One of the best ways to save money while traveling anywhere is to make your own meals.
Luckily, a great way to get a feel for the local culture is visiting the town market.
Go to see what’s for offer, what the prices are, what’s in season. Watch the locals to find out which stand is favored, who will haggle and who won’t.
Though the idea of a weekly outdoor market is full of romance, these days most Italians are just as, if not more, likely to go to the nearby supermarket. Like us, they prefer the convenience, hours and impersonality of supermarket shopping. That said, even there you’ll find some differences compared to US markets.
Here’s how to shop at an Italian market:
Outdoor markets typically open only on certain days of the week and in certain piazze. If you’re in the area long enough to learn the day or you happen to catch one, stop in! The food is typically local and the people even more so. You’ll hear Italians joking, chatting and haggling. You’ll smell fish or chestnuts or ripe peaches, depending on the season. You’ll feel the crisp morning air (the best market experience is early morning) and see the vibrant colors of bell peppers and oranges, spices and olives. It’s an explosion for the senses.
The one thing you won’t do, however, is touch. In an outdoor market or even a small produce store it’s not polite to touch the fruit before ordering it. Though some may scoff, this is to protect the vendor’s produce from hundreds of thumbprints sinking into their delicate fruits and veggies. They want to keep them clean and edible, so observe and point. Trusted vendors would never give you something gone bad but as a tourist, you’ll have to do your best with your eyes and hope for the best.
No matter what, the local markets are a fun and interactive way to learn about the local culture, geography and food.
Depending on where you are in Italy, the supermarket may not always be open. Far from the 24-hour grocery stores of America, many supermarkets in Italy are closed on Sundays, closed after 8 pm, closed on holidays and some smaller ones are even closed another day of the week at will. That said, it’s still easier than an outdoor market that comes around once a week. I know the romance of Europe is in its quaint traditions like wandering a weekly market in a flowy skirt, but the truth is that most of us work these days and can’t manage to fight our way through the crowds of signore to get our weekly meals, stopping at a different vendor for each food category. The supermarket is a super convenient way to stock up your apartment or get snacks for a last-minute lunchtime picnic.
Though mostly the supermarket is the exact same as abroad equivalents, there are some key differences:
Bring your own bags
Italian supermarkets banned plastic bags in 2011 (though oddly enough not for produce, see below) and as such they don’t give bags out for free. Each biodegradable bag costs 10-15 cents. So cut out plastic even more and bring your own!
Have a euro handy for the cart
Each cart is locked to the cart in front of it. To unlock the cart you have to push a euro (or sometimes 50 cent or 2 euro cent piece) into the slot. You’ll get your money back when you bring the cart back and push the lock in. Or, you can eschew the cart altogether; Most city supermarkets are really quite small and not easy to navigate. Go for the hand basket!
There are two things you need to know about the produce section:
1) wear a plastic glove
2) weigh your produce
Don’t skip the plastic glove. They will glare. They may even make comments. It’s so easy, so put one on and keep it on until you’re absolutely sure you’re done choosing your fruits and veggies. Used for extra hygiene and safety, the gloves are found next to the plastic bags
As for the plastic bags, use it to weigh your produce. In Italy, the shopper weighs the produce. After filling your bag note the number of the fruit or veg and find a scale. There, either type in the number or push the corresponding button (usually there are pictures) and place the sticker that is printed out onto your bag. This is the bar code the cashier will use to scan your items. Without it, you can’t buy that item and you’ll hold up the line going back to weigh your produce and it’s super embarrassing.
Fish, cheese, deli and bread
The rest of an Italian supermarket is like a small Italian town all wrapped in one: salumeria, macelleria, pescheria, panetteria and, of course, dairy. You can find most anything already wrapped and ready to go, but for the freshest food and best prices, gather your courage and approach the counter. Blessedly, there is usually a number ticker used in lieu of a line (Italians are notorious for their weak line-etiquette). Then, you point to what you want and tell them the quantity, based on weight. A wonderfully complete guide to Italian supermarkets at Italy Magazine explains: “Usually, you ask for “Un etto di….” or “Due etti di…”, (“Un etto” is one tenth of a kilo, just under a quarter pound) or “Un chilo di….” (One kilo is about 2.2 pounds).” I’d suggest to start off small – you can always ask them to add more!