To Market, To Market – the Mercato Experience in Italy

The mercato is an Italian tradition (photo courtesy of the author)

The Mercato is an Italian tradition that goes back centuries. Once a week, travelling vendors come to town, set up their movable stalls in a designated open-air location, and put their products on display. People come from all over to thrift for treasures, and locals pick up their weekly groceries. It’s a pleasant way to spend the better part of the day.

It’s Saturday morning in Figino, a small municipality in Switzerland just on the other side of the Italian border. We are on vacation visiting my in-laws. But on this day, we don’t enjoy the luxury of staying in bed, or even a quiet, leisurely coffee while our teenagers sleep in. Instead, we begin our morning quickly, without breakfast. It’s an early rise for the mercato.

Figino is near the major city of Lugano, which borders Italy by water. The Lake of Lugano is our path of transportation. We gather our things and head for my in-laws’ motorboat. Years ago, they upgraded to a larger boat with a cover and heating so they can use it year-round, especially for their weekend shopping.

Our boys carry the large-wheeled shopping bags with handles, their baseball caps, and sunscreen. It is approximately 7:30, and for teenagers, this is ridiculously early. But they are ready and willing to endure this early start. Within ten minutes we arrive at our destination. The main reason for such an early start is the limited docks available near the dogana or customs check. My father-in-law has his favourite spot and to get it we must arrive before the others.

The dock is an informal area, very close to the street that borders Switzerland and Italy. Just a few steps up, and a short walk to the physical border, and we are in Italy. Doganieri or customs officers monitor those passing through, but they mainly check the cars. The people walking are the regulars, and the doganieri don’t give them much thought; they know they are headed to the market.

Almost anything can be found at the mercato (photo courtesy of the author)

We make a mandatory stop before reaching the market, which makes our boys so happy – a local caffeteria to enjoy a brioche. In this area of Italy it is a brioche, while in other areas the same sweet is known as a cornetto. Either way, it is delicious. The boys have a spremuta d’arancia (freshly squeezed orange juice) and we adults have a cappuccino. Inevitably, we order one more brioche and maybe another cappuccino. It’s a simple and sweet tradition, and a special and cherished start to the weekend. Surrounded by locals having a cappuccio with their neighbours, we watch passers-by head to the mercato on a mission. The boys chat with their nonni, and we take in the morning serenity before immersing ourselves in the market crowd.

As we set off down the side streets, we hear the echoes of people heading in the same direction. Every street leading to the market gets crowded quickly; and everyone is set on finding everything they need for the week. There is no rush – the market is open all day – but an early start allows us to enjoy the morning before it gets too hot. The only relief the venditori have from the sun are the makeshift awnings that hang over them and their products, connected to their trucks or the fences behind them.

The market takes up a large area near a piazza in the town of Ponte Tresa. It is strictly a walking area. Rows of open-air stalls have been created to resemble an outdoor shopping mall. Each stall has a unique collection of items for sale. If you search carefully, you can find all you need, and then some – from meats and fish for the week’s dinners, to cheeses and olives, to tomatoes, watermelons, and salsicce to pastries. The food is abundant, and everything is fresh. In addition, there are plants, linens, clothing, shoes, appliances, gardening tools, and even small pets. The expression l’imbarazzo della scelta (literally “an embarrassment of riches”) comes to mind when perusing the mercato. The only limit is how much you can carry home.

Shoe display at the mercato (photo courtesy of the author)

We follow my in-laws’ rhythm to capitalize on time and quality shopping. We begin with honey. This has been our first stop since the boys were little. My husband’s parents have a quick conversation with the vendors, and they greet my boys like long-lost relatives, showering them with honey candies and compliments. Our next stop is another essential booth, this one filled with sausages, cheese, and cold cuts. The conversation begins with what meats are good this week for a family barbecue. How many will we be? Is there something for the little ones…? All is spoken with sincerity to make the family meal a success. A few new cheeses to try for lunch, a great deal on some pancetta, and we are off to the next stall.

All the fruit and vegetables we will have for the week are purchased in the next thirty minutes, with brief chats, big smiles, and many thanks. After that, we split up to search for treasures to bring home to Canada. My husband looks for some formal shirts, the boys peruse sunglasses, and I look for sandals and a purse to gift to a friend. Of course, we take the opportunity to practice our Italian with the friendly vendors. I try on some sandals and ask, “Do these look young? I don’t want to look like a little old lady just yet.” The vendor gives me some feedback and turns to her husband: “Isn’t this the pair of sandals I got for myself that I love so much?” “I don’t remember,” he answers. “What do you mean, you don’t remember. I’ve worn them three times already?” The hilarious conversation continues, and I listen and enjoy every second. Marriage, as witnessed in the market, can be entertaining. It’s the friendly and amusing atmosphere that brings us back to the market every time, and it’s a wonderful tradition we have created as a family.

Assortment of flowers at the mercato (photo courtesy of the author)

The sun is starting to beat down on us, so we decide to close our shopping experience by stopping at the gelateria close to the border. We each enjoy our gelato, before we head to our last stop, my father-in-law’s favourite edicola or newsstand. Time to get the weekly comic books and magazines for the other grandchildren. Topolino is my boys’ favourite and they learned quite a lot of Italian from reading them. With our bags full, we head back to the boat, the boys load everything up, and we are on our way.

At home, our boys help their nonni put everything away. We enjoy some of the fresh foods right away in a fantastic outdoor lunch. Going to the mercato is a simple errand that has become a treasured experience for my boys and their grandparents. My husband and I love it too, and we look forward to every early Saturday mercato morning during our vacation.

A graduate of Concordia University, Julia Chiarella-Genoni moved to Milan, Italy, with her husband, where she worked in fashion, lifestyle, and travel writing. She is the founder of, a blog dedicated to family-friendly living. She lives in Montreal with her husband and three sons, all of whom love traveling to Europe every year.

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