So much more than an open-air market in Trastevere, Porta Portese is a beacon of tradition, community, belonging, and friendship
Several Sundays have passed since I last wrote about Porta Portese and told you about my history with the market and shared my secrets to navigate it as a foreigner.
I’ve checked up regularly with Signora Retana, a promise is a promise. Carlo Selvi is busy as usual and added yet another table of visible treasures which have kept me busier. And, of course, an honorable mention to our incense guru Samuel. Wasn’t I right about him?
Well here is something I was wrong about…
Once I walked by a booth in Porta Portese and noticed a seemingly stern gentleman guarding it. He stared intently at every passerby and his gaze revealed just how fast his thoughts were racing. I was somewhat intimidated, but the appeal of discovering the booth was overwhelming. All its flickering colors ignited sheer curiosity and my hands drew closer but I interpreted the high-energy atmosphere to mean none of that would be tolerated here.
I bowed my head and moved along, guilty of jumping to conclusions about Porta Portese. Thankfully it’s been a while since I’ve felt that way, but at the time my mindset was this:
- At a market, no walls means no rules, be tough.
- I’ll do this as fast as possible because sharing interest shows vulnerability.
- I’ve been to markets and I know what to expect.
I don’t recall the exact moment it happened, but that all changed. Porta Portese soon began to unfold in front of me. Faces took shape as I opened my eyes. “The incense guy” became Samuel. The lady selling antiques who I thought looked nice… is actually nice! And the stern gentleman from the top of our story? Now I just call him “Zio Roberto.”
On this gorgeous Roman Sunday, I shuffle throughout the time capsule that is the booth of Roberto Bambino & Figlio of Cartoleria D’Epoca (+39 335 6511228). It is an antique stationery and collectibles cart located on Via Angelo Bargoni, just after street number 60. I look up to see Zio Roberto’s smile widening, challenging his face mask. I learned that the jovial twinkle in his eye is Zio Roberto’s appreciation for visitors admiring his collection.
He says “collection,” I say “historical artefacts that are frozen in time.” Forcing my gaze away from the candy-like baubles, I greet Zio Roberto:
“My Mother says hello from Florida,” and before answering me, in one quick motion, he turned and presented me with a small bundle that fit in the palm of his experienced hands.
He said “this is for your mother, tell her I said hello and to come visit soon.”
I challenge you to find such an authentic and human experience in a brick-and-mortar mall. Open-air markets seem to bring out only the most primal of our bartering instincts. It startles me what most of us will put up with in “real” stores just because they have roofs and doors, as if that’s so vital.
Yet at Porta Portese the feeling of being on guard and expecting a utilitarian experience seems compulsory at times, and why is that? At Porta Portese, the only doors you see are unhinged and probably for sale.
The uninspired sales assistant at the mall is replaced here with a passionate artisan or vendor proud to display the fruits of their labor and share their story. It’s as if many purchases here include a small gift: Humanity.
And when I think of artisans of Porta Portese one in particular stands out. The rock star of accessories, my friend Gianluca. He is the founder of “The Room” accessories and apparel (+39 3332504233). You can find Gianluca at the intersection of Via Ippolito Nievo and Via Francesco Benaglia.
Designs that are understated, trans-seasonal, rich with subtle details and crafted with Gianluca’s expertise. His vision offers that effortless and casual vibe that we are all fond of. One day I brought Gianluca a ginseng coffee with the intent of finding out more about his creative mind. We chatted about his designs and his inspiration over the decades as a designer and a dreamer. Gianluca had two great stories for every one of my questions. I personally found it inspirational.
And when I looked down at the perfectly proportioned leather satchel draped across my shoulder, I saw his stories in the details. I related to the tales and the bag felt more familiar. As we continue our conversation, my fingers suddenly itch at the idea of inspecting all of the adjacent T-shirts waving in front of me like proud flags. I see everything in his designs from hip hop to hipster. Almost immediately I spot one I like and grab it like it’s falling.
As my fingers enjoy the baby soft cotton I smile, admiring the print. “This is the one” I exclaim. I ask Gianluca about the playful pattern and he informs me it’s one of his first designs and for that reason one of the last pieces from that time. Something tells me I better act fast.
When you pass by Gianluca, stay a while and let yourself be inspired. You may rekindle that special connection when choosing something to accentuate your personal style. Sometimes the norms of today’s shopping experience deny us that. That unfortunate side effect is the reason I search for authenticity and why I cherish Porta Portese as it still protects those values.
Best Vintage Shops in Rome
A living example of these values is Mr. Pasquale De Lucia of Intimissimo Chic (email@example.com) located on Largo Alessandro Toja. As you near the enormous stand, a magnificent offer of vintage stock comes into view. Swimwear, intimates, pajamas, colorful socks (my favorite at 1€ a pair) and everything for “in between.” The charming and warm welcome is an added bonus.
The De Lucia family has worked for the last 4 decades in every market imaginable from the sun of Tuscany to the beaches of Puglia. Their 120 square meter showroom in Caserta is the heart from which their commitment stems. This team is no stranger to travel. They search out eclectic to classic and serve it to you at 5AM every Sunday. I stop here religiously and always find something different.
I ponder how he does it… so I ask. And as we chat, Mr. De Lucia reminisces of the many years in this industry. At times his story lulls when he is hit by nostalgia remembering the markets of days gone by. But he perks up when I show him a fun water bottle cover that I made using one of his vintage socks. We both enjoy a good laugh and taking the water bottle from my hand he says, “In all my years I’ve never seen anyone treat a sock this way!”
I take it as a huge compliment and left him with his new trophy water bottle as a thank you. It’s the right time of year to pass by and visit Pasquale at Intimissimo Chic. He’s got fun gear for the coming months and a contagious laugh, so watch out! As we exchange endless goodbyes I face the sun and walk forward to conquer the next display. I already spot the next mound of 3€ dress shirts and I dig in.
However, Pasquale’s sentiment stuck in my head. He is one of many vendors I speak to each week. Nostalgia sits on their shoulders. They recall the sense of community the market had and how quickly it became secondary as retail evolved.
Generations of families have visited together. Fathers and their sons shared early morning strolls just as Grandad did many years before. Vendors were introduced as acquaintances and trade secrets were passed along like cherished parcels.
I do what I can to help support this tradition and I can usually convince a friend or two to join me. They know I’ll introduce them to every vendor and bring them up to speed on one’s hidden treasures. I think it works out for all of us, They get great finds and I get to share one of the greatest experiences a Roman Sunday has to offer.
That very same night, I get Mom on a video call to give her her gift from Zio Roberto. What we both expected to be one tiny trinket ends up being a cornucopia of six treasures, each seemingly hand-selected by some cosmic, good force of nature. I steadily hold each figurine close to the camera, eyes widening as we stare. Each one evokes a memory. That time at the beach, Pop’s tools and how he cherished them, or even having a chuckle at the plastic blue ring which miraculously bared the first initial of my mother‘s name. A more personal gift you could not receive.
Next Sunday it’s my duty to pass on the thank you message from Mom to Zio Roberto. I’m not sure yet what else is on the program but, I can’t wait.
See you there or if you have more questions about Porta Portese contact me at www.derrickjonesstudio.com!
Piazza Ippolito Nievo – Via Ettore Rolli
Every Sunday from 7:00AM to 2:00PM