Yesterday I spent the day sightseeing…a very welcome change from grocery shopping. A lot of people probably think that we’re over here on a 3 month vacation soaking up the sun, the sights, and the food. Not quite. We are definitely enjoying all that living in Italy has to offer, but that’s the big difference: living in Italy and vacationing in Italy are entirely different experiences. It’s one thing to go all out for a one or two week vacation and eat out all the time, trying all the great food and seeing all the sights you can possibly pack into your allotted time until it is time to go home, or you break the bank, whichever comes first. Living here is very expensive. Especially for Americans who are paid in US dollars. The exchange rate adds an extra bit of sting to an already pricey endeavor. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it though, you just have to spread out your adventures or you’ll be in poverty within a month of arrival.
Eating out, for example, isn’t something Hubby and I do all that often in the States, so it’s a treat to go out for dinner while we are here. Truthfully, our best meals have been in our apartment with the exception of our lunch on Sunday in Treviso. Best restaurant meal we’ve had yet. So far, it seems to me that it isn’t that the Italians know some magical fancy way to prepare their food that makes it an unattainable goal for the common American cook. It’s their ingredients. They’ve got the most spectacular ingredients here, and they’re respected.Simple preparations allow the great ingredients to shine. The fresh meats, produce, and cheese here are incredible. For example, I’ve made some of my recipes from the blog since we’ve been here (Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions which is quick and easy and requires very few ingredients, and Fresh Tomato and Mozzarella Panzanella) and without changing the technique or anything else in the recipe other than that the ingredients are from here in Italy, the final product is familiar but so much better (and it was delicious before!).
Assuming you’re not filthy rich from a royal inheritance or something, it’s not reasonable to go out to eat all the time. And for me, more so than to save money, I love cooking and enjoying dinner at home. Homemade really is always better. Even in Italy. If you’re going to cook at home in Italy, you’ve got to start by buying groceries. The following is a list of things I’ve learned the hard way during my grocery-shopping adventures over the past two weeks, and my recommendations for other Americans who find themselves in a similar situation.
Things to know before you go to the store:
1. The hours of operation:
Most shops, bakeries, produce markets, etc. close for a few hours each afternoon. The time can vary, but it’s safe to assume that anywhere between 1-4 pm is a risky time to shop. Also, many supermarkets are closed on Sundays, and pastry shops and bakeries are often closed on Mondays. (Lots of things like shops/monuments/museums are closed on Mondays in Italy, so be careful when planning your trips/tours also.)
2. Bring your own bags:
If you’re not fluent in Italian, you may find yourself confused when the cashier rattles off some questions before even beginning to ring up your items. She is probably asking you if you brought your own bags. If you didn’t, there is a charge for bags (not expensive). If you did bring your own bags, give them to the cashier at this point. I highly recommend bringing a few fabric tote bags that will comfortably fit over your shoulder. Just remember, whatever you buy, you have to carry home.
3. Make a bilingual shopping list:
I have found that my most successful shopping trips have been when I have translated my grocery list into Italian ahead of time. This is a great way to study your food vocabulary, but it also saves time while you’re at the store so you don’t have to type everything into your translator all the time. You also can point to it when trying to ask where something is.
4. Know how to buy produce:
The produce in Italy is great. You just need to know how to buy it.
If you’re shopping at a little produce stand or at a Saturday market, it is NOT self service. You need to tell the owner what you would like and how much. Fortunately, everything has a label on it, so you will know what each item is called in Italian (or you can just point, but it’s better to try and speak as much as possible). It’s a bit more tricky to tell them how much you want of something. Peaches and apples and items that you can buy individually is easy. Cinque pesches (5 peaches), Tre mele (3 apples), etc. I get more nervous when buying items that are described by weight. At home, you could just ask for a half pound of sliced meat, or a pint of cherry tomatoes. Here, everything is weighed in grams and kilograms, and it’s harder to envision the amount when you’re not accustomed to it. For example, I usually just ask for the cherry tomatoes, and then say “di più” for more, or “meno” if I would like less.
If you’re shopping in a supermarket, you need to know the protocol.
First: there are racks with the plastic produce bags (just like in the U.S.). The top of the rack holds the bags, the middle of the rack contains plastic food service gloves, and the bottom is a bin for discarding used gloves. You must wear gloves to touch the produce.
Second: Once you have your gloves on and your bag in hand, you can put your selected item into the bag and tie it closed. There will be a number written on the sign near each item. Memorize it or write it down. This number corresponds to a button on the computer/scales located throughout the produce department. (Some stores only have one scale/printer, others have several.)
Third: Set your bagged item on the scale and push the button with the correct number on it. A bar code label will print out. Stick it on the bag and you’re all set. Be sure to throw your used gloves away in the bin on the bottom section of the bag rack.
5. You may need to go to several shops: For the best ingredients, you’ll need to buy your meat and cheese from the meat/cheese shop, your fish from the fish shop, produce from the farm stand or weekend market, bread from the bakery, pastries from the pastry shop, etc… It is a bit more trouble, but it’s worth it and it tends to be less expensive than shopping at the supermarket.
6. Where to find the eggs:
Eggs, “uova”, are not refrigerated here. They’re super fresh, so they are stored on a regular supermarket shelf. Sometimes on an endcap. They’re typically packed in cartons or 4 or 6 eggs, or they’re available in bulk and you can pack them into the provided cartons yourself. (Again, be sure to put gloves on first.)
Milk, “latte”, is sold in 1000mL (1 liter) cardboard cartons or plastic bottles. You can find it at most little markets, including some bread shops. It is available in whole (“intero”), part skim (“parzialmente scremato”), and skim (“scremato”), although skim is not as easy to find in our town. Part skim tastes most similar to our 1% in the U.S. although I am not sure of the exact fat content.
If you really want to enjoy great Italian bread, you need to buy it from a little local bread shop. They’re everywhere, so finding one shouldn’t be difficult. There are 2 within walking distance of our apartment. Ordering the bread can be daunting without knowing the language. First, be sure to look around when you enter the bread shop and check if you need to take a number. If so, take a number and make sure you know what it sounds like in Italian when you’re called. (This is where the Google Translate app is very useful. You can download the Italian dictionary so that you don’t need to be online to use it… then you type something in to translate it you’ll have the option to have it pronounced for you also. That way you’ll know exactly what to listen for.) Most loaves of bread have a hand-written sign, so you should be able to say the name of what you want, and the quantity “due ciabatta” (two ciabatta) and so on. Pointing at what you’re talking about seems to help in the event that you’re pronunciation leaves a bit to be desired. Also, most little bread shops will only accept cash.
Sliced sandwich bread is available at most supermarkets. The loaves are smaller than what we have in the U.S., but the bread is quite good. Most are made with all natural ingredients, which is a nice change compared to the U.S. supermarket bread. (Have you read the label on your bread lately? Here’s my recipe for Homemade Honey Wheat Sandwich Bread for when you do.)
9. Baking Ingredients:
Buying ingredients for baking has been my Everest. Italy does not use vanilla like we do in the U.S. They add vanilla flavor to most of their baking ingredients: sugar, baking powder, etc…instead of adding vanilla extract to their recipes. They don’t use a direct equivalent of our baking powder, or active dry yeast. There are various types of yeast and leavening agents for each type of baked good–bread, desserts, pastries, pizza, etc. I am all for trying the local ingredients, but when it comes to working on recipes for the blog, I need to make sure that my results are reproducible with U.S. ingredients (since the vast majority of the readers of this blog are American), so for now: no baking with baking powder or active dry yeast for me. I did know enough to bring my own vanilla (Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Paste, to be exact), and I also brought a variety of my own herbs and spices from home. I did that mainly to save the time and money of having to purchase them when we got here, but also because I like my arsenal of Penzey’s spices (if I have to use dried herbs and spices, which I don’t use too often). Fresh is best.
Flour, “Farina” is available in several varieties. If you’re looking for the most similar equivalent to U.S. All-purpose flour, go with the “00”variety. There are several types that are recommended for different applications, and they’re written right on the bag: For pasta and sweets, for pizza and bread, for gnocchi, etc… The “00” flour works very well in my experience for most applications, and can be substituted directly in place of AP flour in recipes. The only difference you may notice is that the result may have a more tender, delicate quality if you’re using it for pasta or pastries. It’s a good thing. A very good thing.
Baking soda, “bicarbonato di sodio” is not located near the baking ingredients like it is in the U.S. It is located near the bottles of soda water in the grocery store.
Butter, “burro”, is easy to find in the refrigerated section. It is available in salted, lightly salted, and unsalted. If you plan to bake with your American recipes while in Europe, you’ll need a good digital scale to weigh the butter and other items that aren’t sold in the same sizes as in the U.S. Bringing your measuring cups from home make measuring flour, sugar, etc. easy.
Sugar, “zucchero”, is sold in small bags near the tea and coffee. Raw sugar is also widely available. I have yet to find brown sugar here, but when I do, I will let you know.
Salt, “sale”, is sometimes difficult to find. It might be on the bottom shelf in some obscure section of the supermarket. If you have a hard time locating it, just ask, or wander aimlessly like I did. It’s there, somewhere. It is not in round cyindrical containers like in the U.S. (no Mortons here). It is in a box about the size of a large box of baking soda, and it will likely say “sale marino”, which is sea salt.
My husband is a cereal cow. He eats it when he’s hungry. He eats it when he’s full. He eats it anytime of the day. Cereal is available in Italy, but I should warn you–it is very expensive, and the selection is limited, especially if you don’t usually eat chocolate cereal. More than half of the boxes of cereal here are chocolate. Other than every kind of chocolate cereal ever created, there are also some Frosted Flake-like cereals (unsweetened), and granola-type cereal that are outrageously expensive. There is a store called Prix that is similar to Aldi in the U.S. and they sell Honey Whole Grain Cheerios that are delicious and only €1,99 for a huge box.
Everyone buys their drinking water here. It’s a good thing too, because the water in our apartment smells like bleach. There are two types of drinking water that you’ll need to be familiar with: Frizzante (sparkling), and Naturale (still). You’ll need to decide which you prefer when you are at a restaurant too. I love the frizzante. Buying large bottles of water is cheap: 1.5 liters for €0,17 at Prix. It’s not much more expensive elsewhere.
12. Peanut Butter:
If you absolutely cannot go without peanut butter while you’re in Italy, then bring it from home. It isn’t widely available here. I found some the other day at Auchan (huge two-story supermarket at the mall) in the refrigerated section next to the butter. A tiny jar (maybe 4 ounces…enough for 3 or 4 pieces of toast with peanut butter) of Skippy for €5,99, which converts to $8.05 USD. Nutella is far more economical. :)
That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure I’ll be adding and updating along the way.