Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shrimp on the Boot

The man in front of me is smiling broadly and I can't help but think how many of my female friends would enjoy this moment, walking past a handsome young Italian man so anxious to get my attention.

"Ciao signora giovane! Vi piacerebbe alcuni gamberetti oggi? O forse qualche formaggio?"

Unfortunately it's not because he is at all impressed by the American woman strolling along with a huge camera. He is asking me if I'd like to purchase some shrimp, or would I like some cheese?

A strikingly different experience than shopping at my neighborhood Costco in San Diego, perusing the stalls at the Monteruscello street market is like walking onto a movie set. The Italian man is proudly gesturing at a plastic tub full of shrimp energetically swimming in circles, their transparent bodies busy with moving parts. It's a far cry from someone offering up a cooked sample on a toothpick. Some Americans living in Italy call what I'm doing today "shopping on the boot" due to the country's boot shape. A 30-minute drive outside central Naples, Monteruscello is one of many small communities with an outdoor market.

Next to the tub of shrimp, giant wheels of hard cheese are split open and stacked on crates filled with more enormous wheels. This is cheese the deli of a supermarket in the United States would have to charge many more dollars a pound for, if they carried it at all. Here, it is not only better quality but far less expensive. Like everything at the market, items are either hours old or painstakingly aged for months and years.

"Grazie!" I thank him in my best, albeit very bad, Italian.

"May I please just photograph the shrimp?

Amused, the man steps aside and watches me point my camera at the bucket of busy crustaceans. Most people would scoop up the fresh fare before other shoppers could, but I'm too distracted by their aliveness. Somehow the idea of carrying a plastic bag home with my dinner still swimming in it is too much for this squeamish American. Mentally I chastise myself. I love shrimp and they would probably be the best I have ever eaten. With time I promise myself, I'll loosen up.

The cheese, however, is a must have. Along with orchard fresh apples; tomatoes and lettuce culled from a local garden just this morning. The prices are so low I have to stifle a giggle when a dapper looking farmer dressed in a sweater hands me a head of Butter Lettuce the size of a basketball for one Euro.

The market is magical in a theatrical way. Unlike farmer's markets I've visited in France and other parts of Europe, the Italian markets are startling with their amplified volume and colorful characters. Italians shout when they are happy, bellow when they are joyful, gesture wildly when trying to make a point, and get more indignant then angry. The market sounds are as much a part of the experience as the sights and smells.

"Benventuto! Buoni prezzi oggi! Grandi offerte! Come stai!"


Whirling around to the shout of someone just behind me, I'm greeted by another smiling face, inviting me to photograph him. The enthusiasm the vendors have for being photographed is surprising. It's as though I'm making each one of them a celebrity by snapping their images. Afterward they laugh and high five each other like I've handed them a winning lottery ticket.

The one exception is a tall, quiet man standing over a table of Mozzarella. He smiles shyly and turns away when I ask to photograph him, but quickly points to a round of soft cheese packaged in a plastic bag full of liquid to preserve it. Clearly he's been watching me navigate the market for pictures. I accept his invitation and photograph the unremarkable package, then notice his table holds a variety of soft cheeses including the coveted Buffalo Mozzarella. A culinary staple of Naples, this particular cheese is moving the needle forward on my scale at a pound a month. Some people crave pizza, some pasta. For me, it's this particular cheese.

Unlike Mozzarella made from cow milk, "Mozzarella di Bufala" is somewhere between cheese and butter. Thickly sliced atop a vine-ripe tomato, crowned with fresh basil and parked on top of freshly baked olive bread, the Italian delicacy packs the calories of avocado without the benefit of healthy oils. Regardless, it is winning a battle for priority in my kitchen. Every time I buy it I swear it's the last time for a while, but who can resist such a great deal? Resigned, I had him two euros and add the liquid-filled package to my booty.

Juggling multiple bags of market treasures, I readjust my camera case and begin the trek back to my car, reflecting on my expenditures. I've spent seven euros and enjoyed the lively scene for two hours. Larger than many street markets in Italy, the Monteruscello market only happens on Wednesdays and there is much more to see than I've seen today. Next week I'll be back. Waving to the vendors with weighted down arms, I pass the shrimp swimming in the plastic bin and tell myself, next time, they come home too.

Next time, I'm buying shrimp on the boot.