Secrets on how to navigate the open market of Porta Portese in Trastevere
The single best piece of advice that I can share about Porta Portese is this. The same rules apply to it as any important relationship you may forge in your life: You must have patience. You must earn trust. And you must keep an eye on your wallet.
Another suggestion which will help in your anticipated search, follow your style. Don’t arrive to Porta Portese with expectations. Unless you’re visiting a vendor who is selling new merchandise, having specific ideas for furniture or clothing will almost always send you in a tail spin. And you may miss out on a lot of other great stuff having focused on one specific item in particular. Think of it like this, Porta Portese tells you what you will buy.
As a faithful client of Porta Portese for almost 20 years, our relationship has definitely evolved. I started as the starry-eyed open market enthusiast and learned through trial and error how to overcome not only average Porta Portese obstacles but the additional challenge of being obviously foreign. It took a great deal of time and trial to arrive to my own personal Porta Portese philosophy. I spent years trying to be tough and haggle, prove my street worth to the vendors utilizing my applied Roman slang. They were subsequently unfazed. Then there were the years of always ensuring I had an Italian friend with me to try and fetch a fair price. While occasionally achieving noteworthy results, these methods were not fail-safe or consistent.
Suprisingly many locals themselves find it challenging to navigate and understand the complexities of Rome’s largest outdoor market. There is a small slice of locals that still do celebrate and patronize Porta Portese however, most modern-day Romans won’t have substantial advice to prepare you for your visit. People today prefer malls. People want it fast and easy. And people want new. This is understandable since Porta Portese is hectic, confusing and, even pre-Covid, not to enter without hand sanitizer.
But if you are like me and grew up scavenging thrift stores back home, shopping at Porta Portese is, well… in our blood. In the end I learned it’s about gaining trust. Once I adopted my new approach, the patience eventually paid off. And during the journey I even gained some life skills.
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For example, the first, not so hidden jewel, you’ll find parked in front of the former BNL bank in Piazza Ippolito Nievo, where the market starts. An overwhelming and frightening mound of scraps poured onto two large, barely clinging to their last life, folding tables. If you walk by quickly you may mistake it as overflow from the adjacent bins, but that just means you are in the right place. Digging deep, with no expectations and following your style, you may find worthy gems. Full-service vintage sets in boxes, custom framed original works, outrageous costume jewelry for craft or fashionistas alike. I can’t remember how many amazing finds I’ve recovered there. When you have finally made your selection just look for the person you would most be frightened to ask a question to. You’ve just found the owner of the table. First timers, be prepared for various prices. Because, while not written anywhere, the gentleman’s unsaid price for those who he knows is 1 euro. I mean 1 euro each thing, no matter what it is. You heard right. Buyer beware, if you aren’t a consistent shopper and he does not remember you, as happened to me once, all of the sudden it’s back to “special price”.
So how do you start your start earning respect here? Let’s start with some general pearls of what I’ve learned works and doesn’t work for me personally with vendors at Porta Portese. The approach may seem obvious but it may also seem unorthodox. It depends on the customer. Vendors respect enthusiasm.
I’ve learned from talking to them that a lot of these merchants started out working because of their passion. Passion for the product, the client-vendor relationship and you will find that, while times are tough, many are still proud to work there. Expressing your enthusiasm for their products is a refreshing exchange and demonstrates authenticity on your part. The first great tool in developing trust. Vendors respect sincerity. Is the price too much for you at the moment? It’s ok, let them know. It’s going to feel strange at first but it’s better. While you will most likely “think about it” that doesn’t do much for them. And letting them know a more specific reason may get the conversation going on the price you’d like to pay. Or if the reason is that the item is not as nice up close, let them know it’s not exactly what you had in mind. They may offer to show you something else as a solution. Sometimes it’s something not on display or something they can bring in next week. Either way you’ve been honest, you’ve created a connection and next time you see a must-have at their booth, you’ve laid the groundwork already for a beneficial relationship.
Vendors enjoy conversation. Maybe not so much of the “My mom had all this stuff too” genre. Alternatively, and particularly during these times, they do enjoy a chat about the weather. It sounds cliche but, they work outdoors. The weather sets the tone for them every hour of every day, and trust me, they never get tired of sharing opinions on it. Either way, you’ve singled yourself out a bit more in the sea of clients.
Vendors generally aren’t fond of the spirited selfie in the fur coat or funky hat or things of that nature. But nostalgia is one of the best benefits of shopping here and having fun is part of the visit. So have fun. At the same time, if you can patronize the vendors even on a small ticket item, they may be more inclined to let you take that photo. It’s a fair exchange and you’ve maybe got a new profile pic for social media. Also, I found that when you do need a photo to send to a friend for their opinion or you want to see what a coat looks like on you, let them know. Sometimes they won’t mind either way. But occasionally you’ll find a vendor who’s weird about photos and giving them a heads up helps. This is an added measure to avoid the short fuses of some vendors and ensure you have a good visit.
This last point is valid for all vendors you come in contact with at Porta Portese. Nothing works better than a good old-fashioned and hearty “Ciao, buon giorno!” You’ll observe that most patrons shout their questions at the vendors. It’s not often we would walk into a brick-and-mortar store and shout our questions at the sales assistant without a proper acknowledgment. Again, that’s what makes an open market atmosphere. We are not in a library. But if you are really interested in something and want to get your vendor’s attention, give it a try. A genuine approach may steer the conversation in your direction.
And all vendors seem to appreciate a good “buon lavoro” as you wave goodbye too.
That said, let’s get back to our friend parked out in front of the former BNL building. During your first visit to this booth, I recommend searching for small items. Look for trinkets that are almost guaranteed to be 1 euro. Trust me, from experience, he’s always got a few little somethings to add to your collection.
Acquire a couple at a time. This with your “Ciao, buon giorno“ partnered with a sincere ”Grazie,” and in just a few visits to him, you would have opened up your 1 euro product range.
After you wash your hands thoroughly and find room in your bag for all your 1 euro products, go directly in front of the booth in the direction of the big red food truck Ristoro da Righetto (T. 348.3351139). Do yourself a favor, recharge your batteries here. This mother and son team are an institute in the center of the piazza. You have to appreciate that they are there every single Sunday. Crafting those succulent sausage sandwiches or those incredible fried chicken sandwiches, reminiscent to me of times night clubbing in Testaccio. If you’re lucky, the booth selling vinyl records next to the food truck will be blaring oldies but goodies. How can you pass that up?
Our favorite booths at Porta Portese Markets
After that enormous sandwich, it’s time to walk it off a bit. I head to my guru of incense Samuele of Profumazione Etniche (firstname.lastname@example.org). Not only does he have literally every kind of essential oil and form of incense imaginable, it’s the best quality. Now to get to Samuele, who you’ll find about 50 meters south of Piazza Ippolito Nievo, you’ll be tempted to stuff yourself in the middle of the street and work your way down through the crowd. I have to say, a lot of times, it’s ok if you want to have a stroll. As time goes on and you become a regular customer of Porta Portese, that walk may start to weigh on your patience as you battle through the thick crowd, especially at peak hours. Do yourself a favor and take what seems to be the best-kept secret, the sidewalk. Even though most of the sidewalks flanking the vendor-filled streets have seating from bars or back stock from the booths, if time is of the essence or you want space to decide where to go next, hop on the walk.
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In this department I don’t have problems on making a decision. I almost always go from Samuele and stop over to my two favorite brick-a-brack booths, making my way back to Ippoilto Nievo, you’ll find the first one, signor Carlo Selvi (T. 329.0905545) and his classic U formation tables set up in front of Civico 22 market street.
What I love about this guy is, like me, he finds value in just about anything. He celebrates his products and always has a story behind each item. This is because he chooses it and when you select from his table, you feel that you’ve paid him a compliment on his personal taste. He has eclectic little objects that would pepper up any personal space to gorgeous antique jewelry that I have enjoyed giving as gifts. Carlo Selvi will often times have his son work with him. But as his son gets older and continues his studies, I see him less. I always ask about his son to make sure he’s doing well. It’s a nice change from talking about the weather.
No matter who I visit each Sunday I always pass by my favorite booth. Be warned, signora Retana (email@example.com) has got an incredible memory. She remembers everything I bought from her. And everything my friends and even my own mother has purchased. I love that about her. She knows her clients and is a true traditional merchant. I almost always have to leave something behind when I visit her for the simple fact that I can’t carry any more. Going through signora Retana’s booth is always like visiting my grandmother’s old buffet display. As I go through the always impeccable ceramics and glassworks she has, I reminisce. As I reminisce, I ask prices, and from there another enjoyable time is had and some great finds. What not a lot of people know is that la signora Retana usually has a bin of 1 and 2 euro items you can search through which you’ll find under the table on the right side. It’s not a secret but she won’t tell you from the get-go. I like looking through there for pieces to use in crafts. Not to mention one time I found a gorgeous set of vintage, colored drinking glasses.
“Arrivederci Signora, sempre un piacere, grazie di tutto”
“A lei, ci vediamo la settimana prossima”
“Senz’altro Signora, buon lavoro”
It’s ok that I don’t always buy something from the signora. We are cool like that. Today wasn’t one of those days. But at this point she may take slight offence to know that I was at Porta Portese and didn’t pass to ask about the weather. Like any good friend would.
Every time I walk back home, 250 meters uphill, sweating and weighed down by all that I had to have, I couldn’t be happier. Porta Portese is multi-faceted and its stories are infinite. This is kind of how it all started. Retail isn’t what it used to be and it may take a great deal to keep the authenticity of Porta Portese alive. I don’t doubt it will always remain where it is. But what will it offer and what will it teach you?
My life lesson learned from Porta Portese is that a little kindness goes a long way in the midst of chaos. My favorite game will always be: guess how much I paid for this?
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Piazza Ippolito Nievo – Via Ettore Rolli
Every Sunday from 7:00AM to 2:00PM