Thursday, October 10, 2013
Campo Dei Fiore, Field of Flowers
Of all the tourist attractions in Rome, the Campo Dei Fiore seems to be the most active, both day and night. In the morning the large piazza transforms into an open air market for its lively neighborhood of residents and craftsmen. Surrounded by restaurants, bakeries; shops selling food specialties, fresh meats, and wine; it becomes a magnet for tourists seeking a more personalized view of Roman life. At night it becomes a destination for impromptu entertainment.
In the morning, at first light, produce and flower vendors are setting up their wares. Tables and umbrellas are set up all across the campo. It's difficult to distinguish the umbrellas of the restaurants that encircle the campo from those of the vendors, so from a distance the market seems larger than it's actual size.
Kitchen wares, tee shirts, umbrellas, aprons, the produce, flowers, plants, dried pasta, spices, honey and preserves, olive oil, truffles, as well as balsamic vinegar and various condiments sit side-by-side in this world renowned market.
Some vendors present their products as perfect gifts to take home; for instance, the olive oil and balsamic vinegar that's packed together in cellophane and tied with ribbon or spice mixes packaged with the name of the campo. Make no mistake about it, that bag of dried vegetables and spices has nothing to do with Carbonara, which is a pasta made with guanciale, eggs, pepper and cheese. It would, however, make a decent soup base or flavoring for a tomato based, vegetarian, pasta sauce. I find it difficult to believe that any native born Italian would have put this product together and said it was a preparation for pasta Carbonara.
The truffle products are hard to beat, but don't cost very much more at home, if you can find them. I bought a small jar of Urbani white truffle salt and brought it home. It is much more fragrant than any other truffle salt I have purchased to date. Perhaps it's because the vast majority of truffle salts are made with black truffles.
On Saturday you might find more clothing such as a sweater stand. It's apparent that the current focus of most vendors is on the tourist trade, so if your interest is in seeing a functioning neighborhood market, Esquilino and Testaccio may be a better choice. If you are lucky enough to be renting an apartment with a kitchen in this area, then the market and surrounding shops are excellent for making your own meals. These are a few of the items I put together while visiting this neighborhood: A cheese plate consisting of Pecorino Romano with an onion, balsamic, cranberry and apricot jam; a sheep's milk ricotta, the creamiest and sweetest I have ever tasted, with a balsamic and dried cherry reduction (I cheated and brought the cherries and cranberries from home); Goat's cheese and mascarpone covered with walnuts and honey; a meat based pasta sauce; smoked salmon carpaccio with olive oil, lemon and fresh oregano; and various sandwiches made with freshly baked rossetta rolls and pizza bianca pizza from the bakery and cold cuts from the salumerie.
Several vendors stood out, perhaps because their displays were so beautifully manicured, but others were noticeable for the personality of the vendors themselves. Leo, the owner or manager of the best looking produce in the entire market was very engaging. One day he asked my name and where I was from, then handed me off to an employee. The next day he introduced me to yet another assistant, but by my name and home town. While I would not call that a pitch, it did produce a sale. The selection of produce was quite wide in range and if you were wondering about the pine cones, you've heard of pignoli or pine nuts, right? The last photo is one of chestnuts, wearing their overcoats.
Prospero, the 78 year old Roman answer to Ron Popeil, was wooing customers with his kitchen tools that shredded, sliced and corkscrewed vegetables. He did this while singing Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo. Who could resist such a pitch? Although his prices were firm, he insisted that if I used his name, the man selling cheese would be happy to offer me a discount. I had to wonder if the cheese monger knew about this "sconto" (discount). By the end of the day when the magic was over, Prospero, much like Cinderella's coach, disappeared and all that remained was a pumpkin, or in this particular case, carrot shreds.
Because of the large number of restaurants surrounding the campo, it becomes a convenient place for your morning cappuccino. You can watch the hustle and bustle of the market while you're leisurely sipping your drink. During the day the menus change from pastries and coffee, to pasta, panini and pizza. In the early evenings you can still find something to snack on. If you need that cappuccino or tea, don't be shy about asking for them if you can't find them on the menu. As I worked my way through the sea of restaurants I found that many were willing to accommodate you with these drinks, even the pizzeria and mozzarella bar.
If you're looking for good pastry to go with your coffee, I would recommend that you buy them from a bakery rather than at a restaurant. The selection will be much better and fresher. I would direct you to Il Fornaio, the long-standing neighborhood bakery two short blocks away on Via Dei Baullari, the street that bisects the campo. You'll recognize it by a large plastic case holding a huge mortadella, or in this case, a large roasted porchetta. This bakery is also very good for sandwiches and focaccia or what the Romans call Pizza Bianca.
Forno Campo Dei Fiore is a bakery well known for baking excellent Pizza Bianca and sandwiches made with it, but their pastries are few, mostly biscotti. I recommend it for take out sandwiches when you are on your way to walk along the Tevere river just a few blocks away. If it does not seem to you that there is enough Mortadella in that panini, keep in mind that in Italy sauce is a condiment for pasta and used sparingly, and cold cuts are used in the same way, since the bread is the most important element.
Later in the evening, when the vendors have packed away their goods and left the area, the bars start attracting young customers from all over the city. Those too young for the bars, work their way to the gelaterie in the area, but always end up in the campo.
Hungry yet? Not only are there 10 or more restaurants in Campo Dei Fiore itself, you can also find many more clustered on the side streets. They range in price as well as quality, serving the classic dishes or more imaginative renditions of the classics, all the while using seasonal ingredients. The seasons can be long in Italy, as was evidenced by fresh artichokes and asparagus in October. Hopefully the tradition of eating locally and seasonally has not gone the way of the siesta, a 2-3 hour break in the middle of the work day.