Whenever I see a leafy green vegetable being sold at the market, I ask what it is. The answer is always “cicoria” (chicory greens in English). I am beginning to suspect that this word is a catchall.
Wild greens are quite fashionable these days with trendy restaurants basing their menu around what is brought to them by their forager. Foragers are like superheroes, able to identify edible things in the wild. Ordinary people would class most of the wild greens as weeds, like the dandelion. Dandelion translate to several names in Italian, including dente di leone, tarassaco, and la soffione. Once, one vendor told me that what he was selling was “tarassaco” so I began to suspect that the other vendors were all using a generic world, cicoria, for “greens” or lettuce.
In English, we call these wild greens, “foraged greens” or “wild edibles” but in Italian, they call them “spontaneous” edibles. How lovely is that?
Many of the wild greens look like cultivated greens. Arugula (rocket in British) is also popular here and looks similar to dandelion leaves. A famous Roman salad is puntarelle salad, in which the stems of the leaves are used in a salad. Puntarelle is a type of chicory. As I said, always chicory.
But, maybe in English, we should call weeds, spontaneous plants? Or opportunists? Optimistic plants?
In Rome, people still shop at their local market. Every “rione” (“REE-own-eh”) has a local market (Some rione can be as small as 20 streets by 20 streets). A local market is the kind of place where you will see older ladies in their house dresses pulling their shopping carts. You will never see a lady in a housedress in a grocery store. For some reason, for a certain generation, shopping at a grocery store requires putting on more formal clothing (Another great thing about Italy is that there are so many people in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond). A local market will be mostly fresh produce and products with some of the other amenities available out of convenience. Clothing stalls seem to be a big thing that crops up at these markets. Most markets will also have bakeries and places for a quick bite.
Here is my list of top ten markets and why. At the bottom is the market where I like to shop.
Mercato Trionfale (“Tree-ohn-FALL-eh”), Via Andrea Doria 3 (you can read about here): This is the biggest and oldest of the neighborhood markets, completely covered, with parking underneath. There are rows upon rows of metal box stands. It’s not the most attractive place inside. Some of the nice things about this market are that there is a stall where you can bring your own bottle to fill with wine, there are zero kilometer produce vendors at the back of the market (useful to know in August when the farmers markets shut for August vacation), and there are international produce vendors at the front of the market (one or two). Trionfale is open every morning, except Sundays. The market hours are 7 am – 2 pm, but if you arrive after 1 pm, many of the stalls will be closing for lunch (But, a warning, the vendors will be hangry). Also, many of the vendors will give you samples and some even speak English (not the samples). At the entrance to the market, there is a stall that usually has porchetta (“pork-et-ah”), the famous pork roast, out for you to buy.
Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, Via Principe Amedeo 184: This market is located near Termini train station. This area of town is the “Chinatown” or Banglatown or whatever one calls the international part of town. The market is much bigger than it appears with what appears to be markets within markets. There are stalls selling produce and groceries from Bangladesh, India, Senegal, China, Kenya, Philippines, Italy, and other parts of the world. They also sell halal food. I have even seen rambutan for sale here. There are also fresh fish stalls and the local coffee bar truly feels like another part of the world where this is a refuge for men (there are women in this one, by the way). The market, as well as the whole area, does not feel as clean as one might like but I guess that adds to the charm. It reminds me a bit of the markets of Bangladesh, which could all have been improved with a change of lightbulbs to something less neon and stark.
Nuovo Mercato Testaccio, Via Benjamino Franklin: This market is quite different than all the others, also perhaps the cleanest of the markets, or at least feels so because of the good lighting. The roof allows in light and the stalls are painted white giving the market a new feel. It is also fairly new as it was relocated here in 2012. The old version of this market was the largest butchery in Europe. The unusual thing about this market is that it has many eateries making it like a food hall, a trend that has not really taken off in Rome. Due to the food stalls and the eating area in the middle, this place is popular with food tours and lunchers. Testaccio market also is the location of a recycle food program where the unsold food is given to the needy. This is the most “way trendy” of the places. Lots of food tours and publicity from international magazines and TV shows.
Mercato Rionale Coperto Nomentano, Piazza Alessandria: This market is inside an attractive building from the 1920s, with a high dome. This market has both produce, pizzerias, and some stalls with clothes outside. It is not huge but a good size for a local market. You can find almost anything you want in here. I think I bought a paring knife and a bowl. There are several bakery stalls in this market as well.
Mercato Italia, Via Catania 70: This is a large market in a part of town that is not touristy and not international. Also, it has a bakery run by two young guys who play rock music and make excellent lasagne. It was like visiting Rome as one might imagine it was. Zero tourists. I’ll be back.
Mercato di San Cosimato (Trastevere), Piazza San Cosimato: This market is slightly different from the others because it is outside in a square in Trastevere. There are some permanent box stalls but the majority of the stalls are fruit and vegetable stands that set up some tables and umbrellas every day.
Mercato di Campo de’ Fiore, Piazza Campo de’ Fiore: Surely the most romantic sounding of all the markets, located in a former field of flowers. This is the uber touristy local market. In the morning, the hold-out vegetable sellers are still there, slowly losing out to the ever dominant tourist tat and limoncello vendors, toasted nuts, and fresh-juice-at-five-euro-a-glass touters. This is an outdoor market in a square that was used for executions (people seem to ignore the statue of the hooded figure) because it was the only square without a church (which to me is the opposite reason as far as I can see). The location can’t be beat. Also, some of the vendors sell exotic items like lychee and round cucumbers from Apulia. In the evening, this square becomes a boozy open air bar, sticky with spilt drinks and hair product from the 80s.
Mercato Rionale Monti, Via Baccini 36: This is the smallest and oldest of the local markets, but it is also quite special. In the center, it has a reading area with shelves with books, a children’s area, and a few tables. The book selection is both in English and Italian. This market also has a pasta stall with a window where there is active pasta making in action. Although this market is basically a square, it even has a gift shop, a speciality Apulian stand, a fish vendor, a butcher, baker, two vegetable stands, a basic grocery stall, and a coffee machine that stands in for a coffee bar. This market is also open until the evening on Thursdays and Fridays, making it even more convenient for the locals.
Mercato Rionale Prati, Piazza dell’Unità 53/Via Cola di Rienzo: This is another 1920s building high to the ceiling and attractive. Another market that is not huge but big enough. It is a bit overgrown by the abutting buildings but you can find it if you try.
Città dell’Altra Economia, Via di Monte Testaccio (not far south from Testaccio Market): This market is part of a much larger event space. The market is in the large open space and comprises ten to 20 market stalls. If you live near here, then one could shop here. Especially if you like the outdoors farmers market atmosphere.
Now to the most famous farmers’ market, a zero kilometer market, where I like to shop.
Campagna Amica (Coldiretti is the cooperative that runs these markets all over Italy) in Via San Teodoro 76, Sat & Sun, 8-3, sometimes called the Farmers Market at Circus Maximus because it is located nearby: This zero kilometer market is as local as you can get for Rome. Everything produced here, from milk, meat, artichokes, and oil, and all are from within 100 kilometers of Rome.
In the back courtyard, there are a couple of eateries, including a fried seafood food truck. If you follow me on Instagram, then you will have seen that I like to check out this market every few weeks to see what is in season. It is not my local market, but it is all about local food. This market attracts a lot of TV crews and special events.
As I go to more markets, I may update this article but this gives you a start if you wish to go to a local market. In general, it is better to go to the market at 9 am if you want to avoid the crowds. 11 am if you like the crowds. After 1 pm, forget it.
Romans truly eat by season. They get excited by what is only available at certain times of the year. Of course, all year, there are imported vegetables and fruit in Rome, but the Romans still find joy in the seasonality of fresh vegetables. And, it seems like chicory is always in season…
Cicoria (chi-CORE-E-ah) or chicory is “Italian dandelion” and is a bitter green leafy vegetable that looks a bit like spinach. If you live in the U.S. and want to plant some for your self, this farm sells the seeds.
January: puntarelle (puhn-tah-R-ALE-eh), or cicoria di catalogna or cicoria asparago (although no one in Rome uses these names) is in the chicory family but looks more like a thick stemmed dandelion. The Romans eat the white stems, cut to curl up, in a salad with an anchovy garlic dressing — like a zero-carb caesar salad. No cheese. In other parts of Italy, puntarelle are cooked. In Rome, only the trimmings are cooked as part of a general vegetable stew. But, the white inner stems are the treasure.
March: agretti, asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus), fava beans, and artichokes. Wild asparagus are slimmer and have a stronger taste. Agretti (Salsola Soda, opposite-leaved saltwort, opposite leaf Russian thistle, Roscano, or barilla plant) is almost unknown in the English speaking world, although recently becoming a bit of a thing with chefs.
April: Strawberries, agretti (monk’s beard), peas, beans, and small artichokes.
May: Peas, beans, spring onions, garlic chives, etc.
June: Apricots, peaches, green beans, potatoes, etc.
July: Melons, peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, lettuce, etc.
August: This was hard to figure out as most of the markets close in August… but at the back of the Trionfale market, there are still some zero kilometer farmers who sell their produce. So it’s all about peaches, cucumbers, pears, walnuts, water melons, cantaloup melons (called so because they were grown in Cantalupo just outside Rome), lettuce, grapes, nectarines, plums, and apples.
October: pumpkin, potatoes, gourds, squash, nuts, cabbage, lettuce, and peppers.
November: potatoes, clementines, and nespole/medlars.
December: puntarelle, artichokes, and clementines.
Every restaurant will have “seasonal vegetable” on the menu and it will always be cicoria/chicory greens. Very healthy. One of the nice things about living in Rome is that it is possible to eat pesticide free food and in a perpetual “farmer’s market” all year round. I have to admit that I’m excited for artichoke season after not having artichokes for six months.
In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.
What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.
Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.
Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.
I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…
Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.
Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.
When researching my book about Italian food, I discovered the round melon cucumber of Puglia. It was described as a cross between a melon and a cucumber.
I was eager to try it and I thought I would have to wait till I could travel to Puglia. But, one day at the Campo de Fiori market, I saw it. The cucumber tastes like a mild cucumber (even milder) but has the shape of a melon. The rind is slightly leathery and I actually liked the way it has a pleasant chewiness.
Imagine if these were grown without seeds? They would be perfect for sandwiches. Never mind that, after my terrible encounter with a normal Italian cucumber back in November, I was just happy that this one didn’t bite my tongue off with bitterness. I had a Greek salad the other day, and the cucumber was equally bitter.
I didn’t expect the cucumbers to be bitter in Italy. But, then again, Romans like bitter greens like chicory so why not bitter cucumber (not to be confused with bitter gourd).
Note: If you prefer to watch this blog article as a video, click here for my YouTube channel.
*******updated June 20, 2022********* This article is mainly about the Chinese and Korean (and Philippine) grocery stores in Rome (there are many Bangladeshis in Rome and many run the local produce shops). For more, read this blogger’s post on the Asian grocery stores in Rome. Almost all the Asian grocery stores are located near the Termini train station where there are many other Chinese shops selling non-food items. This area also has stores with supplies from parts of Africa and other parts of the world.
I get lots of questions about where to buy cilantro, as it is a big part of Southeast Asian cuisine and Mexican food, so I’ll include a point about that (it tastes like soap to me so I can’t stand it. Someone should start an Instagram just for cilantro…)
Back to the Asian stores. One thing that all these stores sell is a plethora of ramen. Who knew there were so many types?
Asia Supermarket, Via Ricasoli 20: The entrance/exit is badly planned, and this shop is bigger than it appears. Fresh vegetables, fresh tofu, cooking utensils, fish sauce, etc.
Xin Ye Gruppo, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 34: Mostly dry goods but it’s bigger than it looks so you can find rice paper, ground cumin, fresh ginger, soldering tools, and bowls, etc.
La Famiglia (Korean store), Via Filippo Turati 102: Located in a courtyard, you must leave the busy street and go into the building’s courtyard. Mostly Korean goods. No fresh vegetables.
The Korean Market, Via Cavour 84: Mainly frozen and dry foods from Korea and Japan. Owners are Korean.
Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, Via Principe Amedeo 184: Famous ethnic market of Rome. It’s more like a suq or wet market.
Unknown name, Philippino corner store, Via Calatafirmi 14/a (the street intersects with itself and this shop is on the corner – on google, it appears as Hotel Papagermano): This small shop sells dried foods but also jarred kimchi. This kimchi is the one that I like to eat.
Trionfale market, Via Andrea Doria 41 (this is not near the Termini station and is located north of the Vatican, in Prati): There are several stalls that specialize in Asian vegetables and foods, so you can find what you will need there. If you enter from the Via Andrea Doria main entrance, the staff is on your right (box # 238) almost the minute you enter the market. The stall also has noodles and other items that you might need.
Testaccio Market, Via Aldo Munazio 66b (every taxi driver knows where the market is located, or should). Has parking: Also carries cilantro at times. There is an herb staff (stall #34) that has it. Cilantro is “coriandolo” in Italian.
Many of the markets are beginning to sell exotic fruits and vegetables, and many grocery stores sell a few “international” items. I’ll update this article as I discover more.
Selli, Via dello Statuto 28/30: Is more south Asian but has many items.
Xin Shi, Via Carlo Alberto 10B: I think this store is the best. It has a wide variety including fresh vegetables.
Mercato Testaccio (“mare-cah-toe” “tess-tah-chi-oh”) seems world famous, but I may be getting too “Rome blind” and just assume that everyone has watched 500 videos about Rome. No, you haven’t? Well, if you want, you can watch MY video, on my YouTube channel, about Testaccio Market. And then see where the rabbit hole takes you.
Testaccio market is located in the neighborhood of Testaccio, just south of historic center along the river. This location is the new location which was purpose built. It’s organized and has parking! Here is a good run down from another blog who posted this article.
One thing I really like about markets is the hustle and bustle. With pandemic distancing, it’s lacking some of that. But, it was still lovely to hear Italians talking louder than a hush. Of the markets I’ve been to, Trionfale is larger so I may like that one more. Testaccio feels a little too gentrified.
In March, I saw clumps of grass being sold at the markets. I asked what it was and was told, “agretti” — in English, this vegetable is called Salsola Soda or Opposite-Leaved Saltwort (although I don’t think it’s a common thing to eat in English speaking countries so the name may not be so important). In Italian, the fun name is Monk’s beard.
I asked the vegetable seller how to cook it and she said, to cook it in salted water for ten minutes, dress with olive oil and lemon juice, a bit of salt and pepper, and eat. Some recipes say to add garlic so I may do that. I like this recipe because I like the idea of cooking it with spaghetti so that the shapes are similar. First I tried it without any flavorings so I can see what it tastes like.
For those who live in the U.S. and want to grow Italian vegetables, this site also provides some information on them. This vegetable is supposedly becoming more popular with chefs. Other season vegetables right now are wild asparagus and artichokes. I even saw some sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes, at the market the other day.
While the appearance is a bit like chives, it tastes more like… grass, and has a nice slippery texture. I think this would be a very healthy vegetable and it could be fun as a dish by itself. I made it with spaghetti so that the shapes matched. Of course, I put cheese on it.
At the start of every year, and indeed at most other times of the year, there is someone who wants to eat salad. I was asked to do a posting about salad which I took to be about salad with lettuce. So, let us eat lettuce!
Cosme: “Col” salad at Cosme. This large (larger than most main courses) salad is served on a ten inch wide plate and is large enough for a main dish or to be shared as an appetizer. It is listed as an appetizer on the menu at Cosme. The salad has raw shredded red cabbage, alfalfa, cashews, hearts of palm, artichoke, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and the dressing is a yogurt based dressing so you feel healthy when eating it.
Matria: Also has a decent salad. It’s pretty and actually makes you want to eat salad.
Osso: Although Osso is a steak house, there is a selection of salads including an attractive wedge salad (in real life, in the close up above, the wedges rise like the Andes covered in mint green and dusted with bacon and candied pecans). The second salad mentioned, “salad #3” contains tiny deep fried cheese balls. I recommend keeping the dressing on the side, and foregoing the song and dance of the waiter pouring and tossing, so that you can enjoy the fried cheese “croutons”. The salad is called #3 because on the old menu, it was the #3 (at least, I think that’s why).
Cafe Mozart: Located in San Borja, this cafe has an all-you-can-eat salad bar. The salad bar has a full selection of cooked items including pasta salads and many other salads to put in the salad.
La Mora: They have several salads. They also use a classic European mustard vinaigrette. Because the olive oil is whipped/emulsified in, the dressing has the thickness of an aoli (mayonnaise in plain language).
Cafe A Bistro: The head salad is like an iceberg wedge salad, but you get all and not only the wedge (the photo doesn’t do the salad justice as the salad is more impressive when viewed in profile).
Antica: One of the salads uses butter/bib lettuce and has wedges of oranges among other things making it a decent salad.
La Panka: This chain restaurant has large salads. The one below is with roasted veg and chicken. The salad is the size of small hot tub.
La Linterna: Also has a decent house salad with ham and pecans.
Taller Razeto: Has good salads (melted cheese on a bed of lettuce in the photo below), but the restaurant is out in La Punta so not a daily destination unless you live there.
Pardos Chicken: Has a lettuce salad but I like their “cooked salad” with cooked carrots, beets, beans, and avocado. But, we were talking about lettuce.
Poke Pacifiko: As you can order exactly what you want, I imagine you can make your own salad. I’m sure you can get it without fish.
Plus, I would guess that most of the vegetarian and vegan restaurants have lettuce salads.
Here they are called “bioferia” or “ecoferia” and as far as I can tell, there are only a few with a specific schedule. Most of them feature the same vendors, who keep move to different locations depending on the day.
Cusco is usually considered a preparatory stop on the way to Machu Picchu. But, Cusco should be considered a food destination. The food in Cusco was like the weather, crisp and clean. Every time I asked about the vegetables, including the lettuce, I was told that they were fresh from the Sacred Valley. I don’t have many photos of our salads… because it’s salad.
One of the salads included a peanut-like item which was also from the Sacred Valley.
I don’t like quinoa but when it’s used to bread deep fried shrimp, then I like it. The food in Cusco was delicious. Surely, it helped that we had been out in the fresh Sacred Valley air all day.
The Chinese porcelain cat with the waving paw is the give-away. In the U.S., it’s called “napa cabbage” but in Bogota, it’s called “Chinese cabbage.” Whatever it’s called, it’s almost impossible to find in Bogota, I guess because it’s not a normal part of the diet here.
I went on the hunt. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination but I feel like in the months that I’ve lived in Bogota, more and more grocery stores are offering “Asian” vegetables like napa cabbage, daikon, and leafy greens other than spinach. But, in most of the stores, the Asian vegetables are droopy and expensive (whenever I buy bok choy in the market, it’s never the tiny ones served to me at Gran China but I guess they, as a restaurant, get preference). It’s better to go to Paloquemao. In particular, “Peter’s Fruits and Vegetables – Chinese Products Available” which I call “Peter’s Chinese Vegetable” just because I think it would sound better. There are quite a few stands in the same area of the market selling asparagus, giant daikon, arugula, chives, and leafy greens.The last time I went, I bought two large backpacks worth of vegetables and it cost me 24,000 pesos (about $11). There is a separate lady who sells nothing by chiles. The other “Asian vegetable” which is hard to find even in the U.S., is perilla leaf. Maki Roll on Carrera 11 sells that.
As an aside, Peter’s also sells sweet potato (yams to Americans and “Peruvian camote” here — a sweet potato with an orange color, used in Peruvian ceviche and North American food) and kale. Some of the vendors even use the English words and if they see a foreigner, they’ll call out “kale” or “sweet potato” to attract customers.