Instilling Italian-style healthy-eating ethics into a London community

Instilling Italian-style healthy-eating ethics into a London community

Liz O’Keefe

With healthy eating, fresh produce and community spirit at the heart, Mercato Metropolitano is set to open this week and start a brand-new adventure for south-east London. Produce Business UK takes a look around to see what opportunities the venture could bring for fresh produce suppliers

Set just off the very busy road of Newtington Causeway in the built-up, rather industrial area of Elephant & Castle, lies a bustling 45,000sq ft foodie haven in the making, Mercato Metropolitano. Visiting a week before the launch, it was open to customers but a work in progress, with an indoor cinema and an urban edible garden under construction, and spaces for pop-up food and drink businesses still to be filled in an ad-hoc manner. But the street food stalls and the main food hall Prezzemolo & Vitale were already attracting local workers in the area to the outside communal deckchair and picnic-table-style seating. 

Mercato Metropolitano - eating ice cream
​Locals have been attracted even before the launch

The brainchild of ethical entrepreneur Andreas Rasca, Mercato Metropolitano is a version of Rasca’s market of the same name in Turin and has taken over disused land and buildings in a two-year lease and a £1.2 million investment. The mantra is one of sustainable living; the two large food stall sheds hold around 20 food vendors each, but they all have to be small businesses, using homegrown produce and producers local to them, with absolutely no big brands and mostly family run.

“The western world has a growing dependence on industrialised food and products that are made in large volumes with a focus on sales, not quality,” Rasca says. “We have lost the sense of what our bodies really need. We don’t need something just to fill our bellies, we need nutrients to make our bodies and minds work properly. And on a social level we need good and tasty food to share with our friends and family.

“It is fundamental to us that all vendors at Mercato Metropolitano share our values and passion for food and high-quality ingredients. Before a vendor joins us, therefore, we ask them to tell us where they source their ingredients from and also about the ‘story’ of their food, which often has a strong link to their families or cultural background.”

As an Italian venture, one shed holds only Italian stalls and the other is a mix of other European caterers. There’s a really authentic and innovative feel to the food here, though; you can indulge in gnocchi fritters (more of a bread than potato) or salty, dry-fried gnocchi chips, focaccia but not as you know it from Manuelina Focacceria (imagine a pizza with the cheese in between two very thin pieces of dough and the tomato paste on top) and ridiculously good filled burrata and various other cheeses from La Latteria.

Mercato Metropolitano - Molino Vigevano
One shed holds only Italian outlets

Fresh opportunities

Soon to add Spanish and Japanese stalls to the market, Mercato Metropolitano is keen to involve UK fruit and vegetable growers. There’s a juicing bar on the periphery of the market, but what it is really lacking is a raw food bar or similar. All of the stalls are on different lengths of contracts to inspire diversity and a rolling change.

A fresh produce or healthy eating stall would sit quite naturally amongst the soon-to-be-finished farming and gardening patch down the side of the market; the Urban Garden Area. Rasca plans to bring workshops on how to grow your own produce, and produce vegetables that can be used in dishes and cookery demonstrations on healthy eating within the Elephant & Castle community.

“We have been working with [housing association] Peabody on creating a Children’s Urban Garden on the site,” say Rasca of the outdoor space, which already has vegetable-growing troughs and hanging baskets around the market’s performance stage. “We’re going to create a space for local children to enjoy: where children can come and help us grow vegetables, salad and herbs and then we would like to invite these children to use these ingredients to cook in our cookery school or take the fruits of their labour home. Aside from having lots of fun, we would like to help children learn where food comes from, what is involved in growing fresh produce and what freshly picked produce tastes like. We hope that instilling a love for gardening, will help encourage families to adopt a healthier lifestyle.”

Mercato Metropolitano - pizza
All vendors have to share the market’s values and passions

Supermarket Sicily

The food hall in Mercato Metropolitano is part of the family-run business Prezzemolo & Vitale, which has seven stores in Sicily. Importing most of its food, including fruit and vegetables, from Palermo, Sicily. With low lighting and large wooden boxes and stands for the produce, the food hall is like a country version of Wholefoods. At the time of the visit, there were huge elongated watermelons from Palermo and numerous types of potatoes and squash.

“All fruit comes from Italy as it’s possible because by boat three days,” says store manager, Laura Pizzo, working amongst the high-end juices and cordials, Italian sausage and hams. “We are London’s first Sicilian market and we want to bring as much of Sicily to London as possible, so we can share how good our produce is. Our watermelons are the best and so big – in Italy, you’d pull up in your car and put one in the boot, but here it’s a bit difficult with the tube and buses, so we chop it into halves or quarters so people can carry it home.

“With fruit it is possible and worth it for the taste, but apart from a certain variety of aubergine from Italy, which is best for making parmigiana on our deli and salads counter, we source our vegetables from Marigold Wholesale Suppliers. For the opening of the market, we will open street food outside the store, following the concept of the market. Fresh food is one of the most important offers in the market and we want our customers to buy as much fresh produce as possible.”

Recently described as “an oasis of calm in the middle of the chaos of a big city”, by a local resident, Mercato Metropolitano also includes a co-working environment above the food hall for locals to work from. “Elephant & Castle encapsulates what Mercato Metropolitano is about – passion and community,” continues Rasca. “We found a wonderful abandoned space on Newington Causeway and immediately saw how it could become an asset to this wonderful community. We want to have a positive impact at local level and help spread our passion for food.”

Mercato Metropolitano - cheers
Mercato Metropolitano: ‘An oasis of calm”

Mercato Metropolitano low-down

Where: Mercato Metropolitano, 42 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6DR
When: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 11pm
Drink: A Hearty Green smoothie (spinach, cucumber, apple) from Ginger & Mint fruit and vegetable juice bar
Most interesting stall: Champagne + Fromage – cheese and meat platters selected to complement Champagne
Must try: Badiani’s black sesame gelato and then the fresh mint gelato 




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