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Grocery Shopping > Fare La Spesa
What would a trip to Italy be without experiencing a food market overflowing with beautiful vegetables, mouth-watering fruit and an abundance of other gastronomic delights? Aside from being a no-brainer photo op, food markets here make you feel like you are at the very source of what makes Italian food taste so good that it grabs you by the taste buds, warms your heart and aligns your chakras. We’ve talked about some eateries in Bologna here and here, but inspiration abounds at Mercato delle Erbe for cooking up your own pasto or foraging for impromptu picnics.
Permanent and temporary food markets are aplenty in the bustling city of food, but Mercato delle Erbe is the largest covered one. Teeming with life and housed in a handsome building with high ceilings, elevated windows and ironwork, you would never guess that this market has been resurrected twice. Mercato delle Erbe opened in 1910 in a newly built edifice only to be bombed three decades later during the Second World War – like much of the northwestern area of the city. After lengthy rebuilding, it reopened four years after the war’s end. In 2014, the eastern and western wings of the market were renovated, changing a number of shops and stands into restaurants, bars and quick bites, and extending opening hours into the wee hours of the night.
What To Buy > Cosa Comprare
Definitely start with fresh produce. Navigating your way through the central market hall and its two rows of fruit and vegetable stands is like walking through a lavish Renaissance still life. Take a word of advice from the vendors themselves: shop around. Everything is on display with clearly written prices, so let yourself be guided by what inspires you. Just remember that goods are sold by the kilo and not by the pound! If you see etto written anywhere that means 100 grams (or about a 1/4 of a pound). Shopping where you don’t speak the language can be a little intimidating, but if worse comes to worst, you can at least point to the apple that has caught your eye and hold up your fingers to indicate how many you’d like. Some things are still universal.
Of the 48 businesses at Mercato delle Erbe, four are butchers, including one specializing in horse meat. I regularly go to Pietro and Andrea (officially listed as Centro Carni Ugo Bassi). Run by a father and son team, they might not speak much English, but they are used to dealing with Americans hailing from the Johns Hopkins graduate school here or US University exchange programs. They’re knowledgeable about cuts used stateside (which can be different from Italian ones). The tenderloin I got from them for Domenica Marchetti’s Beef Tenderloin alla Bandiera italiana recipe (from Big Night In) was exquisite. If you’re around in December, skip the bollito and try their artisanal zampone. You will need about 17 hours of prep and cook time on hand (the zampone has to be covered in water overnight and then simmered in water for about 5 hours). If you have less time, pick up their filled zucchini or involtini. No cooking required? Try the perfectly prepared portions of vitello tonnato.
Right next to Pietro and Andrea’s butcher shop is Il Brontolo. That’s the Italian name for Grumpy of Snow White fame, but the owner Marco would be better named Sunny with his ready smile and spirited personality. He has a fine selection of cheeses and charcuterie, including a delectable toma piemontese that really hits the spot when warmed in an oven on top of a slice of hearty bread. To get the conversation started, you might want to order a formaggio fresco (like squacquerone, mozzarella, ricotta and goat cheese) and a formaggio stagionato (aged cheeses like caciocavallo, pecorino and parmigiano reggiano).
Anything Else? > Altro?
In Bologna, when a salesperson or vendor asks a customer if she wants anything else (“Altro?”), a Bolognese will respond “Altro” meaning “No thanks.” You won’t hear it anywhere else in Italy (“No grazie” and “Grazie, sono a posto così” are the norm). It also happens to be the name of a restaurant in at Mercato delle Erbe. Altro? includes a standard sit-down restaurant, a bar, pizza by the slice counter and a vegetarian takeaway spot. You can grab a seat at one of the free tables for your piece of margherita or farcita – be sure to let them know you want your pizza riscaldata.
Desiring something from the sea? The market also has a decent fishmonger, Mercato del Pesce, where you can easily satisfy your seafood needs. If you’d rather not light up the stove at your AirBnB apartment, turn around from the counter and step into Banco 32, a small restaurant serving up fish. They offer quick lunches in the afternoon and tapas dishes in the evening with a changing daily menu.
Out back on Via Belvedere you’ll find all manner of bars for aperitivo adventures. It gets really crowded on warm evenings and is a choice location for observing local fauna. Bar Mercato has a smart selection of wines and can serve up a delightful Martini made with Hendricks gin. Looking for something quieter but with more mixology? Try Bizarre, a 12 seater cocktail boutique with a prettily designed interior.
Mercato delle Erbe: Via Ugo Bassi 25 – Open Monday to Thursday from 7 AM to Midnight, and Friday and Saturday from 7 AM to 2 AM.
Juggling nuance between Italian and English, Tatiana lights up her five-burner kitchen top with nostalgia for American food, Bologna-inspired fare and cross-cultural inventions. She and her husband endlessly debate on cooking with or without a recipe. Their son just hopes that dinner will either be plain or have chocolate in it.