Restaurants aren’t the only places you can satisfy your gustatory longing for Italian cuisine. Town markets are a prime location for great food finds. Rome, Florence, and Turin have the Central Market or Mercato Centrale where you can find lots of gastronomic surprises akin to discovering a town’s street food.
Featured photo: Food shopping at a store in Padova, Italy. Try getting your dinner from these food stores for an authentic Italian meal outside a restaurant.
Table of Contents
- Food Finds in the Mercato (Market)
- The Rise of the Central Markets
- Florence Central Market (Mercato Centrale Firenze)
- Rome Central Market (Mercato Centrale Roma)
- Budget Eats from the Grocery Stores
Food Finds in the Mercato (Market)
I’ve been to many restaurants in Italy over the years and I would rate my dining experience from fantastico (great) to perfetto (perfect)! I attribute this to Italian cooking traditions, as well as the availability of fresh produce from one of the most fertile volcanic soils on earth.
But restaurants (whether il ristorante, la trattoria, l’osteria, or la taverna) aren’t the only places where you can satisfy your gustatory longing for Italian cuisine.
I highly recommend visiting the town’s market or mercato [mer-KA-toh]. You should also check the town’s events calendar for their weekly pop-up markets or food festivals (warning: these are usually open only from morning till noon). Street-food is not yet that common in Italy, but the mercato provides lots of gastronomic surprises akin to discovering a town’s street food.
The Rise of the Central Markets
Firenze (Florence), Roma (Rome) and, very recently, Torino (Turin) have elevated the market experience with their city’s Central Market or Mercato Centrale [mer-KA-to chen-TRA-leh] concept. If you’re a foodie, these high quality food courts should be on your must-visit list. The Central Market offers reasonably-priced gourmet and local dishes from chefs and artisans, as well as the region’s best formaggi [for-MA-ji] (cheeses), tartufi [tar-TU-fi] (truffles), vini [VEE-ni] (wines), and many other Italian produce under one roof.
Florence Central Market / Mercato Centrale Firenze
The Mercato Centrale Firenze opened in 2014. It is in a two-storey 19th century glass and iron building right in the center of the old town. But you could easily miss it during the day, because pop-up stalls selling accessories, clothing and leather goods to souvenir-hunting tourists, pack the streets around the building, effectively hiding the mercato. The area (also called Mercato San Lorenzo) can get very crowded and busy during the day that the typical tourist usually misses the Central Market and the food haven that is inside.
To help you find it, here’s a snapshot of Google’s aerial view of the location:
The building occupies a block surrounded by Piazza del Mercato, Via Sant’Antonino, Via dell’Ariento, and Via Panicale. When you do find the building, the lower floor is an indoor wet market where you can buy fresh produce, fish, meats, and some groceries. The wet market is only open from 8am-12pm. The gourmet food court, however, is open 364 days a year, from 8am-midnight.
To eat at the gourmet food court, you have to go to the upper floor (which is their first floor, or primo piano). Find the escalator or elevator on the Piazza del Mercato side or the opposite Via dell’Ariento side of the building.
At the food court, you’ll find dishes unique to Tuscany such as lampredotto [lam-pre-DOT-toh] or stewed cow stomach. There’s also trippa [TRIP-pah] or cow tripe usually cooked in tomato sauce, and topped with parmigiano cheese. These may sound unappetizing, but they are quite tasty and a favorite of the locals! Be adventurous and try them!
You will also find the more recognizable fare such as: different kinds of pizza and pasta dishes, the iconic porchetta [por-KET-ta] (crispy skinned, rolled pork loin and belly with herb fillings), the cold cuts salame [sa-LA-meh], mortadella [mor-ta-DEL-la] and prosciutto [pro-SHOOT-to].
Don’t miss the famous bistecca alla fiorentina [bis-TE-ka ala fyo-ren-TI-na] (Florentine steak) which must not be cooked beyond medium-rare. In fact, Italians prefer this very thick cut of steak, rare.
If you can’t take meat, there’s a vegetarian/vegan stall. And if, for some reason you are craving Chinese dumplings instead of ravioli, there’s that, too.
The Lorenzo de’ Medici Cooking School provides cooking classes right at the mercato. So if part of your Italian travel to-do list includes learning how to cook Italian dishes, there’s no more convenient place to do it.
Check the Florence Central Market / Mercato Centrale Firenze website for directions and more information.
Rome Central Market / Mercato Centrale Roma
The Mercato Centrale Roma is 3-floors of Rome’s gourmet and street food under one roof. It is conveniently located on the south side of the Roma Termini Station. You have to walk past the Coin department store and the car rental companies along the Via Giovanni Giolitti side where the airport buses drop-off and pick-up their passengers. It is open 365-days from 8am-midnight.
To help you find it, here’s a snapshot of Google’s aerial view of the location:
The Rome Central Market opened in 2016 after the success of the Mercato Centrale Firenze. It is a little more cosmopolitan in its food offerings where Firenze is more Tuscan, of course. The food stalls are on the ground floor level, while the restaurant and events venue are on the upper floors. There is no wet market here.
Try the trapizzino [trap-pit-TZI-no], a unique Rome street food which is a convenient pizza in a pocket from Il Trapizzino. Another street food to try is arancini [a-ran-CHI-ni] which are Sicilian fried rice balls with various savory stuffings from Le Specialità Siciliane.
You will also find the risotto all’amatriciana [ri-SOT-to ala-ma-tri-CHYA-na], a famous rice dish with cured pork cheek, tomato sauce and cheese). The delicious porchetta is served in a panino [pa-NI-no] (sandwich). And of course, there’s the ubiquitous pizza and pasta. For more global fare, there’s hamburgers and sushi, should you need a small break from your Italian food trip.
Check the Rome Central Market / Mercato Centrale Roma website for directions and more information.
Budget Eats from the Grocery Stores
Italian alimentari [a-li-men-TA-ri] stores are small food/grocery shops and are usually family-run. While a supermercato is a larger grocery chain store such as Conad, similar to grocery chain stores in the US.
If you need a quick meal, the store deli will usually have formaggi (cheeses), a good selection of salame, and a variety of tempting insalate[in-sa-LA-teh] (salads) bathing in olive oil. In larger stores they will often have roasted items like potatoes, and chicken, and several cooked items including pasta. Grab a crusty pane [PA-neh] (bread) from the bakery section, and a locally produced wine to accompany your simple take-home meal.
These stores are not hard to find. There is usually an alimentari in or near the town center. In many Italian cities, you can use your smartphone to search for one of the grocery chain store brands. On Google Maps you simply type in any of these brands: Conad, Carrefour, Coop, Eurospin, Crai, Pam, Aldi, or Simply Market. Google Maps will show you the one nearest your current location.
For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.
Sampling Italian cuisine should be part of your Italian travel experience. But, are you ready for the Italian menu challenge? Get help from my post on Lunch & Dinner: Navigating the Italian Restaurant Menu.
If you’re traveling to Italy, be prepared for what constitutes an Italian breakfast. Don’t go hungry – check my post on Breakfast in Italy.
If you’re traveling to Italy – the Starbucks lingo does not translate to the Italian coffee culture. Check my post on How to Order Coffee in Italy Without Making a Fool of Yourself.
Take this 2-mile Firenze sightseeing walk and watch the sunset over The Florence Skyline from San Miniato al Monte.
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