Tourism and food are intertwined within the Italian culture. Eating at restaurants may be something you especially look forward to when planning a vacation to Italy, but dining out for every meal can get quite expensive and perhaps tiresome on a trip of more than a few days. For a different experience, book lodging with cooking facilities, so you can buy food and prepare your own meals. Not only can this save you money, but the cultural exploration of local Italian markets and food stores will be equally satisfying as the restaurant scene.
There are four main food shopping options in Italy: outdoor markets, specialty shops, grocery stores and supermarkets. Each one provides the shopper with a different experience. Here are a few basic things to know about shopping for food in each of these.
The outdoor market represents an ideal retail experience for the vacationer hoping to engage with Italian culture. Typically held once a week and most likely in the morning, outdoor markets are comprised of multiple stalls with vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables, local cheeses, fresh bread, meat and fish, as well as seasonal items. Prices are reasonable, but you can try bargaining to get a better price. Some larger towns and cities may have indoor markets that are open daily. The most important rule to remember when shopping at these markets in Italy is not to touch the food. If there is something you want, just ask the vendor. The vendor may ask questions to help with making the best choice for you, such as whether it will be eaten immediately, or what type of dish you are making. Even without knowing any Italian you can simply point to what you want and use hand signals to communicate how much. Spend time perusing the market before making your choices. Many markets will have multiple vendors selling the same items, so pay attention to which stalls are most crowded because the locals know who has the top quality.
Since outdoor markets are only held once per week, buying as the locals do at specialty shops is another excellent cultural experience for vacationers. In many Italian towns shopping for food involves visiting several different local stores, including one establishment for meats and cheeses, another for fruits and vegetables, a bakery for bread and pastries, and the fishmonger for fresh fish. These small shops are often family run businesses and chatting with the owner may provide a new perspective on the area. Be aware that the local shops usually close during midday for several hours, ranging anywhere from 12:30 to 3:30, and they are not likely to be open much past 7:30 pm. Similar to practices used for outdoor markets, the individual shops, particularly produce stands, are not self-service. The shopkeeper is likely to choose items for you, though may indicate that you can make your own selections.
The grocery store is the primary place for food shopping in many parts of Italy. In addition to selling dry and canned goods, frozen foods and dairy items, the neighborhood grocery store, or “alimentari”, will have a small deli counter. The deli counter is where you can order meats and cheeses, and even get fresh bread. A larger grocery store may sell some produce and packaged meats as well. These establishments also close for several hours in the middle of the day.
The supermarket is a fourth option for stocking up on some food while on vacation, but the cultural experience is less interactive and personal than the other options. These establishments, which typically stay open continuously from early morning until at least 8pm and tend to be located outside the center of town, are a good choice if you need to buy something in bulk or are missing the US big grocery store experience. Supermarkets offer the convenience of one-stop shopping but not the freshness of food found in the small central shops. Unlike the first three options, you pick your own produce at most supermarkets, but are likely to find plastic gloves that you are expected to wear while selecting items.
Whether it is going to outdoor markets, visiting the local shops or making a trip to the supermarket, shopping for food in Italy can be a true adventure and is a great way to experience the culture of a certain town or region of the country.