August is not the best time to be in Rome. The sun still beats down relentlessly so that when you’re standing in the Roman Forum and your audio guide says, “Now, let’s walk toward the tomb of Julius Caesar,” you think, “No f*&king way.” And more importantly for us, many restaurants are closed for vacation. Technically, we were only there for the last day of August and the first week of September, but Italian restauranteurs are not so exact. One restaurant we were hoping to try had a sign up saying they would be open Saturday, September 3rd. When we tried to make a reservation, we were told, “Sorry, we’re actually coming back September 5!”
But there is one very good reason to be in Italy in August: summer markets. We were staying in an apartment right by Campo de Fiori and its market, which was described as touristy but to me seemed just sort of puny. There were many more people hawking T-shirts and dried pasta than actual fruits and vegetables. I did like watching vendors use the fountain as a giant public sink.
The market that felt much more workaday was the large covered market in Testaccio. These tomatoes, so uniformly red, were not very sweet, but they had a lot of tart flavor. If we’d had more time, I might have cooked them down into a sauce.
With all the pizza and pasta we were eating, I was eating mainly fruit for breakfast and snacks. I love plums that are a little hard, that you really have to bite into, but that yield very sweet, just faintly tart flesh. Italy has many different kinds of plums just like this, all with varying perfumes.
I gravitated toward these dusky grapes that looked nothing like the grapes I find at home. They tasted as you would imagine they would, sort of lightly floral and fleeting.
When you buy fruit in a market, you can wash and eat it right away because there are those ubiquitous fountains spewing forth clean, fresh water.
Testaccio market also had butchers, salumi and cheese shops, pasta shops, all the little things you might need. It reminded me a bit of the markets I loved in Mexico. The man at this salumi/cheese shop was very eager for us to taste his cheese. He sold us way more fresh mozzarella and salami than we had asked for, with a corresponding surprise in price, but the mozzarella knots (which he urged us not to refrigerate) were so good, we forgave him.
Just a few blocks away is the famous food store Volpetti. It’s not very large, but every conceivable space is filled with something you would like to take home. It’s worse than a pet store with puppies in the window.
I had been warned that it was very easy to rack up an enormous credit card bill, so I limited myself to two smallish chunks of cheese, a pecorino with pistachios and a similarly hard cheese studded with truffle bits, and some wild boar salami. I may or may not have finished eating everything before I went through customs. The guy who helped me clearly saw “starry-eyed tourist” written all over my forehead. I think he was disappointed I didn’t buy more. He clearly didn’t see “nonprofit worker” also tattooed on my forehead.
Even though my purchase at Volpetti was my second-biggest in Rome, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the prices there and at the market in Testaccio, even with the exchange rate. The cheeses were around 30 euros/kilo, or about 15 euros/pound. The fruit at the market was so cheap, I felt almost like a thief. (I have since heard the European Union subsidizes organic food.) In New York, most cheeses at fancy shops seem inevitably to hover around the $25/pound mark, and I don’t even want to think about how much my local farmers market charges for Italian prune plums (which really do not taste so sweet outside of Italy).