

Our professoressa at Casa Italiana, where we studied Italian before coming to Milan, taught us about “il mercato rionale,” the local neighborhood market. A Roman, she wasn’t sure if Milan had such markets and, if it did, they surely weren’t as good as Roman ones!

So we were delighted to discover that within two miles of our apartment are at least three local markets on three different days of the week. On Mondays, the biggest of the three fills four blocks of a wide street that is closed for the day, plus it spreads its tendrils onto three perpendicular side streets. Most of the stalls sell clothing, from underwear and socks to coats, dresses, purses, scarves and – at this time of the year – sweaters of every shape, size, and color imaginable. The fruit and vegetable vendors are on the side streets, and here and there housewares, tablecloths and curtains, a woodcarver one week. Other than the produce, about 75% of the items are produced in China, including many of the sweaters.

On Tuesdays, two blocks to the west of our apartment, il mercato rionale is devoted to food, with a little clothing, flowers, housewares, and jewelry thrown in. That street is not closed to traffic, but the stalls line both sides of a wide sidewalk on one side of the street.

This is “our” market, and as is the custom, we have found “our” vendor: a lovely woman, patient with my stumbling Italian, whose selection is outstanding. Surely I cannot be faulted, knowing the word for “tomato,” that I do not know the word for cherry tomato, and what we call “Roma” tomatoes (not what they are called here), and all the six different types of tomatoes she has available one week.

And being able to call a tomato by its right name is important, because here – unlike at home – the custom is not to pick your own produce. That is, you stand in line near the scale, you tell the vendor what you want, they get it and bag it and weigh it, and then you tell them the next item. “Our” vendor is patient enough to follow me around the stand so I can point to the item whose name I cannot remember. I’ve also learned the hard way to be very specific about quantity. Mio marito and I can eat 4 tomatoes before they spoil, but not a kilo!

Our market is a neighborhood market, not on the tourist circuit. This past weekend while in Florence we visited Sant’ Ambrogio, which includes a kosher butcher and some stands with extraordinary displays of produce.

At some of D.C.’s markets, vendors are limited to selling only what they grow, but in Italy, the world is the limit so while most of the produce is from one part of Italy or another, there are pomegranates from Israel and dates from Morocco.

The third market we stumbled on one Thursday. I was frustrated because I wanted to prepare chicken with tarragon, dragoncello, and in two supermarkets and three specialty food stores, we had drawn a blank look. As we passed through this street market, I spotted a woman selling literally dozens of teas and spices, including dragoncello. We call this “the market we don’t go to” because unfortunately the produce vendors are very aggressive, following us down the row with their wares and urging us to buy from them.

The first two weeks, we overbought; I felt like I was spending every minute preparing and cooking produce. Worse, I didn’t want to eat out, knowing that food was waiting at home in our small refrigerator!

Now I’ve become more savvy. While I’ve described only a couple of special meals on this blog, we’ve sampled some other restaurants as well, including two Chinese (much more delicate than in the U.S.) and a fine Indian one. A couple of times we’ve picked up pizzas, which are incredibly inexpensive and delicious, and eaten them at home with our own salad.

Probably five days a week, we eat lunch at home, listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on WAMU, one of our D.C. public radio stations, over our laptop. And at least five nights a week we prepare our own dinners: pasta with vegetables, salads, chicken breasts – just like home – but with more olives and fresher cheeses.

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