Grocery shopping in Italy is a fun event – lots to see, different words, interesting dialog in broken Italian

To get started – there are three types of grocery stores in Italy.  First there is the alimentari, which is the equivalent of a neighborhood grocery store, usually very small.  It is common to find a small assortment of items here, but generally you find everything you need:  bread, vegetables, wine, bottled water, pasta, meats, and dried goods.  Next is the coop, or small grocery store, usually found at the edge of the main part of the city, just outside the walls of the old city in many places.  Names you may recognize are found throughout Italy – Conad, EMI, Eurospin are the ones near where I am this week.  These are a bigger version of the alimentari, which means more variety, but these also commonly carry other items such as cheap clothes, cooking utensils, seasonal items, and lots of weird items you would not expect to find in a grocery store.  Conad has some stores that stay open 24 hours now.  The third type is the hypermarket – a very large grocery store with lots of variety and many items that don’t belong in a grocery store, such as cheap power tools.  Many carry electronics either in the store or in separate stores – a sort of mini-mall.  These are usually found in the industrial area, often just off the highway.

Vegetables are found in all three types, and here are some photos of four types of tomatoes, just to give you a sense of what you can buy.  The oblong type is what we would call Roma tomatoes.  The grape tomatoes are pretty big – not what I would call grape tomatoes, but the distinguishing feature is that they are clustered on the vine, rather than loose.  The cherry tomatoes are packed since they are so small.  Don’t forget to weigh the produce before you take it to the checkout!

Of course we checked the olive oil selections.  We are always on the lookout for new olive oils for Olio2go. The neighborhood shops will have the high end stuff.  The big box stores tend to have a wide assortment of good and not so good oil, but not so many very very good oils.  Salumerias also have high end oils as do cheese shops in the tourist areas.  Wine shops carry the high end oils, too.  One of my favorite wine stores is in Verona, and they carry a number of very good oils.  The Marfuga– I first saw in a small alimentari in Spoleto.  In some cases the town has an enoteca that has wine and oil.  For example, the enoteca in Rome near the Spanish Steps that sells Merlano (which we plan to again carry with the 2011 harvest).

As in Washington, DC, if you don’t bring your own bag (a borsa) then you have to buy one or else put the groceries in your pockets (to request a bag, say to the checkout person “ho bisogno una borsa” before he or she slides your items to the end of the checkout lane).  The bags are not expensive – a few euro cents, but after a couple of trips, you learn to bring them with you.  At home, I keep my borsa in the compartment of my Vespa for just such a reason.

If you want a grocery cart, be sure to bring a euro or a 50 cent piece, because the carts are all connected together with a chain.  You just stick the coin in the slot and the lock opens to let you take the cart.  This works much better than in the US because all the carts are always neatly arranged.  You would be frivolous to let your cart roll off toward the cart area because you’d lose your coin.  The Italian method pretty much guarantees that all the carts stay where they should.

Bread in Tuscany and Umbria is usually unsalted, to protest the salt tax imposed by the Pope 500 years ago, or something like that.  Hence the bread can best be described as “insipido”, and it also goes stale very quickly.  So you will need to go shopping every day or get by with eating unsalted, soon-to- be-stale bread.  Or you could go out to eat.

And like everything else in Italy, many of the stores close from noon until 4:oo pm.  The bigger coops and hypermarkets do not close, but sometimes the deli counters are not open during those hours.  It is just part of the culture and rhythm of life in Italy.

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A month after Jeff and his family spent time in Emilia Romagna, Luanne and her daughter spent a week in Rome with one journey through Lazio to the Umbrian countryside.

As travelers who like to cook, we rented an apartment adjacent to both! Piazza Farnese and Campo dei Fiori. The location was perfect, as long as we didn’t mind 55 steps to the door. Having previously rented an apartment in Florence, we were quite comfortable with the process of renting an apartment in Rome.  It’s hard to leave some American habits behind! The apartment allowed us to enjoy the bounty of the daily market at Campo dei Fiori and to make small purchases at the nearby grocery stores—and to nibble when we wanted to until our bodies settled into a Roman schedule.

Rome is very walkable, especially with the right shoes! (Thank you to Merrill for great sandals). We arrived on a Tuesday, which  remarkably was a Holy Day honoring Saints Peter and Paul. It was quieter than a Sunday and it felt like it was a special day just for us. In an effort to keep moving (and to fend off jet lag) we walked to many of the “importante” sites. After buying our first bag of groceries, we set off on foot, and visited Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain, all before dinner. We were so enthralled by these magical places that we wanted to see them all!

Our memorable meals include dinner at Pierluigi  and Armando al Pantheon. Alas, I cannot find the name of the lovely café in Trastevere where we enjoyed fresh, crispy salads at midday. Our kitchen was put to use with food selections from Campo dei Fiori and nearby grocers, but perhaps the best meal was the San Daniele Prosciutto Crudo. Of course, we had other food at that meal, but truly, the best prosciutto makes a singularly perfect meal.

Each day the city became more crowded and the heat more intense. We were often too hot to eat. How hot? In the low 90s. (Check today’s weather here). To better enjoy every offering we plan to return to Rome when the weather is crisper. In cooler weather one is more inclined to dive deeply into spicy pasta or filling meats. As the weather was hot, we selected simply prepared foods, preferably chilled. In the end no day was complete without gelato.

One very special evening was spent with Gioia, Giuseppe, and Domina, of the family that brings us Principe di Mascio DOP Colli Assisi-Spoleto Extra Virgin Olive Oil. (At Olio2go, we love this oil!) We were treated to an out-of-this-world meal on the terrace of their home in the hills of Monte Mario. They have a marvelous cook who prepared platter after platter of their family’s favorites. My only wish was to know what was coming next in order to adjust my appetite. The highlights were abundant — fettuccine with mushrooms and peas, roasted tomatoes stuffed with seasoned rice, a rolled meat, a platter with mozzarella, arugula, and bresaola (dried beef). Another platter held marinated beets, delectable mushrooms. As the dinner drew to a close, dessert was arrived with a spectacular fennel salad. This recipe for Fennel and Celery Salad from the New York Times’ Mark Bittman is a close approximation. Other selections included brought forth with a pineapple tart and a platter of photo-perfect fresh fruit, including golden-orange apricots and deep, dark cherries. They explained that the fruit is often brought to the table with a side bowl for washing the selections. Later, we took a grand tour by car of their favorite views of Rome. We can’t thank them enough for the wonderful evening.

Monte Mario is the highest hill of Rome and the community reminds one of Fiesole near Florence or La Jolla near San Diego. The homes are beautiful and the grounds are abundantly planted with trees and flowers.  Domina has recently studied in the United States and we enjoyed being able to discuss her observations of life in the U.S. We hope that she comes back to the States for college!

To learn the most at the most historic site, we booked two tours. The first was a Vatican Museums tour with Presto Tours. Our guide, Ryan, brought true excitement to the art and wove many stories about the famous rooms  and their onetime guests. We would refrain from recommending Vastours – our tour at the Colosseum. Our guide was hot and tired (as we all were) and her comments were flat.  At one point, after she left us behind at the gate she begrudgingly “recovered” us. Our fellow tourists seemed to share our disappointment in the tour guide. We were all a bit steamy! The approach of a dramatic thunderstorm and a Gay Pride parade changed the tedious tenor of the tour and gave us all something more to chat about.  

On Friday, we took the train to Orvieto, a beautiful hill town in Umbria, just a one hour and 20 minutes by train from Rome’s Termini station. (It was very easy to buy the train tickets from the machines in the station. We had previously printed a couple of possible itineraries, so we only had to match the data). We had hoped to ride Oriveto’s famed funicular up the steep slopes to the historic town, but it was not running. From the same station we took the local bus, traversing the steep hillside, to the Piazza del Duomo in the heart of Orvieto. The church is heavily ornate on the outside and somewhat simpler on the inside.  The horizontal striped marble is reminiscent of the Duomo in Siena. Be sure to give a close look–to the right of the altar, there is a small chapel with brilliantly colorful frescos by Luca Signorelli. The best pictures of the chapel can be seen here. For more reading on Orvieto, begin with this New York Times piece.

This hill town is filled with charming winding, narrow passageways and friendly shopkeepers. Remarkably none of the crowds of Rome had found their way to Orvieto that day. We greatly enjoyed a day out of Rome, and wandering the passageways, in search of the perfect piece of pottery and a delightful lunch.   

We’ve often found the “international experiences” add such color to our trips.  About an hour into the return train ride from Orvieto to Rome, there was an announcement – spoken only in Italian. This was unusual as each of the prior announcements had been in Italian followed by English. Our kind compartment-mates let us know that the train was no longer stopping at Termini on the way to Naples. Those riders destined for Termini were to exit at Tiburtina. What made this especially entertaining is that our compartment-mates didn’t speak English. One gentleman quickly snatched my ticket and confirmed our destination. We were advised to exit right away.  A few minutes later, on the platform at Tiburtina, several other travelers asked our advice. With no bags other than purses we must have looked authentically Italian!

Our week in Rome crossed from the end of June to the beginning of July. We fed our wandering spirits well, and wish to return  (but) in cooler weather. As our week there progressed, the city became increasingly crowded with tourists while the stone buildings seemed to hold the more intense heat. We especially loved the apartment and neighborhood, and the magic of the nights in Rome.