Shopping for food is one of the activities like the most when I am abroad.
Going to open-air markets or visiting the supermarket is a true adventure and a great way to know a certain town or country better: the farther from your hometown you are, the funnier it is. There is a lot you can learn about a place if you go grocery shopping, so it’s an experience I totally recommend you, in Italy especially, where food is more than a religion.
Sometimes buying groceries abroad can be tricky though, as you may end up behaving in the wrong way, and this is why I have written a little informal guide on how to buy groceries in Italy so that you know what to expect when you visit (just like I did a few weeks ago with my post about how to order coffee without feeling too much like a tourist).
First of all, in Italy you can buy food at supermercati (supermarkets), mercati (open-air markets) and negozi di alimentari (grocery stores). Open-air markets usually take place once a week (most likely in the morning only), but in some towns you can find mercati coperti (indoor markets) that are open on a daily basis, Sunday excluded. So I recommend you check if there’s an indoor market in the center of the town you are visiting, since some of them are in very nice old buildings – like the Mercato Orientale or the Mercato del Carmine in Genova.
Open-air markets are usually the best place to buy groceries and especially fruits and vegetables. However, if you really want to buy good organic food, you have to look for mercato dei contadini (farmer’s market), which is usually very small but it’s where the produce is undoubtedly genuine and tasty. These kinds of markets weren’t that popular in the past here, but you can find them in most Italian towns nowadays.
There aren’t many things you need to know about markets, but there’s one golden rule: do not touch food. I don’t know how things work in other countries, just keep in mind that here in Italy it is considered quite rude to touch the food on market stalls. Sometimes, market vendors let people pick the food by themselves, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetables, but you have to ask for permission first: “Posso fare da solo/a?” (Can I do it by myself?).
Unless you are in a tourist location, it is unlikely for market vendors to speak English, so you may need some very simple Italian phrases. If you want to ask for something specific, just say “Vorrei” (I’d like) and then the name of the thing you want. Don’t know the name of the thing you want? Just point out at the thing you need and say “Vorrei questo“(I’d like this one). The vendor will then ask you “Quanto?” (How much?) or “Quanto ne vuole?” (How much do you want?). Then you need to know at least the numbers in Italian or go for “Un chilo” (A kilo) or “Mezzo chilo” (Half a kilo).
Some vendors might also ask you “Per cosa Le serve?” (Why do you need that for?), since the choice can be different whether you need to cook a certain fruit or vegetable or eat it raw. They might also ask you “Da mangiare subito?” (To be eaten immediately?”), so that they know how ripe that specific thing you are buying needs to be. If you are a foreigner and do not speak good Italian, they might avoid to ask you such questions, but they are quite common to be heard in markets.
If they are not too busy and if you feel confident enough with your Italian, food market vendors are great for asking tips and recommendations about how to cook a certain type of food. If you ask them “Come lo preparo questo?” (How do I prepare this one?), I am sure they will give you lots of suggestions about different ways on how to prepare such food according to the Italian tradition.
As I said, open-air markets are usually held only once a week, so people usually do their daily spesa (grocery shopping) at a grocery store. If you need to buy groceries in a small town, you need to keep in mind that grocery stores close during lunchtime: they are usually open from 7.30 to 12.30 in the morning and then again from 3.30 to 7.30 in the afternoon.
In small towns, it is quite common to have a small grocery store, selling a little bit of everything, and some other stores like panetteria (bakery), macelleria (butcher’s) and fruttivendolo or frutta e verdura (a shop selling just fruit and vegetables). This kind of stores are usually run by the owner and sometimes a few employees, so you need to ask them for what you need. And again, don’t touch food.
There are no specific rules here, just know that a smile will do wonders, even if you do not speak Italian. Basically, the questions you may need to ask are more or less the same as those for the market, with the additional “Quanto costa?” (How much is that?), as sometimes prices are not displayed – sometimes this happens at open-air markets as well.
If you need to buy cheese or cured meats, you have to tell the vendor the quantities you need. Usually, if you are buying cured meats, you ask for “Un etto di….” or “Due etti di…“, (“Un etto” is one-tenth of a kilo). or, if you are buying cheese, “Un pezzo di…” (A piece of). Usually, the vendor then shows you the piece of cheese you selected, so that you can choose how big the piece you want must be: “Così va bene?” (Is it ok like this?) is quite a common question, in this kind of situations.
If you need to buy things in bulk or just want to have some fun looking at what’s on the shelves, you can go to a big supermarket. This kind of stores is usually outside the center of town – or in the center as well, but in smaller versions – and is usually open non-stop from 9 in the morning until at least 8 pm. Upon entrance, you will usually find carts and plastic baskets. You can take them but keep in mind that you need a coin for the bigger carts. You have to use a coin to release the cart from the rack and you’ll get your coin back when you return the cart. 50 cents or 1 euro coins are good for this purpose.
Once inside, most likely one of the first things you come across is the fruit and vegetable area. These areas are self-service ones, so you can pick produce by yourself. However, before doing so, you have to wear plastic gloves and use small plastic bags (in some places, they are now replaced by paper ones), one for each different product. If you want to buy apples and bananas, for example, you need to use one bag for the apples and one for the bananas.
But there’s more you need to do: each product has its own number, so once you’re done with choosing, place the bag on the scale, choose the pertaining number, take the sticker that pops out and put it on your bag. You have to do so for each different product, so that the cashier knows how much he or she needs to charge you.
In big supermarkets, there isn’t much interaction, but you may need to exchange a few words with the cashier. The cashier might ask you: “Vuole una borsa?” or “Vuole un sacchetto?” (Do you want a bag?). Supermarkets usually give you biodegradable plastic bags but you need to pay for them. If you do not want to do so, just take a bag with you from home. Another common question cashiers ask is: “Ha la tessera?” (Do you have the card?), commonly referring to the reward or loyalty card.
Well, I think it’s all you need to know to buy groceries in Italy. If you have other questions, please leave me a comment!
If you are interested in learning more about Italian culture and lifestyle, I’d suggest you jump on my digital Vespa and join Be Italian For A Month, your 30-day virtual journey to Italy.
You will also learn some Italian words, you’ll receive some typical Italian recipes – ready to be cooked and enjoyed, you’ll get to tour around Italy, and learn about Italian traditions, proverbs, stereotypes, you name it. Plus, some cute surprises along the way!