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La Spesa Italiana: A newcomer’s guide to grocery shopping in Italy

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Italian vegetables for sale ()


Welcome to Italy, where the supermarkets or supermercatos are as full of life and color as the bustling piazzas and serene landscapes. For those who have just moved to Europe, navigating an Italian supermarket can be a delightful part of your cultural immersion. Let’s take a stroll down the aisles and discover what makes shopping in Italy a unique experience.

Fresh Finds

The produce section is a testament to Italy’s rich agricultural heritage, boasting a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables. Here, the concept of ‘kilometer zero’ reigns supreme, with an emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal produce. Do not miss the regional specialties like, Roman artichokes, Sicilian oranges or San Marzano tomatoes.

Also, remember that many supermarkets require you to weigh and label your produce before checkout. You will grab a bag and a plastic glove, bag your fruits and veggies, then head to the weigh station where the associate will weigh items and tag them for you. At more traditional markets, you will weigh yourself and apply the barcode sticker.

Salami sausage on display for sale hanging at a salumeria meat and cheese shop

Salami sausage on display for sale hanging at a salumeria meat and cheese shop ()

Deli Delights

No visit to an Italian supermarket is complete without a stop at the deli counter. It is a paradise of cured meats like prosciutto di Parma, salami, and an array of cheeses from creamy burrata to sharp pecorino. It is a cheese lover’s paradise here in Italy. While it is fun to shop at larger chains, don’t forget to stop by your local Negozio di formaggi (cheese shop) or Salumeria (meat shop). These are the best shops as you’ll have the opportunity to try locally made cheese and meats. Use Google Translate to break bread with your shop owner, I promise they will be helpful and happy to assist you.

Another moment to prepare for is the possibility of finding horse meat at the grocery store. While this may be a cultural shock to some, it is deeply rooted in parts of Italy’s culture.  Horse meat, or cavallo is especially popular in Lombardy, Apulia, the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Süd Tirol, Parma, and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Horse meat is used in a variety of recipes: as a stew called pastissada (typical of Verona), served as steaks, as carpaccio or made into bresaola.

Pantry Staples

The pantry aisles are a treasure trove of Italian culinary essentials. Stock up on various pasta shapes, artisanal sauces, extra virgin olive oil, sardines, spices and aged balsamic vinegar. These staples are the backbone of Italian cuisine and will elevate your home cooking. I was shocked to find several aisles devoted to these staples, especially pasta and pasta sauces. I counted three whole aisles for pasta and two for sauces at my local IPER.

Another item that may interest you is Pocket Coffee! Pocket Coffee is a unique item known for combining the rich taste of chocolate with the bold flavor of espresso. Pocket Coffee consists of an individually wrapped piece of dark chocolate filled with liquid espresso, making it a popular treat for those needing a quick boost.

Italy has an abundance of sweet treats that are packaged as well. You will find items like Cornetto which is a Croissant filled with different fillings like chocolate, pistachio and crème.

Famous Italian pastries in a traditional bakery

Famous Italian pastries in a traditional bakery ()

Beverages and Wines

Italian supermarkets offer an impressive selection of wines and beverages. There are aisles full of wine sorted by various regions. From robust reds to sparkling Proseccos, the wine aisles are a journey through Italy’s vineyards. Pay special attention, because at some supermarkets you can pour your own wine. This is called Vino Sfuso, or “Loose Wine.” Simply put it is bulk wine! Supermarkets often highlight a local producer, and you can simply bring your own bottles to fill, or they will supply the bottles for you at a low rate. There are even whole shops dedicated to Vino Sfuso!

Checkout and Etiquette

It almost seems like it is every man for himself at checkout. You will often need to bag your own groceries. Sometimes everything is happening at an alarmingly fast rate. Take a few deep breaths and just do what you can. It is also common to bring your own reusable bags as a nod to sustainability. Patience is key in Italian supermarkets, where the pace is leisurely (except at checkout) and social interactions are savored.

Embrace the Italian supermarket as more than just a place to shop; view it as a vibrant part of your European adventure. Buon shopping!

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