Market Stall Loyalty: the Economics, Politics, and Poetics of Buyin’ Veggies

July 3, 2013 / Food & Wine


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mercato1Each neighborhood has its daily mercato, or outdoor produce market, where the vegetables and fruit are cheaper and fresher than those at the grocery store. So the market stall owners are people that you see on a pretty regular basis, who recognize you after all of three visits and know your name after five. Trouble is, you only need a few tomatoes today, and there are twice as many market stalls. Who to go to?

Here is a perfect example of an inelastic market. Economic theory would suggest you go the person selling the cheaper better tomatoes . . and on your faux-nonchalant first lap walk-about of the market today you notice that Bruno 1 has a great batch. Ahhhh . . BUT . . . you haven’t been to Bruno 2 in a few days, who has been tracking you approaching the market out of the corner of his eye from half a block away. Failure to visit him today will result in no free basil plant next week. Then there’s Sig. Franco, who is smiling all too eagerly at you as he realizes you’ve realized that he forgot to add those potatoes a few days ago. If you head over to him to claim the potatoes you might as well just buy the tomatoes too and call it a day. Meanwhile, Bruno 1 already has a preemptive sour look on his face because you have not b-lined it to his stall, as Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market predicts you should given his better offering.

mercato2Mind you, all this for tomatoes that probably taste just as good regardless of who you buy them from, and whose price difference is 5 cents/lb. at the most. In Italy however, (for better or for worse) everything from the smallest consideration to the most important decision will always have social implications and an effect on interpersonal relations. Yes, even who you buy your veggies from today.

And you thought you were just buying tomatoes.. !




by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

12 Responses to “Market Stall Loyalty: the Economics, Politics, and Poetics of Buyin’ Veggies”

  1. Joanne Trevisano

    Wish I was there… The reactions are so Italian….. Remember this mentality, being second generation American growing up with Italian grandparents… I can understand and love the Italians….. Can just imagine the tastes of those wonderful tomatoes…..

  2. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    how much I miss those mercati cittadini,now I must travel far to get the fresh produce to cook properly

  3. Anne Robichaud

    You nailed Italy with this one, GB: interpersonal/interpersonal relationships coupled with passione, the passione for the goodness they are selling….and let’s add “bella figures” (why not?) – in the beauty of the stall layout


  4. Oh no! Don’t stop in the middle of the story! I must know how it plays out. How do we Mae the decision from whom to buy the tomatoes?? My husband and I are coming for an extended stay and need this vital information so that we may survive market day without leaving a wake of tragedy behind us!

  5. Antonio Russo

    Appunto, GB – ma, come mi fai ridere! E` tutto cosi` vero, cio` che scrivi… Peccato che questo tipo di <>, e di personalita`manchino negli SU.

  6. Linda Boccia

    In 2000 my husband’s engineering firm was evaluating the Messina Bridge Plans and we lived in Roma in Prati. At the mercato Reunione off Cola di Rienzo the woman who I usually bought mushrooms from when they were in season shortchanged me, intentionallly. She thought that I was a rich foreigner and would not notice the then lira difference. When I went back to my usual vendors and she looked eager for a sale and I did not even give her produce a glance, she understood that I did notice the shortchange when I got home. But that was NOT the norm. Usually I had wonderful fruits and veggies and met kind and wonderful vendors, who made recommendations of other places to shop for a variety of goods. Although this was not Fiori dei Campo and a popular tourist stop, it was an indoor/outdoor locals market where I got really wonderful produce, met lovely people who became friends.

  7. Weekly I bought one item from most all the vendors hence escaping not only guilt but The Eye, at least this is what my guilt told me…

    • Leone Gage

      The same type of loyalty to your produce vendor goes on here in the States.
      When the outdoor market opened after the winter, we went and carefully looked over all the vendors. Who has the nicest fruits, how are the produces displayed, is it a family business, how are the customers treated, how are the prices. All these questions have to be considered before you make a decision. After all, you want to enter into a weekly relationship.
      Decision made, we faithfully went to this vendor every week to make our purchases. Last week, I complimented then after seeing their apricots. They were just beautiful and reasonably priced.
      I paid for all my purchases, the vendor smiled and then put an extra apricot in the bag for us.
      The relationship is consummated.

  8. Irene Malizia

    Wow, you hit the nail right on the head. In the mercato in my little town, the vendors are definitely paying attention to you. My favorite vendor is the cheese man. I would never think to purchase cheese from anyone else. He knows that, of course, and sometimes gives me cheese for free. I sometimes try to buy the veggies from different vendors, so they don’t feel slighted. However, I generally go back to my favorites.

  9. Monique Quesada

    Oddio! I remember going thru a whole drama when my visiting Mom started going to the “wrong” stall while I was recovering from a knee operation. Not only did I have to face the accusations of the “neglected” stall owner on my return, but I had to pretend I didn’t know the “wrong” stall owners, whom my Mom had mistakenly started buying from. Mamma mia, che pizza!!


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