Fare la spesa
Shopping for food
Un negozio di alimentari (grocery store) or mercato (open market) does not compare with a huge American supermarket stocked with everything from soap to steaks. Italians get their bread at a bakery (forno or panificio), their meat at a butcher’s shop (macelleria), their fish at a fish market (mercato del pesce, pescheria), and sweets at a pastry shop (pasticceria). They also follow a different code of shopping do’s and don’ts that can quickly get a tourist in trouble.
The first mistake I made was touching fruit with my bare hands. The horrified grocer in Venice wagged a finger at me and frowned. I didn’t know any Italian then, so I meekly pointed to the apples and oranges on display. He personally made the selections.
In larger markets you can pick your own produce -- as long as you put on the plastic gloves provided for unsanitary fingers. In other places, I always ask, ”Mi posso servire?” (May I serve myself?)
The second mistake I made was toting a busta (plastic bag) of tomatoes straight to the cashier. She glared at me, handed me the sack, and pointed me in the direction of the produce section. There a kind soul showed me how to find the number assigned to each item (3 for tomatoes, for instance, or 14 for celery) and enter it on the scales. Within seconds the machine calculated the weight and price and spat out a sticky tag that I pressed onto my busta di plastica before returning to the cashier.
Buying formaggio (cheese) or mortadella (Bologna sausage) involves nothing less than that scourge of mathematically challenged Americans: the metric system. When I asked for un pezzo (a piece) of parmigiano reggiano, the clerk wanted to know how many “etti” I wanted. I had no idea that an etto is a hectogram, 100 grams or the equivalent of 3.527 ounces. Fortunately, you can use your fingers to indicate “this much” in any language.
Prosciutto, both crudo (raw) and cotto (cooked), is sold by the fetta (slice). Una fetta sottile usually refers to a thin slice of meat; a fetta grossa, a thick slice or hunk. You buy milk in bottiglia (a bottle); jam in barattolo (a jar), sugar, pasta, or rice in scatola (a box); beer or coca cola, in lattina (a can). Butter is usually sold in panetto; parsley, basil, mint, and other fresh spices, in mazzo (a bunch). You can ask for un filone di pane (a loaf of bread) but remember that Italian bread is never sold sliced (a fette or affettato) -- unless you buy the usually prepacked pan carrè for toast.
When in doubt, I use an all-purpose term an Italian friend taught me: confezione, which literally means packaging or wrapping, but also refers to almost anything packaged. So whether you’re buying cookies, coffee, sugar, or tuna, you can confidently ask for una confezione…di biscotti, di caffè, di zucchero, or di tonno.
For foods sold in certain numbers, such as eggs (uova), you request “una confezione da 6 (o da 10 o 12) di uova.” Fresh produce is expensive in Italy, but in peak season you can find cherries (ciliegie) or zucchine "a buon mercato," which means, not at a good market, but at a good price.
Words and Expressions
Piazza del mercato -- market square
Mercato del pesce -- fish market
Prezzo di mercato -- market price
Mercato nero -- black market
Mercatino -- market stall holder
Sporta –- tote, shopping bag
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.