Buffalo mozzarella balls stuffed with black olives vie for attention with piles of freshly baked focaccia and pizza steaming hot fetched out of a huge clay oven in a huge, sprawling Italian food market and community hub in one of London’s more edgier neighbourhoods south of the river Thames.
The brainchild of economist, committed dreamer and food enthusiast Andrea Rasca, Mercato Metropolitano lies in SoBo, (the ironic, or perhaps not, name of of the area south of Borough High Street), an area of London Bridge so far unloved by developers, artists or hipsters. Similar markets exist in Turin and Milan and several more are planned, not least in London.
Andrea is an ambitious man, in a gastronomic hurry to share his love of good wine, friends and craftsmanship. He has a serious love of food and drink and what it can for people and communities. His latest brainchild, Mercato Metropolitano, has just landed in London and aims to gather the things that bring people together …. food, music, catching up with friends and perhaps even making new ones.
A plate of hot Gnooco Chips flavoured with melted butter piqued my interest and I happily ate several as a prep to more tastings. Fish in cones, tortellini with meat sauces served with a chilled craft beer allows diners to eat well for under £10, with change for a gelato for the walk back to the office.
Monochrome menu boards and signs tempt with offers of coffees, wines, fish and ham made with Italian-grown or processed ingredients and hand crafted in the onsite kitchen. Stalls are opening regularly in preparation for an official September ribbon cutting. Such innovation is welcome in London, offering genuine interest in how food is grown, prepared, sold and eaten. It’s an exciting place to be.
Find it in south London behind huge wrought iron gates, a step off a pavement and busy road connecting Elephant & Castle and London Bridge districts. It’s here a little bit of Italy has landed. Thousands of square feet floor space spread across several early 20th Century paper making factory that have seen better days have been given a creative/industrial/modern-gastro make-over.
Some British and international food, including Roti Chai from India, will also be available, but the overall vibe is of lemons, 00 flour and Barolo wines.
This is not theme park eatery, with out of work actors with hammy faux-Italian accents and badly fitting uniforms. The accents are those of Italians, family members of the companies setting up stall and for many willingly having to improve their English. This is a place of rough-hewn, bright wood has been sawn, hammered together to create booths with on-trend monochrome signs, menus. It’s a sign of trust in Andrea’s hopes and ambitions that so many producers are prepared to setup business in London, moving families and kitchens to London’s first Mercato.
Colourful tables and chairs invite people to pick and choose lunch, tea or dinner. Throughout the market around 1,000 people can sit, eat, chat and east some more on solid wooden benches and long tables or thin metal chairs and tables for chic, café feel. Perhaps, a plate of those bite-sized Gnocco Chips, or a handsize dough parcel originating from northern Italy, particularly around Modena, or a mozzarella cheese ball stuffed with an olive, shredded basil leaves or chopped sun-dried tomatoes.
Made onsite by experienced Italian dairymen, known as casari, the range of cheeses include burrata (a soft cheese similar to mozzarella). Fiordilatte (again similar to mozzarella, but made with cow’s milk) and buffalo mozzarella.
Ciabattas and other breads are baked on site, and a huge pizza oven will soon be fired up. A wine shop, with an enviable selection of bottles from up and down the country with plenty of biodynamic or organic wines, is a must visit.
You’ll also be able to munch on handmade tortellini, house-roasted coffee and gelato, ice cream made by family steeped in the traditions of Florentine gelato using only milk, cream, eggs, sugar and real fruit: no other preservatives or chemical flavour enhancers are allowed anywhere near.
This re-imagined market is how Andrea and his team see the future of markets, as socially sustainable model of food retailing packed with small, artisanal producers who make their product with passion. “We take pride in developing a strong sense of belonging as we connect producers and clients, recreating the connection between soil and food,” he says.
This is very much a market for local people, with a cinema due to open in September and above the supermarket, a boxing club with gym and ring, and above a creative hub and business centre to inspire local entrepreneurs build their dream business.
But the community offering doesn’t end there. A cookery school is planned and a street food market is already up and running, alongside the family-run Palermo, Sicily supermarket Prezzemolo e Vitale and in-house cinema
Local schools will be invited to plant, nurture, harvest, cook and eat fresh fruit and veg from lettuce and tomatoes to potatoes and sunflowers.
(All images (c) The Lemon Grove 2016)