My dear friend Alida over at My Little Italian Kitchen recently interviewed me for her blog. She is an Italian living in England and wanted my perspective of an American living in Italy. She asked me about some of the challenges I encountered when I first moved to Italy. One of the things I mentioned was going to the grocery store. Now, a visit to the grocery store might seem pretty straight forward, but for me, it was a real challenge. Let me tell ya why. Well, in Texas we are used to getting into our big SUVs, going to buy our weekly groceries, having someone sack them, then driving back home. Here is what happened to me the first time I went grocery shopping in Italy. First of all, I had my two kids with me and I walked to the grocery store with the baby stroller – no car – yet somehow I had it in my mind that I could buy a week’s worth of groceries. So I hooked the small shopping basket onto the stroller’s handles and proceeded to load up. It was a total disaster, the aisles were so small, I kept blocking the way, I couldn’t fit everything into the tiny basket, I dropped a bottle of olive oil all over the floor. Yes! Disaster to say the least.
I think when most Americans think of food shopping in Italy, they have an image of leisurely spending hours every day at the open-air market, then onto the bakery, then the fish market and so on. But life is just as busy in Italy as it is in the States. And true, it is nice to have those places as an option, the reality is that most people are going to the grocery store here just like there. But just because they are also going to the grocery store, doesn’t necessarily mean the experience will be the same. So here are some tips and pointers to help you navigate the supermercato in Italy. And by the way, I highly suggest you visit a supermarket when travelling to any foreign country. I think it gives you a peek into the real-life and the vibe of the country and also makes you feel like one of the locals – not to mention all the new yummy foods you will find.
The Shopping Cart
There are two types of supermarkets in Italy. Most grocery stores in cities will be relatively small, and you will just need a handheld cart. It might also have an extendable handle and wheels. If you go to a bigger store, you will find the large type of baskets we are accustomed to in the United States. Or will you? I bring this subject up because there are some differences. First of all, to get the cart, you have to insert a coin into the handle of the cart. Usually, it is a €2, €1 or €.50 piece – or it SHOULD be. Sometimes for whatever reason, they will only accept one of those coins. This is a big drag because if you find yourself with no change or not the right change because then you have to go get change, then go back out to the parking lot. This system ensures that you return the shopping carts when you are finished instead of leaving them all over the parking area. See below for examples.
Another issue with the shopping carts is which one to choose. There is a certain kind of shopping cart that makes me nuts. These baskets have some kind of mechanism on the wheels that when pushed, the cart does not go straight, but instead kind of swerves. I tried to get a picture, but I guess the one below just looks like a cart in the parking lot set at an angle. But I can tell you that this is the position of the cart while you are pushing it. NOT FUN! I am sure there is some reason the Italians have these carts, but my advice is to get the one that actually goes straight. You can see the wheels without the addition in the photo below.
When choosing your fruits and veggies, you need to use the plastic gloves provided by the store. Gloves are called guanti, and you will find them right near the plastic bags.
Then you weigh and tag your produce on your own. Make sure you look for the code on the sign above whatever you are buying. The name is called tasto or tasto bilancia (tasto meaning key or button and bilanica meaning scale). In this case, the code is 143. So you take your bananas to the bilancia and hit 143 and out comes the tag.
Same story for bread. Only in this case, they give you the cute pictures on the scale. Sometimes there is a person there to weigh your bread and veggies – depends on the store.
I suppose this is the biggest nightmare at the Italian grocery store – especially if you are buying a lot. First of all, they will only give you bags if you pay for them. I understand this might be happening in the States now too in an effort to get people to recycle. Anyway, each bag costs €.10. But the scary part is having to empty the entire cart and run over to the other side and bag all your groceries yourself. I am not talking about the self-service registers, I am talking the full-on, put your huge amount of groceries on the conveyor register. The first time I had to do this, I had my screaming kids with me, all my stuff wouldn’t fit in the stroller, I was trying to keep up with the cashier and trying to avoid eye contact with the customers giving me stare down because I could not sack fast enough. I was dripping in sweat by the time it was all over.
I guess I have painted a pretty bleak picture of what it is like to go to the supermarket in Italy. It really isn’t bad, but I think for sure going almost every day is a better way to manage this task. I actually started enjoying getting the groceries once I knew what to expect.