One of the greatest aspects—if not the greatest—of renting an apartment is having a kitchen to cook in. I love to cook and for years hotel life meant that I could only wistfully peruse the markets, buying only those items that didn’t need heat to eat. I would stare into a butcher’s case knowing that the thick bistecca within wouldn’t be grilled by me. Those tantalizing piles of handmade fettuccine? I had to leave them for something with means to boil water. Ripe vegetables of various hues looking pretty as a picture? Those seasonal beauties would have to wait for someone else. So I visited Italian food markets leaving with my culinary creativity aroused, but not satisfied.
Then we rented our first apartment and everything changed.
I could make the meals I used to dream about. I raced to the market, starting down a road where food shopping in Italy became the norm. When there, I grocery shop almost every day. Throughout the years, I’ve noticed some differences with grocery stores in Rome (and Florence) from the States. Since my experiences are mainly with shops in the city center where space is at a premium, my travel tips may not extend to food shopping for all of Italy. For travelers who are looking in those areas though, I hope the following travel tips provide some insight.
Food Shopping at an Italian Grocery Store
Italian supermarkets (Conad and Coop are two popular stores) have pretty much everything you need for cooking, cleaning, and basic hygiene, although there are generally fewer choices than you would be used to in a U.S. grocery store… except when it comes to pasta and canned tomatoes…in that arena they win the gold medal for variety.
General items: fresh produce, bakery, pre-made foods, deli, fresh meat/seafood, general merchandise, dairy, prepackaged cured meats & cheeses, frozen foods, alcohol, health/beauty, cleaning supplies, and other home goods.
- Don’t put your hands in the produce. You will create a major faux pas if you touch the fruits and vegetables with your bare hands. There are plastic gloves (guanti) provided near the bags for your purchase. Put on one and pick out your produce. Check the number on the bin. Bag it and go over to the scale. Enter the number on the bin and weigh your produce. Then print your price tag. Stick it to the bag and go.
- Eggs (uova—pronounced whoa-va) aren’t refrigerated. Look for them on a regular shelf.
- Bring your own bags or you have to pay per sack. The cashier will ask if you need one. Since you pay for each one, cashiers are sparing with how many they hand out. Be prepared to fill your bag to the brim.
- You will need to bag your own groceries. Think of it like an Olympic sport, because you will have to move very fast. Italian cashiers are very Bring a partner to help if possible. You will need to bag, pay, and get out the way quickly. If you’re paying with cash, the cashier will want as close to exact change as possible (I find this to be true all throughout Italy—no one seems to like to make change); this can be challenging as you will still be trying to frantically bag your groceries while balancing your wallet and looking for small euro coins. Before you know it, the transaction is done and the cashier is saying “prego” to the next person in line, which means to need to leave.
- I find fresh pasta (the packaged kind) to be much cheaper than in the States. Lower-end cured meats are also better priced. In general, the food prices in Italy tend to be comparable (if not lower) than those in mid-Michigan.
- Be prepared to spend quite a bit of time in the dried pasta aisle(s). The selection is spectacular. I zone out blissfully just reading the labels and seeing the variety of shapes and styles.
Shopping at an Italian Food Market
Lots of stalls allow you to shop at many different grocers in one place. You can comparison shop for the best looking fruit, veg, cookies, and meat. My favorite market is Mercato Sant’Ambrogio in Florence, but I also love Mercato Centrale in that same city and Mercato Testaccio in Rome. Food markets allow you to buy from local vendors and talk to them about how best to cook the food and what items pair well together. I’ve received fabulous cooking lessons when buying porcini mushrooms, spring peas, and fava beans. Similarly, the owner of a salumeria helped me create a charcuterie platter by suggesting cheeses to match various cured meats and olives.
General items: meat, seafood, cured meats, cheeses, produce, olive oils, wines, spices, flowers, fresh pasta, breads, pastries, cookies, dried mushrooms, prepared foods, and household goods. At non-touristy markets, you will generally find a flea market with clothes, jewelry, household goods, and other wares.
- Greet the stall owner with “buongiorno” or another proper greeting.
- Don’t touch the food, unless you are invited to. Just like how you need to use a glove at the grocery store, you should keep your hands to yourself at the market, too. The grocer will generally select the produce for you. They will determine ripeness based on when you say you plan to eat it.
- Order in grams or kilograms (if you want a lot of food)…100 grams (cento grammi), 200 grams (due cento grammi), et cetera. Alternatively, an etto is a 100 grams, so you could say “un etto, per favore” or “due etti,” and so on. Remember a kilogram is about 2.2 pounds, so if you want a little over a pound, ask for half a kilo.
- It’s okay to ask for a taste (un assaggio) of meat or cheese, or even an olive, from a market vendor. However, I once heard someone ask for “a taste” of a cookie. Basically, they wanted a free cookie. The vendor provided them the biscotto they asked for and then they walked away without even the pretense of buying something. Not cool.
You may want just to stop by a specialty store for expert advice on one type of food. Here are normal kinds of specialty stores I’ve seen in the big cities:
- Numerous bakeries…some will specialize in breads, pizza bianca, cakes, pastries, tarts, and more (look for names like forno, panificio, panetteria). If you’re looking for sweets, look for a pasticceria or a place advertising dolci (desserts).
- Butchers/fish mongers—look for a macelleria/pescheria
- Wine shops—look for an enoteca or vineria. You might also find olive oil here. Olive oil is sacred in Italy; it’s nice to learn about it from an expert.
- Chocolate shops—may be called a cioccolateria or a confetteria.
- Salumeria—might also be called a prosciutteria or gastronomia, this will be the place to get your deli fix. For cheese, you might find a separate formaggeria where they specialize in cheese.
No matter where you go food shopping in Italy, you will likely be delighted. It’s a great way to mix with the locals, practice your Italian, experience a different culture, and provide an alternative to non-stop eating in restaurants. Buon appetito!
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