During my time abroad one of my favorite things to do when I was not traveling or studying in class was to go down into the city and visit the San Lorenzo market within the Piazza di Mercato Centrale. Selling genuine Florentine and other Italian products, including leather jackets, handbags, Pashmina scarves, jewelry, and even aprons adorned with David, the market at San Lorenzo has something for everybody.When I first discovered San Lorenzo, I felt so overwhelmed by the different vendors, many selling very similar goods, that I felt reluctant to buy anything. The challenge for me was discovering which vendor I could haggle with for the best price. Through haggling, not only was I able to have the chance to practice my language skills, it also allowed me to use my bargaining power as a customer to secure a price manageable for wallet. Ultimately, I came to love the market and the feeling that somewhere within the aisles of vendors there was some unique treasure waiting for me uncover.
Although I could have spent hours walking through the different stalls and chatting with the different venditori, there were many occasions when I bypassed everything and marched straight through to what I referred to as my gastronomic heaven: Il Mercato Centrale. Look in any guidebook about Florence and undoubtedly this market is included as a must-stop for anyone looking to do some serious Italian food shopping. Il Mercato is essentially an indoor farmer’s market; farmers, butchers, bakers, and others sell their products to hungry customers who are eager to enjoy the tastes of Italy. Inside one can find a variety of wines, olive oils, and vinegars, plenty of in-season fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, pounds of hand-made pasta, and shelves of pastries that will trigger any sweet tooth.
On days when I wanted to escape from the crowds of tourists huddled at outdoor cafés, I would slip into the market and order a prosciutto panino from one of the butcher stands. Having a sandwich in hand kept me from overindulging in some of the stands free samples and from splurging on my market favorite treats, dried fruit.
Though I am now thousands of miles from San Lorenzo and Il Mercato Centrale, I still reminisce about those mornings and afternoons. Fortunately for me, D.C. has something very similar to it just within the city limits. Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, Eastern Market is the district’s oldest continually operated fresh food public market. Just like San Lorenzo, this D.C. market consists of outdoor vendors touting handmade arts and crafts and an indoor food hall selling some of the finest local food products. Always eager for inspiration for the night’s dinner, I am never one to leave a food market empty-handed.
Although Florence’s Central Market sells primarily Italian ingredients, Eastern Market’s food hall offers customers an array of products customary to different national cuisines. Thinking French, then why not buy fresh Chèvre or brie cheese? Want to host a Tapas party for your friends? Then order some Jamon Serrano Spanish ham. If the Greek islands call your name, then there is plenty of lamb to be bought for a satisfying Mediterranean meal. Being the Italian that I am, I love going up to the glass of the fresh pasta display and seeing all the varieties available for purchase. The indoor vendors, as well as many of the outdoor fresh food sellers, pride themselves on their commitment to local farming. Many of the products sold at Eastern Market are grown or produced in rural counties within Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Like in Florence, I could feed myself off of the free samples within the market and easily spend an entire afternoon rummaging through the boxes and racks of items sold outdoors. Eastern Market has the feel of an open-air flea market, but with a sophisticated twist. Though there are those who sell old photographs, travel brochures, and vintage jewelry, there are also many local artists trying to establish their name. Hand-carved jewelry boxes, water-colored paintings, and fresh-water pearl necklaces are just a few of the exceptional items available at the Capitol Hill marketplace.
With so many stalls to discover and plenty of food to keep me satisfied, Eastern Market harkens me back to sights, smells, and streets of Florence.