Mediterranean in Little Italy: Cooking Tips from a Florentine Farmers Market
Chef Olivia Hayo of Beautiful Food Inside + Out re-creates her culinary memories of the Mediterranean using inspiration, and local, seasonal ingredients, from her home in San Diego's Little Italy. This week, memories of Florentine farmers markets inspired a dish of grilled local veggies dressed in tart vinaigrette and sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts.
The late spring sun beat down on the Arno River sending waves of humidity through the streets of Florence.
My sister, mother, and I had left the bustling metropolis of Rome and welcomed the slower of pace here. We chased the shade of the copper-domed cathedral, the cool patches of pavement guiding us on a meandering tour of the city.
Scoops of strawberry, pistachio, and hazelnut gelato distracted us from the rising temperatures as we made our way deeper into the quiet of the neighborhoods surrounding the city center.
We passed a busy street food cart where locals paused for a workday lunch of lampredotto, a roll soaked with the rich broth of the braised meat it was stuffed with, and topped with a spicy red or herbaceous green sauce.
Nearby, lazy cats adorned stoops overflowing with spring blossoms. The floral scents mixed with the aroma of ripe fruit wafting from the outdoor market, barely visible up the road.
The vendors stood among stalls of produce, each arranging their tables with neat piles of baby eggplant, deep green zucchini, fragrant spring onions, and fresh herbs from the morning harvest.
By then I had learned that the shopping etiquette in Italy is quite a bit more formal than it is back home. Unless there are bags, and sometimes even gloves, within reach, you need to ask, or rather, politely point to the items you’d like to buy. The vendor will take care to pick the best from the pile in any amount you want.
I pointed to a basket of small ruby red strawberries, signaling with my cupped hands that I wanted about two handfuls worth. A man with work-worn hands gently scooped them into a paper bag before weighing it and signaling the price by raising two fingers.
We grabbed a seat on the shaded steps. I opened the crinkled bag of strawberries and held it out my mother and sister. The green tops were so small and tender that we ate them whole, leaves and all. Just barely cooler than the warm spring day, they tasted earthy and jammy.
As I listened to the hum of the market, I caught the end of a conversation between a vendor and a customer. The vendor recommended grilling summer squash and spring onions and serving them with just a squeeze of lemon and drizzle of olive oil. He held the tips of his finger to his lips and kissed the air to emphasize just how delicious the result would be.
As the days grow longer I look for any excuse to the fire up the grill and daydream of my time in Florence. So, this week, as I walked the Little Italy farmers market, smelling the fragrant berries, taking in the piles of early summer vegetables, and listening to the happy hum of voices, I decided to pick up some summer squash, baby eggplants, and spring onion in order to create my own take on that Florentine vendor’s recommendation.
The resulting dish combines charred zucchini, smoky eggplant, and sweet spring onion with a punchy vinaigrette, toasted hazelnuts, fresh mint, and savory ricotta salata. I think the Florentine vendor would approve.