Marketable Thrills

A Look At Two Local Markets Loaded With Old-World Charm.

By Rebecca Cook

ONE OF MY most vivid childhood memories is of a first-time visit to Pike Street Market in Seattle.

Having lived my first few years in an almost exclusively Anglo suburban enclave, I was ill-prepared for the sights, sounds, cultures and sea air that collided four-square on the waterfront of the Emerald City.

Before that visit, I don't recall ever having heard a language other than English. My ears were treated to a cascade of tongues: Greek, Italian, Hindi, and a slew of Asian voices.

Produce and fresh flowers were heaped across tables, creating an array of colors so vibrant and intense that "eye-catching" doesn't even begin to cover the effect.

Chow Barrels of fresh fish, caught just moments before in the water lapping at the boards under our feet, were being dumped out amidst mountains of shaved ice and shuffled artfully into the various refrigerated cases for display.

Food stands were everywhere, selling anything from coffee and bread to Greek pastries with names I couldn't even begin to pronounce.

It was a bustling, exhilarating and electrifying place. Although slightly intimidated at the time by all this activity, I nevertheless tended the memory of that visit for years. Ever since, I've been drawn to open-air, specialty and farmer's markets.

Although Tucson doesn't boast seaside views, and the scent of salt air is supplanted here by the fragrance of creosote, we do have a few markets that reproduce, in scaled-down fashion, some of the kaleidoscopic spirit of Seattle's famous emporium.

The 17th Street Farmer's Market, 840 E. 17th St., nobly attempts to replicate a marketplace where diverse cultures and tastes come together to offer discerning shoppers the very best of cooking ingredients.

"It's an experience for your palate," says manager Joaquin Mar.

A stroll among the aisles reveals an establishment that caters to a wide variety of ethnic whims, with items so unusual that even well-traveled connoisseurs are given pause from time to time to wonder aloud what this is used for.

Far more than just a farmer's market for top-of-the-line produce, 17th Street over the years has become one of the best Oriental stores in town, with specialty produce and food items essential for Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine.

Long okra, yellow papaya, Chinese eggplant, opo, fuzzy and bitter melon are just a few of the unusual harvest goodies you'll find here.

The six-year old enterprise has expanded greatly from its original 4,000 square feet, having grown more than fourfold to 18,000 square feet.

Included in this expansion is a fresh fish market where you can expect an impressive selection. On a recent visit I spied whole striped sea bass, conch meat, baby octopus, whole cleaned catfish and yellow croaker, not to mention less unusual seafood such as shrimp of various sizes, mussels, salmon fillets, trout and halibut steaks.

The Russian-born fishmonger behind the counter, if queried, will happily guide you among his wares to the aquatic meal of your dreams.

If a ready-made meal of sushi appeals, Sushi Hama provides the 17th Street Farmer's Market with various rolls to suit your needs.

The regular produce, which comes from as nearby as Willcox and as far away as Florida, is sure to tickle your fruit-and-veggie fancy. And certainly the dizzying selection of teas will thrill the committed Anglophiles among us.

On a smaller scale--but one which is still great fun to shop at--is Roma Imports of America (627 S. Vine St.), a specialty market specializing in all things Italian.

If you are tirimisu fanatic (which I admittedly am), Roma Imports is one of the few places in town where you can always find the requisite mascarpone cheese for this dish.

It's also a grand place to stock up on frozen, homemade ravioli, cannelloni, meatballs and marinara sauce, which, if necessary, you can handily pass off as the result of your own efforts in the kitchen.

Without question, the Vassallo family, whose members have owned and operated Roma Imports since it opened in 1984, know Italian through and through. This is one place where, if you ask for gnocchi, the staff won't answer, "Gesundheit."

Espresso, multiple dried pastas, porcini mushrooms, herbed olive oils and specialty herbs and spices are scattered among the aisles of Roma Imports, which also boasts a scrumptious biscotti selection.

One of the Vassallo family is always behind the counter and will cheerfully help you with all your shopping needs, even as far as bringing your attention to a small box of cassette tapes of Italian music, the ideal accompaniment for a steaming plate of pasta, a bottle of Chianti and your own true love.

The only potential obstacle to visiting Roma Imports is finding the place, a task that may seem easy on the surface but which, if you don't follow these exact instructions, will have you wandering the neighborhood behind Miles Exploratory School for hours: Broadway to Highland, turn south; Highland to 16th Street, turn east; 16th Street to Vine Street (you're now back by Tucson Cable), turn south to 627 S. Vine St. Good luck.

Tucson may not have the marketplace scope of Seattle, Los TW

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