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Originally published Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Italy | Even Rome's famed produce market feels the squeeze

The early-morning chatter by the baskets of freshly picked spinach and blood-red oranges at Campo dei Fiori now rises and falls with an...

Chicago Tribune

ROME — The early-morning chatter by the baskets of freshly picked spinach and blood-red oranges at Campo dei Fiori now rises and falls with an edge.

"How many of those oranges make a kilogram?" a pensioner asked fruit peddler Lino Mattiussi, who quickly weighed three, then squeezed one dry to prove its juiciness. Mattiussi, whose family has been selling fruit and vegetables for generations, can't remember when so many customers have been so calculating on what they take home from Rome's most famous open-air market.

"It's a sign of the times," Mattiussi said with a small grimace as two shoppers huddled over the fresh produce that is a staple of the Mediterranean diet. "Prices have increased on every kind of good. It goes up 20 cents every step of the way now — from the wholesaler to the buyer. By the time it gets here, people really can see the change."

Rising world grain prices mean pasta, bread, risotto and even pizza have inched up in price. Inflation is troubling all of Europe as rising energy costs and rising food prices, often related, are taking a toll.

As voters cast ballots for a new parliament Sunday and Monday, Italy is caught up in a particular bind — in part because of a lack of competitiveness and in part because it relies heavily on the U.S., with its own economic troubles, as a trading partner. Growth is near a standstill.

Since January, prices have been noticeably higher in the picturesque piazza of Campo dei Fiori. Regular marketgoers — including foreigners who struggle with an anemic U.S. dollar — have whittled their larders.

In Milan, home to another heralded fresh market, the pinch plays out every afternoon. As the Italian daily La Repubblica recently noted, there is a particular kind of shopper who now regards the refuse with interest. They are nicely dressed retirees, often widows and widowers, sorting through near-rotten lettuce, tomatoes and lemons in search of free produce.

Mariapia Paciotti has been shopping at Campo dei Fiori for 42 years. Last week, she was gauging the potential of a single purple eggplant. Usually she needs a whole one to feed herself and her son for dinner. This time, she said she was going to stay within her budget because her 37-year-old son was on a diet.

"Thank God, he is trying to keep his figure," she said. "I can eat his portion, myself, for the next meal."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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