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As you wander through the maze of vendors hawking leather goods and souvenirs that crowd the streets of the San Lorenzo area, you may notice a large, grey-and-red structure towering above the stands. Many visitors to Florence never venture inside this building, either unaware of its contents or intimidated by unfamiliar shopping customs, and in so doing, miss out on one of the city’s greatest gastronomical treasures.
Inside, this cavernous, two-storey space is full of bustling shops and stands offering fresh produce, meat, fish, pasta, bread, local cheeses, wines, herbs, and spices – in short, all of the ingredients for preparing fantastic meals at home, packing a gourmet picnic, or to bring home with you as souvenirs of your visit to Florence. You’ll often find higher quality, greater selection, and lower prices than in many local supermarkets.
The iron-and-glass Mercato Centrale (Central Market) was constructed in 1874 as part of a project to renovate the ancient city center, at the same time as the city’s other indoor daily market at Sant’Ambrogio. It was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni and inspired by the Les Halles marketplace in Paris. In 1881, the organization of the stands was entirely changed, resulting in the scheme which continues to this day.
The entire ground floor (piano terreno) is mostly occupied by the butchers (macellerie), delicatessens (pizzicherie), fish vendors (pescherie), and bakeries (forni), as well as several bars, mini-markets, and lunch places. Most of the fruttivendoli, selling fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, and flowers, are located upstairs on the second floor, or primo piano. Amidst the shouts and laughter of the vendors you can make out, if you listen carefully, what’s in season and fresh for the day. Italians eat very seasonally – the best tomatoes are available in late summer, citrus from Sicily in the winter months, fresh figs and melons can only be found in late summer, and fragrant porcini mushrooms can only be had in September and October.
Italian cuisine in general and Tuscan cuisine, in particular, can be quite simple in comparison to some other European culinary traditions. The abundance of such fresh, high-quality ingredients often obviates the need for complex sauces and cooking techniques—the pure flavors are able to stand on their own.
A little help with ordering: sliced meats and cheeses are usually ordered in “etti,” with one etto equaling 100 grams, and 2 or 3 etti being approximately equivalent to a package of cured meat as sold in a supermarket. Produce can be ordered in etti or kilograms, or by number of pieces. One of the few disadvantages of shopping in the market is that you are not allowed to touch the produce on display, but instead must trust the vendors to make selections for you. Attempts to choose your own fruit and vegetables will most likely be met with stern admonitions from the shopkeepers. However, many vendors, particularly those selling meats, cheeses, and sauces, are happy to let you taste their products before buying.
For those without access to a kitchen or with less time to devote to cooking, many vendors on the first floor also offer a wide variety of ready-prepared dishes (piatti pronti), which can be heated for you and packed to-go, as well as marinated roasts and pre-formed hamburger patties in interesting flavor combinations such as alla carrettierra—with garlic and chili peppers—and “braccio di ferro” (“Popeye”)—made with spinach).
For a quick lunch, the Central Market is a great place to stop, and many who work in the area do so regularly. Following are some recommendations for meals in the market:
Pork’s: Different fresh pasta dishes offered daily. Every other day Filippo makes lasagna, and his mother Benita prepares Sicilian specialties. There is always a large variety of panini and grilled, stewed, marinated, or fried vegetables on display in the glass counter, and they can prepare a platter for you based on your selections.
Nerbone: A Central Market tradition. Famous for panini made with lampredotto (a form of tripe and a Tuscan specialty) or bollito (boiled beef), as well as a full menu which changes daily. For your panino you can choose the addition of piccante (spicy red chili sauce) and/or salsa verde (green sauce made with parsley, garlic and olive oil), and whether or not you would like your bread bagnato (dunked in meat broth, French-dip style). Friday’s menu usually features fish. You can either order your food to take away (da portare via) or eat at one of the tables, next to life-size full-color photos of the friendly staff!
The Central Market in via dell’Ariento is open from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday, (closed on Sundays).