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Tips for Navigating an Italian Market
Getting around the grocery store in Italy requires spunk. Find out what it takes to make it out alive
by Francesca Di Meglio
A trip to a supermarket in Italy is a journey into Grand Chaos. No matter what time of day you arrive, there are always crowds of people circulating through every aisle. You usually have to carry a basket - often a heavy metal one - and load it with all your purchases. At the end of your journey, you will think that you're in line to pay for your goods, but that's not really the case. Trust me! I had to learn the hard way about getting household shopping done in Italy. Here, I share the secrets to successful grocery shopping:
All the places you'll go
The Italians have only relatively recently begun to have meat and poultry and deli departments available at the supermarket - and many people still don't trust this trend. Often, Italians, especially southern Italians, go to the macelleria (butcher shop) for meat and the salumeria (deli) for cold cuts. Some even make separate trips to a fruit and vegetable market and a cheese shop for staples like fresh mozzarella. With responsibilities at work and home piling up, however, this is slowly starting to change even in Italy. That said, if you want to whip up a truly authentic Italian meal, you might want to travel to each specialty shop for its expert staff and one-of-a-kind ingredients. In that case, your trip to the supermarket for spices, things like olive oil and vinegar, and necessities like household cleaning items will be the first of many. Rest up and stretch beforehand beginning your travels.
The wandering eye
Wherever you go to do your shopping, you should give yourself plenty of time to look around and see what's available. You'll find all sorts of wonderful things in the Italian markets - and you can bring some of it home as souvenirs. For instance, although you can not bring meat (not even dry sausage) with you when you travel overseas, you are allowed to bring cheese. Wine, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar are popular, too, but if you decide to bring those items, I suggest either buying them from duty free or packing them very carefully. If you like Italian espresso, pick up your favorite kind in Italy. It's usually much cheaper. I always get Illy for my father. And sometimes I pick up cake decorating items like a “Buon Compleanno” sign. Candy is another great item to bring home as a gift for a loved one.
Days of the Week underwear come in handy
Being keenly aware of the day of the week is supremely important in Italy. There are all sorts of penalties for not knowing the date - and the limitations that places on your ability to do certain chores. For instance, in Ischia on certain days of the week at various times, streets are closed. My boyfriend Antonio, who lives on the main drag in Ischia Porto, often ends up stuck with his car because he can't get it back to his house, thanks to the street closings on certain Monday evenings during the winter equinox or whenever the Ischia patrols feel like it. Why is this relevant to your trip to the supermarket? Well, because grocery stores tend to be closed every Thursday afternoon and evening, all day on Sunday, every holiday, and whenever the owners feel like it. They close every day for the siesta lunch at midday and re-open in the evenings. A suggestion to keep the stores open on Thursdays, too, led to rebellion on the part of workers and will probably never be mentioned again.
Plot your movements
Even though you should wander, get a feel for the place, and consider picking up items you didn't know you wanted or needed, you should still have a bit of a strategy. Make a list of what you definitely need to get or might want. Know which stores interest you and where each is located. Look carefully at the prices before you get to the cashier. Try to have the Italian translation for items and directions at the ready, so you can ask for help finding things. Never let the natives see you sweat. They'll smell your fear.
The long line
You'll need to be just as sharp, when you're ready to pay. The first thing you need to know is that there are no real lines in Italy. You'll see these groups of people herding around the conveyor belt, elbowing each other to be next. Little old ladies will come up to you and say they have just one item and they want to move ahead. Do yourself a favor and remember that they almost never really have just one item. You'll say yes and all of a sudden, their daughter will drag three baskets over to mamma. Even little kids will help their parents trick you by distracting you with their cute puppy dog eyes and silly barzelette (jokes). Next thing you know, you'll be at the back of the crowd near the shampoo and conditioner wondering how the hell you are ever going to make it home. Stand firm, keep your elbows out, and always move forward. Never ever take a step backward. Pretend to not understand when people ask to move in front of you. Don't ever let anyone push you. The Italians will respect you if you make it to the front of the herd and pay in a timely manner. Then, you can start calling yourself a true paesano!
For more stories about Italy and information on the author, visit www.francescadimeglio.com
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