ut me in the open markets of Rome, and I will be dizzy with desire within minutes. In Campo de’ Fiori, at Ponte Milvio or even in the tiny open market on Via della Croce, one can literally and figuratively feast on limitless fresh bounty: artichokes the color of amethysts; tangerines tasting of honey, meat, fish and poultry; not to mention the non-edible attractions such as those ubiquitous printed tourist aprons — Michelangelo’s David with full equipment or garter belts and g-string undies to inspire your cooking, and guests. My 90-year-old aunt flaunts hers at formal dinner parties and church socials! But how to pick from the myriad vendors who beckon you with samples and smiles? How not to offend a favorite seller when you see that the artichokes are greener next door?
It’s a good idea not to limit yourself to one vendor. Always start by asking if you can pick your own goods and make friends with all vendors who look promising. As the old rock and roll song goes, “My mamma told me, you’d better shop around.”
My passion for artichokes and a solution to their daunting preparation won me a lifelong friend in the Campo. My little trick, after stripping off all the outer leaves (cook and serve with olive oil, mayonnaise or lemon butter) is to use a good carrot peeler on the stems and lower part of the globe. You’ll have perfect artichokes ready in seconds for their mint and garlic, or for carciofi fritti, my favorite (see recipe).
One day, I presented an inexpensive IKEA peeler to my favorite little old lady whose wares always seem more flavorful than others. No question; she thought I was bonkers (after all, she’d been paring and peeling with a knife for about 60 years!), but my little gift was accepted gracefully.
To my delight, a few days later she cried out, “Ciao, bella signora, cosa vuoi (the tu, mind you), I have your favorite carciofi, and beautiful asparagi, only €6 a kilo.” All this in front of five women vying for attention. I politely waited my turn, then bought her asparagi, and my daily fix of artichokes. As I left with my treasures, I heard her hawking to new customers, “Beautiful asparagus, only €8 a kilo!” And that’s not all. She gave me no scontrino (the receipt from all vendors to buyers, required by the tax department). That’s when you really know you are part of the neighborhood.
Finally, remember that vendors are not impressed (is anyone?) with negative news. I lost the love of a vendor when complaining about expensive William pears that, when cut, were brown all the way through. The vendor’s job is to sell perishable produce as soon as possible or lose money. So if your asparagus is tough or your apples, tasteless, change vendors. But always bow out slowly and burn no bridges. Meander by the culprit seller every now and then, look over the goods, buy some radishes or anything cheap, smile and make small talk, then move on to your new love. You never know when your old one might offer his longstanding customers a bargain on limited-supply, fragrant, firm white truffles, which my “ex” did last fall!