What you should know about Italy’s new food capital
Modena’s food reputation looms far larger than the town of 185,000 residents. It’s home to Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (often listed as among the best restaurants in the world), its handmade pastas featuring prominently in the second season of Netflix’s Master of None. And there is a deli older than America serving up the prized charcuterie and cheeses of parent region Emilia-Romagna.
Nowhere is that culinary tradition more on display than at the Mercato Albinelli in the center of town, where visitors can wander its rainbow aisles, brimming with varieties of cherries in every shade of red, green walnuts for nocino, and bulbous purple eggplants.
For almost a millennium, Modena’s market was an informal collection of sellers on the nearby Piazza Grande. But in 1931 it moved inside the wrought iron facade of the current Art Nouveau building, giving the casual outdoor market a permanent, formal, and stunning home—one designed to modernize the city as well as improve the safety and hygiene of the food industry. The national historic landmark still serves as the city’s culinary heart while also drawing tourists with its gallery-worthy displays of fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, and pasta in every shape, color, and size.
There is also actual art displayed here: At the center of the market stands a statue of a young girl holding a fruit basket, made by Modena’s famous sculptor Giuseppe Graziosi. But the statue is more than just a thing of beauty. It tops a fountain that runs with clean, potable water, a small but important part of the indoor market’s mission to improve city life. For those without clean water at home, this fountain’s fresh water provided a sanitary station at which they can wash their produce. It’s a small gesture, but one that shows that the town wants to welcome all comers to its feast for both the eyes and the stomach.
Throughout the market, this sort of dual purpose of functional beauty stands out, notably at the giant slabs of pink marble carved into tables that serve as fish counters. The stone insulates the ice to keep the fish cold and wipes clean at the end of every day. Atop the great slabs of Verona marble, the fishmongers spill their ice and stack their display with enormous octopuses, freshly shucked scallops, and translucent orange shrimp. Branzino, squid, clams, mackerel, and mussels sit behind glass shields atop the clean ice, kept cold by the marble.
There are 65 stalls around the market, including a famous sandwich spot (Bar Schiavoni). Along the outside sit the butcher shops—one of which is specifically for horse meat. And if you look up the white tiled walls, above the metal rail of hooks for hanging meat and up into the upper corner of each butcher shop, you see another of the ingenious designs of the market: a tiny hole. That hole, it turns out, is a secret passage, allowing each of the shops to quickly and conveniently access their sanitary cold storage, without it taking up space in the small stalls.
The market is open every day except Sunday and even has evening hours on Fridays and Saturdays, with 65 stalls serving everything from the traditional specialties of the region: various ages of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, locally aged balsamic vinegar (which has little to do with the saccharine imitations found in the United States), and of course, the pasta fatta a mano, made by hand into the region’s famous tortellini (as well as tortelli, tortelloni, ravioli, gnocchi.) Charcuterie shops show off prosciutto—the region’s best-known specialty—but there’s also shelf after shelf of pancetta, coppa, lonzino, speck, and a half-dozen types of salami.
And finally, a pastry case holds a stoplight of tarts: a green sweet herb pie, bright yellow lemon, and a crunchy sbrisolona, a traditional almond cake upgraded with Nutella and tart cherry jam made in Modena.
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