Winding canals, romantic gondolas, Piazza San Marco and its opulent basilica—these sights are what 20 million visitors come to Venice and enjoy every year. But what about the people who live in this wondrous city? What are their lives like? Where and how do they live? And where do they buy their groceries?
Skye McAlpine, who writes the popular blog From My Dining Table, had the great fortune of growing up in Venice. It’s where she celebrated her wedding, where her son took his first steps, where she learned to cook—and where she buys her porcinis, figs, and fennel. In her debut cookbook, A Table in Venice: Recipes From My Home, McAlpine reveals the Venice that most tourists never see, through the lens of its food. On McAlpine’s list of regular spots is the Rialto Market (aka Il Mercato). It’s a cluster of stalls nestled at the foot of the famous Rialto Bridge (the oldest one in Venice, whose construction began in 1588), and has stood in the same place for hundreds of years.
Under the bridge’s archway and looking out over the Grand Canal, the market sells fruit, vegetables, cheeses, fish, meat, breads and spices. Like others around the world, it’s a hub of activity most mornings—but the locals who shop there have some strategies that are definitely unique. McAlpine let us in on a few of their secrets.
Venice is actually a cluster of 118 tiny islands threaded with canals and connected by footbridges. There are no cars to load big bags of potatoes into; no trunks that can hold a week’s worth of salad greens and fruit for breakfast and lunch boxes. So, McAlpine explains, she (and the typical Venetian) goes to the market every day, for the simple reason that she can only buy whatever she can carry home in a bag or basket. She doesn’t look at her daily market trips as a chore, though. “It’s really lovely. It’s a great place to shop, and makes the ritual of shopping really enjoyable,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, for a city surrounded by water, Venice is known for its seafood—and Il Mercato sells a staggering array of fish and shellfish, in addition to produce, meats and other foods. But seafood—and, for that matter, most other items for sale at the market—can’t sit out for too long. Venetians get there as soon as the stalls open (about 7:30 AM) and have usually finished shopping by mid-morning. By noon, everything has wound down, as sellers pack up and head home to have lunch with their families.
You’ve probably heard that Venice is sinking—and the threat of rising water is real. In fact, it’s such a consideration that hardly anyone has an apartment at ground level, due to potential flooding. Venetians are accustomed to carrying their market purchases up at least one—and up to four or five—flights of stairs. And, once they do get home, there’s not a ton of storage space. McAlpine says most Venetian kitchens are small, dark and old (and there are strict regulations about what you can build and how you can renovate)—so their inhabitants shop on a smaller scale.
Rialto Market is a haven for all things fresh, local, and seasonal. Plan your menu around what's growing at the time of year you visit, and you'll find an abundance of high-quality ingredients.
Head to the many other great food shops nearby—Rialto Market is surrounded by some of Venice's best specialty stores, including cheesemongers, spice shops, butchers, and more. Many of the best bread bakeries in Venice are clustered around the area, like Farini Bakery.
Have you shopped at Rialto Market? Let us know your favorite tips in the comments below!