Whenever we travel, Mr. RC and I do our best to act more like locals and less like tourists. Whether it's renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel, cooking meals at the apartment instead of going out, or exploring quiet spots instead of touring museums, those are the things you'll find us doing. However, hands down, our favorite way to immerse ourselves into a spot is by exploring the food. We like to know where people shop, what they like to eat, what dishes are commonly served, what originated in the area, etc. Not only can you learn so much about a culture through its food, but it's also a universal language that helps bring people together in a way no other language can.
Exploring the food in Italy was a tough job, let me tell you, but it was a job we took very seriously.....and by seriously, I mean we seriously ate our body weight in pizza, pasta, truffles, cheese, chocolate and gelato. The results of all this feasting were the incredible stories we heard, the tidbits of history that we learned and the people it connected us to. We visited each city with no real plans in mind (other than a list of a few foods to check out) but our attitude of "exploring through food" led us to have so many incredible, one-of-a-kind experiences that we otherwise would have completely missed.
One thing that was on our foodie to-do list was to explore some of the fresh food markets throughout Italy. In Florence, our apartment looked out over the Duomo, so, while we cooked in every apartment we stayed in, we knew we needed to whip up something extra special to enjoy with such a special view. We made a meal plan and a grocery list, then off to the Mercato Sant'Ambrogio (Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, S. Ambrogio, 50122, Florence, Italy) we went. FYI, we chose this market as it was not overly touristy (unlike Mercado Centrale) and it is more popular with the locals, which you know is something we love. Growing up on homemade food and fresh grown produce, I was right at home shopping in the mercado, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I was also overwhelmed. So much fresh produce, pasta, meats, cheeses....I wanted to take it all home! Mr. RC did his best to reign me in, but I managed to sneak out a few extra things that weren't on the list, because OMG where else can you get so much fresh cheese for so little money?!? I may or may not have also asked him if we could somehow rent a plane, fill it entirely with Italian food and then bring it home with us. If you've eaten European food, I'm sure you'll understand. Even their worse foods taste better than some of our best foods (IMO).
After the market, we headed back to our apartment to spend the afternoon cooking up a storm. While some might find it an odd way to enjoy a place (Who would want to stay inside and cook on vacation?!), we could not have enjoyed our experience more. With Italian tunes playing in the background, a glass of Tuscan wine in our hands, a view the Duomo out the window, the elderly neighbor stopping by to tell us stories in Italian and the aromas of the beautiful food surrounding us, I'd argue to say we experienced more Italian culture in that one day than some do on an entire two week tour.
I've included my outfit details, our grocery list, menu plan and simple recipes along with a few market tips at the bottom of the post. With our travel coverage expansion, we will be doing more to showcase each place from a food and fashion standpoint by including guides like these in the hopes to encourage each of you to get out and truly taste (in more ways than one) the places that you visit. We hope you'll enjoy them as much as we do!
Wear Because you'll be doing a lot of moving around at a fresh market, you'll want to wear something that is comfortable and that moves with you. In summertime, a simple cotton dress will do. For this market visit, it was a bit chilly out so I wore a turtleneck sweater, boyfriend jeans and simple flats. Of course, no market outfit is complete without a good tote, like this one.
The Menu: fresh pasta, fresh veggies, fresh fruit, fresh cookies....and lots of cheese
The Grocery List (before we went to market): pasta, parm, mushrooms, garlic, cookies, fruit
The Grocery List (at the market): pasta, parm, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, dried tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, broccoli rabe, squash, persimmons, plums, ricotta cheese, honey, meat (do we even need meat?!), what about a bread?, did you grab wine?
The Dishes (all simple things that take little time to prepare, use only a few tools and require minimum ingredients):
- Appetizers: Squash blossoms stuffed with fresh ricotta and drizzled with truffle honey and fresh tomatoes tossed with olive oil, balsamic, salt, pepper and fresh basil
- Main: Fresh pasta served with an assortment of veggies (broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic, olive oil and salt; porcini mushrooms sautéed with butter, thyme and a splash of the white wine we we're drinking; zucchini sautéed with olive oil and salt; sundered tomatoes, sliced), a dollop of fresh ricotta and a generous sprinkling of parm
- Dessert: Persimmons sliced and plums cut in half (pits removed), ricotta dolloped on top of each, drizzled generously with honey, sprinkled with a few crushed up cookies (we used almond biscotti) served with additional cookies and cappuccino....FYI, the leftovers make a perfect (and mostly healthy, because, ya know, it's fruit) breakfast the next morning.
It should be noted that our Airbnb host did have our kitchen stocked with things like salt, pepper, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey and coffee, so while we didn't have to buy these things, they could all easily be found at the local grocery shop.
Look up the history of the local markets as well as local foods (a simple Google search or a few questions with a local should do the trick)
Listen to an Italian playlist (we love the Italian Dinner playlists available on Spotify)
Drink a glass of wine while you cook
Taste test frequently
Bring a reusable bag with you to market
Have cash on hand
Be observant of the outside portion of the markets as you will find a few people asking for money (i.e. don't pull your wallet out right until you are at a vendor's stand and are ready to pay the vendor)
When you stick to more local areas and markets, keep in mind that you'll be less likely to find someone who speaks English. Prepareyourself by writing out the names of the things you know you want and a few simple phrases like "Hello", "How much?" and "Thank you". The people will greatly appreciate the effort you have made and will be that much kinder to interact with (we had so many vendors giving us samples and inviting us back the next day).
When you buy fresh produce, many of the vendors will also include the herbs that that produce pairs well with, i.e. the lady included thyme with our mushrooms and a huge handful of fresh basil along with our tomatoes. Because of this, I would recommend buying your produce before buying any herbs so you don't end up with too much of anything.