By: Francesca Montillo
One of my absolute favorite aspects of traveling to Italy is visiting the outdoor street markets. Growing up in Calabria, one such market opened up every Tuesday morning and the location was literally on my street, practically under our home.
The market was small but fun, especially to a young child who got to go shopping with mom every Tuesday morning. The market carried much of what one might need for the week: groceries, fresh produce, various cheeses, and even some limited seafood.
I vividly recall hearing the vendors set up in the wee hours of the morning, while we would be getting ready for school. As we made our way out of our door, squeezing by the fruit vendor who had made himself at home practically on our steps, we would take a quick walk in the market, before mom dropped my sister and I at school, which was right across the street from our home and the market. If I am painting a picture of a very small town where everything is “right near my home,” it’s because everything literally was.
Perhaps it’s the memory of this childhood Tuesday market that, to this day, has me drawn to outdoor markets. Whichever city I find myself in while leading culinary tours in Italy, I am always sure to include a visit to the markets with my group.
Last September, while leading a tour of eastern Sicily, I decided to add a visit to the outdoor market in Catania. The Catania Market and Pescheria (fish market) are extremely lively, the way only Sicilians can liven up anything. There’s a lot of yelling going on—vivid dialects that sound nothing like Italian, animated characters selling various goods, and needless to say, there’s plenty to see, buy and try.
I was debating whether to include the fish market during our visit; after all, it’s the loudest of them all, and yes, a bit smelly! There’s literally fish everywhere! I decided that a visit here was as authentic as it gets and my group was more than happy to be part of this aspect of everyday life. The merchants yelling their prices, screams fly back and forth, dialects that sound like mumbles, and is that a swordfish staring at me? “Why are they yelling at each other?” asks a tour participant. Oh my dear, those two are brothers and just having a conversation!
To say the seafood is fresh is an understatement, much of it is still alive and much of it was likely caught that morning. But to bring a group here to simply see seafood is torture. Thanks to the many small fry-ups nearby, we’re able to sample an abundance of fried seafood. Nothing like steamy, freshly fried seafood served in a paper cone with just some salt and a squeeze of lemon at 10 o’clock in the morning to get one started!
A few steps from the fishery, you will find the food market. This has always been my favorite part of any market and where locals buy just about all their ingredients for their many home cooked dishes. Here one might find all their meats, cheeses, vegetables such as their adored eggplants and zucchini and even their baking ingredients. We surely had fun sampling the many nuts and dried fruits available for purchase. Since this market has become a tourist attraction of sorts, the vendors have begun vacuum-sealing some of their products for easy transport.
The market is open daily and it’s mind-boggling to think that this show goes on every day. It’s like a well-orchestrated theater play with each vendor having its own part in the show. As you walk about the market, don’t forget to look up. Though hard to miss, right above street level, covering the entire market, you will find hundreds of colorful rain umbrellas. Set up there to shield the vendors and shoppers from the scorching sun, thus spending more time and money while there, the umbrellas work as best they can to keep everyone relatively cooler.
If you’re visiting Catania on vacation, and perhaps you don’t have a kitchen where you’re staying, and thinking that the market isn’t worth a visit because you can’t buy and cook anything anyways, please reconsider a visit. The streets are lined with many food establishments for you to enjoy, you can buy some products to bring back and it’s a slice of everyday life not to be missed.