Every Italian city has its traditional markets. In Rome there’s Mercato di Campo de’ Fiori, in Florence Mercato Centrale, and in Palermo Mercato del Pesce.Markets are an essential part of Italian life – a topic I recently delved deep into last week as part of my wacko challenge to ditch the supermarket. Of course Bologna, nicknamed “The Fat One”, is no exception to this tradition.
One of my favorite markets in Bologna is Mercato delle Erbe. I’ve always liked this market in particular because I think it’s a real hidden gem of the city. While the open market located within the Quadrilatero zone near the main square is always full of tour guides and dangerously waving selfie sticks, Mercato delle Erbe is an indoor market and thus typically off the normal tourist track. Even those who have lived in Bologna for a long time don’t always know about this place.
Believe it or not, Mercato delle Erbe is actually hundreds of years old! During the middle ages, food vendors would line up in Piazza Maggiore and the streets nearby every day, offering an array of vegetables, fruit, poultry, salumi, cheese and wine to the Bolognese people of that era. Students, professors, intellectuals, craftsmen and traders frequented these markets often to buy their daily sustenance, while innkeepers came to stock up bread, wine, and cheese to feed their of hungry customers they hosted including travellers, performers and even prostitutes (click here for some pretty cool photos/paintings of what the markets used to look like in Bologna).
Mercato delle Erbe – whose name means herb market – was originally located in Piazza de’ Marchi near the Church of San Francesco and only sold vegetables and herbs in the beginning. During the early 1900s, the city of Bologna requested that Mercato dell’Erbe be transferred elsewhere as the government needed the property for other projects. To help with this task, the city hired two engineers – Filippo Buriani and Arturo Carpi to design a new space for the market. In 1910, a new indoor market was constructed at the end of Via Ugo Bassi using the foundation of an old church. One of the tasks of the market was to lighten the heavy crowds of peasants away from the popular Malpighi Square.
During World War II, much of Bologna was bombed and destroyed, particularly the area near Via Marconi and Mercato delle Erbe. The market was forced to close for several years during the war period. Following the devastation, the market was restored and reopened in 1949. Today the market is still standing and can be accessed from Via Ugo Bassi and Via Belvedere.
Food Market or Jail?
Visiting the market three years ago, I couldn’t help but feel this sense of abandonment. Here was this wonderful hidden gem of Bologna – a true foodie’s paradise – and yet the only people shopping here were old Bolognese nonnas and housewives, a very sparse amount of students and perhaps on sunny spring Saturday, a few tourists trying to fumble their way through a negotiation for tomatoes. The market was dead in comparison to the dozens of supermarkets nearby and I sincerely worried for the vendors, looking miserable and bored behind their mounds of fresh produce sure to be wasted in two or three days time.
To make matters worse, from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, the market closes in accordance with the traditional lunch-siesta closing in Italy. All the vendors would cover their produce, shut down their stands and leave. So the market, already having a slightly jail-like feel with its industrial metal walls, became a cold, empty prison for three long hours every afternoon. Several spaces weren’t even being used at all! Surely this was not the market that Buriani and Capri had in mind when they constructed it in 1910.
Despite my unconditional love for this market and all it was offering at that time, it was clear things weren’t going so well. In 2013, an article was published in La Repubblica Bologna entitled Il Comune salva Mercato dell’Erbe – “The city saves Mercato dell’Erbe”, an announcement stating that the city had agreed to pay for any unpaid rents in 2012 and 2013 and continue to pay them until 2022. Things were not looking up for Mercato delle Erbe.
From Foodie Limbo to Paradise
This past year, Mercato delle Erbe has undergone an incredible transformation. While the original fruit, vegetable and other gastronomical stands remain, an array of bistros and innovative eateries have opened in the peripheral spaces of the market, bringing in new life to the market as well as customers. The change marks an important milestone for Bologna, not only because it has managed save one its most important markets, but because many of these new eateries offer a new, contemporary style of eating and a new interior design – a major breakaway from the traditional Bolognese trattorias that have occupied the city for so long.
Matteo Lepore, the minister of economy, has said positive things about the market stating in a recent article published by the Resto del Carlino, “This is another step forward for Mercato dell’Erbe and is a recipe against depression. Bologna is changing: it is the city where business initiatives can be realized. Here you will be able to create new jobs. Moreover, the rediscovery of Mercato dell’Erbe by citizens and tourists has made it a point of identity for the city when speaking about food and wine”.
Walking into the Mercato delle Erbe now feels like walking into a blooming greenhouse. These new establishments have created a sort of urban green look and feel – the industrial walls and ceilings still remain but now there are plants, fresh colored paint, works of art being displayed on the walls which were once wasted. Almost every nook and cranny of the space is being used in some way or another. But you know what adds the most life? The people. The noise, the clinking of wine glasses together and laughter. The market has done its task it was originally set out to do: attract people.
The New Mercato delle Erbe: What to Expect
So what can you look for at the new Mercato delle Erbe? Here’s a list of the newest eateries and establishments (with a few others opening soon!)
- Banco 32 – a seafood tapas bar that brought loads of color to the fish market and transformed that unappealing fish smell into something wholly appetizing. Seating is available inside (near the fish market itself!) or on an outside patio
- Altro? – a contemporary restaurant with a good mix of contemporary and traditional dishes, as well as an extensive wine list; great place for lunch, definitely book ahead. For those seeking a more casual affair, within the same area as the restaurant there are also two or three corner bars owned by Altro?, offering pizza, sandwiches, wine, cocktails, coffee and other delicious nibbles.
- Mai Chan – a dim sum Japanese takeaway restaurant. My jaw dropped when I saw this as I couldn’t believe something so foreign would open here! I still haven’t tried it yet but it looks very authentic.
- Pollo e Patate – a roast chicken and potato takeaway spot.
- Vino e Sapuri – a small enoteca mainly focused on Sicilian and Pugliese products, but also wines from the local region.
The original market offers the following products:
- olive oil
- other specialty Italian products