Guest blogger Lauren Piccolo, who is working towards a masters in Museum Studies, returns to Florence as a more mature student and slips on her Italian-style boots to discover how the locals shop at one of Florence’s most famous markets.

A local buys oranges at the market

As a second time around study abroad student in Florence, I am grateful to have the rare chance to re-explore all the wonders that this city has to offer. My life here as an undergraduate five years ago was pretty standard: classes and sightseeing during the day, Monday nights at Yab, grabbing kebab or pizza with friends, and weeknights spent somewhere between the Shot Cafe and Lion’s Fountain surrounded by other English speaking twenty somethings. Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast and made lasting memories and friends during those hazy four months many moons ago. But having the opportunity to return to Florence has motivated me to explore new parts of the city that I never knew existed last time.

My most recent discovery is the Sant’Ambrogio Market located in Piazza Ghiberti, just a bit further out of the center than Piazza Santa Croce (and about a 12 minute walk from Piazza del Duomo). The market is open Mondays – Saturdays, 7 am – 2 pm. They also stay open all day on Wednesday and Friday, closing at 7 pm.

Even though I live closer to the famous Mercato Centrale, I prefer to head to the market in Sant’Ambrogio. The atmosphere is much more relaxed, there are no tour groups pushing through the aisles and it’s always a good sign when the locals outnumber the tourists as is the case in Sant’Ambrogio. The market offers a diverse selection of stands with vendors selling products ranging from fruits and veggies to breads and pastries, meats and fish, cheeses and dried legumes. There is an indoor and outdoor section of the market with most of the meat, fish and cheese vendors stationed permanently inside. Produce, housewares and some stalls selling clothes are located around the building. Also inside is a famous restaurant, Trattoria da Rocco that serves authentic Tuscan fare at cheap prices during lunchtime six days a week (Mondays – Saturdays, 11 am – 2:30 pm).

Gesture is an important part of communication at the market.

Ones primary purpose to venture to a market would probably be to pick up fresh produce, but other benefits include the great people watching opportunities that shopping among locals affords. Over the last weeks I’ve learned that Florentines take purchasing their produce very seriously. Oftentimes, I’ll catch snippets of heated debates over pricing or watch as cute little old Italian ladies try to bargain down vendors by shouting and flailing their arms about in that special way that Florentines communicate with one another. Even better is the fact that the customers and vendors usually end such intense encounters with a kiss on both cheeks, a wave, and a declaration that they’ll see each other soon. It is an amazing sight to watch people execute such pure emotion over the seemingly menial task of picking out their groceries.

While only a few vendors speak English, almost all that don’t are happy to take part in the song and dance involved in trying to communicate with foreigners. In my experience, this typically involves some sort of charades game where I use my hands and fingers to imply the number and amount of what I am trying to order. For example, if I want a small slice of pecorino cheese I’ll use my thumb and forefinger to imply the thickness of the piece I’m looking for. Or, if asking for cucumbers I simply point in their direction and hold up fingers to articulate the amount I’d like to purchase. Of course when possible I’ll try out my sheepish Italian as I’ve learned that the market is is a safe place to practice ones conversational skills with Florentines. In this pleasant and casual environment there’s no need to fret over conjugating your verbs perfectly or to think too hard about gender agreements when speaking. People just seem happy if you give it a try and in the end you can feel accomplished that even if you can’t exactly talk like a local, you can shop like one.

While I usually wait to see what vendors are offering before planning my weekly meals, for my most recent trip I had a few recipes in mind. I’ve been inspired by using grains and legumes lately as the chilly winter nights are a perfect reason to make a big pot of soup to last through the week. After strolling through the stalls I settled on purchasing both fresh and dried mushrooms with thoughts of a ragout and also picked up some parsley and chives as herbs are the perfect finishing touch to any hearty meal. I also have a personal affection for goat cheese and had a specific recipe in mind involving the wonderfully tart cheese smeared on crostini and topped with french lentils. After an hour or so of browsing, purchasing and people watching, I found everything I was looking for. I’ve included a few pictures of the food and people I encountered and also the finished products of meals I created using ingredients from my latest adventure through Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. For all you new students who just landed in Florence in the last weeks, I highly suggest taking a stroll through the market to explore the wonderful tastes, sites and sounds of a truly Florentine establishment.

Lauren’s photos and captions make for a photojournalism story in themselves, so check them out on flickr:

Read more by Lauren on her blog.

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