At the Market with Dad

Suggested Wines: Vernaccia, Giannina (Grape: Vernaccia); Terre di Tufi, Teruzzi e Puthod (Grape: Vernaccia, Barrel-Aged)

If you look in any guide book about Lucca, youll find notes on the Piazza dellAnfiteatro, a Roman amphitheater dating back to the second century. For tourists, the piazza is a curiosity, an oddly shaped public square ringed with stylish boutiques like Mamma Ro linens- like the Anna Magnani character in Pasolinis Mamma Roma- and Il Vecchio Funaio gift shop. But when I was growing up, the piazza was Luccas busiest fruit and vegetable market, a lively link in the food chain. Piazza dellAnfiteatro was where merchants, farmers, housewives, and restauranteurs congregated to buy and sell the earths bounty, where Papa went three or four times a week to stock the restaurant.

The people who lived and worked in the piazza- we called them piazzaioli (people from the piazza) sold an abundance of fresh vegetables and produce. So did the stalls of the farmers in the middle of the piazza, who came from the country, sometimes by foot, from as far away as twenty kilometers. Everyone seemed to have a half-dozen children- all as loud and boisterous as their parents- and everyone helped sell, whether from a shop, stand, cart, umbrella, basket, or whatever makeshift business operation the family could pull together.

Until 6:45 a.m., only vendors were allowed to pass into the square. Everyone else was kept outside. The crowd would grow and grow, and then at 6:45 sharp, a guard would ring a bell and open he gate. I remember the first time Papa asked me to go with him to Piazza dellAnfiteatro. I was about twelve, and as we were swept into the middle with all the other shoppers, I thought I would lose Papa. There were so many people and sounds and smells, it made me dizzy. It was April, and there were asparagus and strawberries and green beans after long months of only oranges and broccoli rabe. There were women in black dresses with black kerchiefs on their heads and baskets on their arms. There were men in dark vests and rough linen shirts. Everyone was shouting over one another. They had such strong voices. La mia insalata a piu bella di quella di Giovanna! (My lettuce is better than Giovannas!) Tre limoni 50 lire! (Three lemons, 50 lire!) They yelled at my dad as we passed by, Biondo! Vieni qua! (Blondie! Come over here!) He talked to certain ladies, the prettiest ones, it seemed to me. After the second or third time I said, Papa, Mamas at home, why are you talking to those women? In answer, he gave me my first lesson in purchasing power, Im getting the best prices possible, he explained. It always pays to be nice to the people with the best products.