How to Buy Groceries in Italy



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 insures 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 advise 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 is 143.  So you take your bananas to the bilancia and hit 143 and out comes the tag.  20151113_133313


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.






53 Comments on “How to Buy Groceries in Italy

  1. Sounds a lot like going to the supermarket in the UK as well Diana, a bit of an endurance test!! We’ve just got back from the States and just love the shopping experience there, especially when they bag everything up for you, heaven!!

    • Hi Joy! Yes….the Americans do it right in the grocery store. Then also…it is a great job part-time job for a young person as well. I had no idea it was the same in the UK. It is a workout for sure!

  2. Love the cheese pic! I never have cash with me so I’ve found myself longing for a shopping cart many times but having to make do with a basket you carry. I hate that!

      • Just thought of you. Was just at store – it’s packed bc Thanksgiving is tomorrow. they had a guy unload my groceries to put them on belt for me, then he sacked all of them and THEN a guy in the parking lot helped put them in car for me! So nice! 😊

        • whooohoooo!!!! Love it! and I love those guys too…so clean cut and polite!!! Happy Thanksgiving…I will call later. 🙂

  3. Pretty similar to the Netherlands, too, though more of the stores aren’t making you do the weigh/sticker thing for produce nowadays. They’ve got the scales at the register, I guess, as in the US. However, there are a few items you still have to weigh yourself and inevitably, I forget, because I’m out of the habit and suddenly I’m at the register and have to run back and weigh it. Never fun. We shop daily now, in part because we have a tiny fridge. Grocery shopping is definitely an adjustment, not just for the new names!🙂

    • You know Alison….after I started doing it daily, it became kind of a nice experience….you buy just what you need, you throw away a LOT less…you make friends with the people at the market….it takes five minutes to put everything way. It is a much better experience doing it every day or every few days…..

      • Of course, if you can get the boyfriend to be the one to go daily, it’s even better, except when he takes forever to go.

  4. I learned the hard way about your entire section on the produce, but after that reprimand from the check out lady, I’ll never forget! Very much enjoyed your post and I completely agree with you about visiting a grocery store when you are in a foreign country. A great window to everyday life.

  5. Brings back memories of England! I had the very same experience at the checkout the first time I went grocery shopping by myself in England. People were not very forgiving either. I loved the grocery stores, but the checkout experience was daunting. And the carts!! Don’t get me started. I’ve knocked over more than a couple of bottles of olive oil trying to steer one of those things. Great article, Diana!

    • Hi Carrie!!! Gosh……so funny thinking of you in England with your cart…….gosh……something that seems so easy, can be the nuttiest thing ever…sometimes you just don’t realize how good you have it, til it’s gone – right??? Wishing your whole family a wonderful Thanksgiving!!!!!

  6. Who needs a gym membership? Forgive me Diana, I couldn’t help but laugh when you described your “workout” at the cash register with your kids. Avoiding eye contact as well….yeah, it has happened to me here in the states as well. Here, as you mentioned, it is very simple and the checker does all the work. But with screaming kids….it’s just a challenge. Thank you for a very enlightening post. Loved it:)

    • Hi Susan! OHHH…if you only knew the whole story! I have to tell you that one of those first trips, when I got home, and took the baby out of the stroller WITHOUT taking off all the bags hanging from the handles, everything came tumbling down..including the bottles of red wine I bought (badly needed after a day of grocery shopping) – – – but they all broke. Right there at bottom of the stairs of the apartment. So I had to bring up the kids, bring up the groceries (no elevator), then go back down and clean up all the wine and glass. It was sooo fabulous living in Italy those first 6 months. 🙂

      • The trials and tribulations of being mom plus navigating in a foreign country…you totally deserve a gold star Diana! Thanks for sharing…it brought back some memories of my own when mine were small.

  7. I didn’t realize we had it so nice in the US. I buy lots of fresh produce and it would be definitely annoying for me to weigh and mark everything. Here they just do it at the cashier and they have a pretty fast system. Also most places I go have baggers which is really nice. You also have the option of self checkout if you prefer and lines cashier lines if you only have a few items (less than 15) to go faster.
    In Mexico the experience is very similar. We actually tip the baggers there.

  8. Great post Diana. I would have loved to read this before the first time I went grocery shopping in Italy. I may not have embarrassed myself so much. I agree with you about getting the local vibe. I always try to make an effort to go in to the local supermarkets wherever I am in the world.

    • Hi Lyn! I know….I was completely unprepared myself….you can see my response to Susan to see how the saga continued when I got home. 😦 Yes – – completely unprepared……

  9. People often comment that I must love strolling around lovely markets in Italy and refuse to believe me when I tell them most Italians push huge trolleys around supermarkets. I find the bagging of the items the biggest challenge. You are trying to bag the groceries, get them back in the trolley, pay, get your change of card back in your purse…all with the next customer breathing down your neck. The change is never handed to you, but put on a plastic tray where it is almost impossible to pick it up easily.
    I try to go to markets when I can, a much more pleasant experience.

    • Hi Debra! Yes…I love going to the markets too…but sometimes, ya just gotta get to the huge Carrefour or Iper or whatever…..and yes….I forgot to add how the Italians do not believe in personal space…so for sure they are breathing down your neck…..very stressful the supermercato…

        • Great response Debra….gosh…I had one guy who started putting stuff on the conveyor BEFORE I had finished….so I didn’t have enough room to unload everything and had to hand each piece to the cashier……then to pay it is the same thing…they have their carts blocking the area where you take your change or sign the credit card slip….I mean…what I don’t get is…where are they going??? How much time are they saving by doing this stuff? In fact – – they are wasting time, because it takes me a lot longer to hand the cashier my groceries one piece at a time than it does to lay it on the conveyor. Italians are so funny sometimes….

  10. Ugh.. The horror of supermarket shopping with kids!! This actually brings back the anxiety I felt the first few times I went shopping as a newcomer then again as a new mom. You did a great job describing the experience! Complimenti!

    • Hi Sonia! ohhh….poor you with three kids! Uggggg….and in those tiny stores, it is REALLY difficult! Complimenti a TE!

  11. Interesting insights into the cultural differences between the US and (I guess) a lot of Europe, as a lot of this sounds very familiar here (e.g. paying for bags, loading the conveyor and packing your bags yourself).

    I agree about visiting stores when in another country – I always find a trip to the supermercado very interesting when in Spain.

    • Hi Graham…yes, I admit that we (Americans) are super spoiled for convenience and daily life here requires a lot more work….still…it is a nice life and provides lots of funny topics to write about. Ahhh…the supermercado in Spain….so many new foods! Yes……I just love checking out the cool food and even the packaging….you know instead of “chocolate” it is “шоколад” in Russian! ha, ha, ha….I mean, just look at that word! Fabulous! And even hanging with all the Russians or Spanish while they do their shopping – – it is a very nice way to REALLY be with the locals. love it.

  12. A very helpful guide! In Canada, at least where we live, the carts require coins as well. It does seem to keep the parking lots tidier.🙂

    • Hi Sue! I must admit it REALLY does keep things in order…and after living here so long, you would think I would go prepared with the coins….but about 40% of the time, I gotta get a coffee, then come back out to the parking lot. gggrrrrrrrr….

        • well….errr…I have tried that for years now…but guess what happens??? I am out doing errands…and I want a coffee…which in Italy costs exactly 1 euro…and I often run around with ZERO cash….so what do i do?? yep…I spend my cart coin on coffee, then forget to replace it. I admit it! Hubby gets so mad when he goes for the cart coin only to find the big: NADA…

  13. Great article! What I really find it boring is having to weigh bread, fruit and veg and of course bagging in a hurry that’s a pain too! People get so cross if you are slow!
    In the UK at least you don’t need to weigh anything although you need to bag your shopping yourself. They do charge for bags here too now but that’s a very recent thing which is a good idea really.
    Thanks for the mention have a good evening!

    • Hi Alida….yes…you know what I really hate? When I try to tag 2-4 different kinds of veggies at the same time,(I try to memorize all the codes), then I get to the scale and forget all the codes and have to make the rounds again! GRRRRRRRRRRRR

  14. This sounds a lot like a Dutch supermarket – especially the no bagging thing! I don’t have kids, so I can only imagine how stressful it is to try to bag everything with them around! Already on my own, I get quite stressed when I’m buying a lot of stuff because the conveyor belts are so small that everybody’s things just pile up😛 (To be fair my supermarket is right downtown so maybe they’re not as bad in small cities/residential areas?)
    We also have the scales, and when I first moved here I would constantly be sent back to the scale to weigh my food… With tons of annoyed people behind me! I think they learned that this was a waste of time though because now they hardly ever get you to do it yourself. Progress!

    • Sophie! ARRRRGGGGG…you don’t know how many times I forgot to weigh my food! yay…..finally there is someone doing it! TOTAL progress!

  15. Being Italian, I’m used to get groceries every couple of days, the overall weight is not much and fresh products are consumed on the same day as purchased. Plus, am I the only one who doesn’t like baggers?😀 when I was in the US I really didn’t enjoy that, having someone bagging my groceries always in the wrong way…

    • Hi! Yes…for sure getting the groceries once every few days or even every day is much better and a lot more fun too. And you are right there with my hubby….he would always laugh at the American baggers who would put 2-3 items in each bag. 🙂

  16. This is great information Diana and would save a new expat a ton of grief. When we travel, if possible, we rent apartments so we’re able to do our own cooking, which always means supermarket trips. We’ve done it in a bunch of countries, and while each experience is usually different than the US, it’s amazing how many small differences there are. The single biggest unknown is the whole issue of weighing produce. Your example is one way, but in Greece for instance, there’s a person who weighs it for you, and God forbid that you try to weight it yourself. Personally, I’m always relieved to see the tiny pictures instead of entering a code. And on our trip through the Balkans recently we had Cyrillic to deal with as well. Oy vey!🙂 ~James

    • Hi James! I just LOVE going to the grocery store of any foreign country…..and you are right….there are small differences…..but those are the ones that make for the funniest stories – – – such as having to figure out Cyrillic! Ha, ha, ha….FABULOUS!!!!!

  17. We are moving to Torino next month from Kentucky. I really enjoyed reading your post as I need as much help as I can get! My hubby and I did a housing trip earlier this month, but move our entire family over in early January. Luckily, he had been given a heads up from his coworkers about many of this…but I didn’t know about paying for he cart. There was a local supermarket here that did that, and Aldi still does…people balked about having to pay for their carts, tho! You’d think they asked for a driver’s license or something. Anyway, we have our reusable totes ready and even bought one when we visited this month. (Side note, a local Kroger has started allowing people to scan their items as they walk through the store and bag as you go. So I’ve become slightly familiar to the whole scan your own items and label them deal. I sort of preferred it! I’m a U-Scan guru!)

    • Hi Emily! Thanks for stopping by! Wow…..from Kentucky to Torino….that will be quite a change! I am only an hour away so we can keep in touch. Please feel free to email me if you need any help or have any questions. In the meantime, happy holidays and have a good move!

      • Thank you so much! Yes, it is a big move for a family of 6. We are moving with hubby’s work, so they are doing a lot of the work for us. Right now, we are making piles of our stuff for air shipment, surface shipment, airplane and stays here. I will definitely be in touch once we get there! Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, etc and so forth. We arrive on the day before the Epiphany. Good timing so hubby will have a holiday as we arrive! 😉

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