Visiting an Italian grocery store or outdoor market can be a fun experience during your Italy trip even if you’re not stocking the fridge in your apartment rental or gathering provisions for a picnic. Exploring the culinary options of a particular place is always fun, especially for foodies. And if you are on a self-catering vacation, then picking up food is one of the first orders of business. Here, then, is what you need to know about shopping in Italian grocery stores and outdoor food markets.
There are plenty of Italians who still do their daily (or near-daily) shopping at a series of shops – the butcher, the produce shop, and so on. Larger all-purpose grocery stores do exist, though, in both big cities and smaller towns. As you can probably guess, the quality of fresh food isn’t necessarily as good at the bigger markets, but they win the convenience race. Smaller all-purpose grocery stores are known as “alimentari,” while a bigger shop is a “supermercato.”
Italian grocery stores tend to be crowded places, with narrow aisles. Regular grocery carts (albeit smaller ones) are usually available, but there’s a fee. The carts tend to be chained together, each one connected to the next, and each cart can only be released by inserting a coin (usually one euro). When you return the cart, pressing the chain back into its slot, you get your coin back. Most shops also have even smaller baskets, which can be carried and sometimes have their own handles and wheels. The smaller baskets are free, and much easier to get through the crowded aisles.
Perhaps you want something on hand in your apartment or hostel kitchen to make a more substantial breakfast than a pastry at the bar. Cereal and milk is easy, and so are scrambled eggs. Don’t look for the eggs in the refrigerated section, though. They’re on a shelf, and don’t need to be kept cold. Some milk is in the refrigerated area, while other milk is shelf-stable.
Fresh fruits and veggies make great snacks, but the system for choosing and buying them in an Italian grocery store is probably unlike anything you’ve dealt with at home. Near the familiar dispenser for plastic baggies (in which you’ll put your produce), you’ll also see a dispenser for plastic gloves.
There are typically some self-service ares with pre-packaged and weighed meat and cheese, but if you want something more interesting from inside the deli case you’ll need to ask for quanitity by weight. Italy uses the metric system, so – for reference – “uno chilo,” or one kilogram, is about 2.2 pounds, while “un’etto,” or one hectogram, is a little less than a quarter pound.
There are a few Italian grocery stores that will still give you a plastic or paper bag for free so you have something to carry your purchases home, but many will charge you for a bag if you don’t bring one. They’ll likely ask, “Busta?” or “Sacchetto?” which means “bag,” so you can answer accordingly depending on whether you’ve brought your own shopping bags. On a related note, this is why I carry one of these Flip and Tumble bags in my purse in Italy.
Most of the time, you’ll bag your own groceries. At the checkout counter, there’s a divider the checker can move so he or she can ring up the next person’s purchases while you’re still bagging yours and still keep the two sections from intermingling.
There’s a good list of different types of food stores in Italy here.
I’ve always found the colors and smells and sounds of outdoor food markets in Italy enticing even if I wasn’t doing any shopping. If you are stocking the pantry or picnic basket, however, they’re even more interesting. The shopping rules are a little different in the markets than in the grocery store, so here’s what you need to know.
The biggest rule is this: Don’t touch the produce! You’re likely used to choosing your own fruit or veggies at home, but in Italy the vendor will nearly always select them for you. You indicate what you want, and how many, and he or she will choose and bag them. Rest assured they’re not picking the “bad apples,” as it were – you’ll get good quality – but it’s also true that if you’re a long-time customer you get the choicest options.
Some vendors will ask what you’re doing with your purchase. This isn’t them being nosey, it’s so they can sell you the best item for your purpose. A baking apple is a different thing than an eating apple. Vendors can also give you produce based on when you want to eat it, so if you want to eat it that day (rather than let something ripen on the counter), say “per oggi” (which means “for today”) and they’ll choose the items that are ready to be eaten.
At larger markets, where there is more than one stall selling the same or similar items, you can sometimes judge quality by the lines. Locals know which stall has the best peaches, so follow their lead if you want the top quality at that market.
Keep in mind that even if you’re not buying anything at a market or planning to do any cooking at all, wandering through an Italian market can inform your dining choices, too. Go through the market to see what fruit or vegetable seems prevalent, or what fish names look common from one stall to the next. This is an excellent way to learn what’s local and in season, so you can look for those items on restaurant menus later.
Sometimes there will be only one day each week that a food market is set up in a small town center. Some cities have a place with a food market every day. You can do some searches online for the destinations on your itinerary to find out when and where the food markets are in the towns you’re visiting, or ask at the tourist information office when you arrive. Also note that many of these outdoor markets also have lots of non-food stalls, too, selling everything from housewares to clothing to CDs.
Note that the Italians have swapped commas and periods when writing numbers from what is used in the United States. For instance, an item that cost two euro and 50 cents is written €2,50 while an item that cost one thousand euro is written €1.000.
I have always loved this video made by my friends at Cross-Pollinate that not only has great shopping tips for Italy, but shows that it’s so easy even the kids can do it.