If you are looking for the clean aisles and meticulous displays that you’ll find in, say, a Whole Foods, Mercato Centrale, in Florence, Italy, is not for you. It’s a gritty food market in the traditional sense of the word market that buzzes with activity. It shuns the hyper-structured, excessively focus group-tested displays of a highly polished, super-sterile high end North American supermarket chain.
When I say “gritty,” i don’t mean to scare you away. At time of writing, I have been to Italy only three times. Each visit was roughly two weeks. That hardly qualifies me as an Italophile. Yet, if there is one thing I’ve learned in my visits to that country and in speaking with people who are either Italian or have much more familiarity with Italy than I do, it’s that Italians love and practically revere food and the entire food experience. It’s almost a religion there. Either that or I’m romanticizing Italy way too much.
I didn’t buy anything at the Mercato Centrale, but I am confident that it’s a safe bet that if you purchase any food at an Italian market—any Italian market—that’s frequented by locals and has been around for as long as Mercato Centrale has been around you’re not going to die eating it. In fact, you’re probably going to find it much more flavourful than the food you buy at home—unless, of course, your home is in Italy.
The market is a cacophony of foods, smells, sights and sounds. Some of those smells are very pungent, but in a particularly wonderful sort of way. There are lots of stalls, all populated by what I think are independent vendors, lining the maze-like aisles of the market. Occupying those stalls (at least during opening hours; I assume not at night) are a variety of fish, meat, fruit, vegetable, olive oil, wine, nut, condiment, sandwich, and flower merchants.
Mercato Centrale: Two levels of real-world bustle and food
The market covers two levels of an old, warehouse-like building. Upstairs is devoted to a food court. As a North American, I’m hesitant to call it a food court because that might create the wrong impression. Not being an Italian and not having extensive experience with the eateries in Italy, I got the sense that the eateries in the food court were not cookie-cutter stamped out franchises of national chains as you’ll find in North American food courts. Each vendor appeared to me to be unique and dedicated to their Mercato Centrale outlet, whether or not they had any other outlets elsewhere. The only similarity that I saw between the food court at Mercato Centrale and those that sit in North American malls is that you pick your food up yourself and then carry it to and eat it at tables that are shared by all of the eateries.
I can’t say that I’m an expert in food markets (well, I could say it, but it would be a lie), but we have an excellent, interesting one in my hometown of Toronto, the St. Lawrence Market. Putting aside my hometown pride, I have no qualms about saying that Mercato Centrale certainly ranks up with and probably surpasses the St. Lawrence Market as a life experience.