Italian grocery stores: Doing groceries like a local


Updated on Jan 17 • 8 minute read

Italy is a country where food is almost a religion. So if you’re a foodie that’s moving to Italy, you’re in for a treat, literally! But Italians have their own way of doing things, even when it comes to doing groceries. So, to spare you the culture shock, we’ll get into details about Italian grocery stores and unspoken rules you should be aware of when shopping in Italy.

After reading this guide, you’ll know

  • where and how to buy the best quality food products in Italy
  • the difference between Italian supermarkets and Italian grocery shops
  • the cheapest supermarkets in Italy
  • the best open-air markets in the major Italian cities
  • the best online grocery apps in Italy
  • phrases you can’t do without when buying food in Italy

Italian grocery store rules

As we mentioned, Italy has some unspoken rules when it comes to grocery shopping. Some of them might sound obvious to you, and some - surprising. It all depends on where you come from. Especially if you’re moving to Italy from America, the differences can be major.

To ensure the best experience, keep in mind that when doing groceries in Italy you should:

  • Greet the store clerk with a polite buon giorno when you enter a store.
  • Rent a shopping cart. You can find them chained to one another at the entrance to an Italian supermarket. Just insert a 1 euro or 50 cent coin into a slot on the handle of a cart to separate it from the other shopping carts. After you’re done with your shopping, bring the cart back, lock it, and get your coin back.
  • Never touch produce! Use plastic gloves when picking up fruit or veggies in supermarkets or grocery stores. Italians are pretty serious about hygiene.
  • Weigh your produce yourself. When picking the produce, you’ll see a number next to the product sign. This is the number you need to dial on the tablet screen on a scale in the produce section when weighing your food. It will print a sticker with the barcode and price of the produce on it.
  • Bring your own bags. Grocery bags in Italian shops usually cost 5-10 cents apiece.
  • Pack your groceries yourself. In Italy, store clerks don’t assist you with putting your items in bags.
  • Tell the vendor at a market or specialised store what you intend to do with your purchase. That way they can recommend exactly what you need and pick it for you. For example, you’d need a different apple for baking than eating raw. If you’re looking for something ripe and ready to eat, say ‘per oggi’ which means ‘for today’.

Local grocery stores in Italy: alimentari

Italy has a variety of options when it comes to places to buy groceries. The most popular ones are supermarkets (supermercati) and local grocery shops (alimentari).

The major difference between those is that alimentari are smaller and usually family-owned. They are corner shops that sell a bit of everything, from fresh and packaged foods to household items. And some alimentari even sell deli and serve as lunch spots.

Italians are generally very social, and you’ll notice that the experience of shopping at a small corner shop is quite different compared to a supermarket. It’s way more personal. That’s why it’s rewarding to be loyal and friendly to your favourite vendors. Not only you’re supporting a local business but also earning your chance to get special treatment if a seller likes you!

It’s common for grocery shops to close during lunchtime. Usual opening hours would be from 7.30 to 12.30 and from 15.30 to 19.30.

Specialty shops in Italy

Italians love to go to different shops for different items. So many go to panetteria (bakery) to get fresh focaccia, to macelleria (butcher’s) for meat, and fruttivendolo (greengrocer) or a market to cop fresh veggies and fruits.

Unfortunately, smaller family-owned shops in Italy are slowly disappearing, giving place to large supermarkets. That makes sense as supermarkets are one-stop shops for buying anything from toilet paper to a steak. And many large supermarkets in Italy even have their own butcher or bakery departments.

But, in most cases, the quality and freshness of products from small specialised stores is hard to beat. And if you’re a foodie, it’s worth making a few extra stops on your way home!

Italian deli

Delicatessens such as pizzicheria, norcineria, salumeria, or gastronomia are great places to get quality food in Italy. There you can buy delicious ready-to-eat meals or shop for a variety of cured meats and Italian cheeses.

Prices in such shops are usually per 1 kilo or etto (100 g), so the vendor will always ask you about the amount you need. If you aren’t sure what to choose or how much, just ask the seller and they’ll happily give you recommendations.

At Italian delis, you can also try things before buying. But keep in mind that it’s rude to sample multiple things without purchasing.

For real foodies: check out Eataly. It's not your average cozy deli, but a new popular Italian food store and restaurant concept where you can eat and shop high-quality food from every corner of the country!

Butcher shops in Italy

Of course, the best quality fresh meat you’ll find at the butcher’s or macellaio. Once again, don’t worry if you can’t make a choice. The cuts and measurements can slightly differ depending on where you’re from.

Just ask the butcher for advice and they’ll make sure you get the best meat for whatever you’re cooking.

Fishmongers in Italy

Similarly, pescivendolo or pescheria are the go-to places for fresh fish and seafood. Normally, the days for fresh fish are Tuesday and Friday, so be prepared that on other days shops might have fewer supplies.

And no need to worry about cleaning your fish or seafood if you hate this sticky business. Most vendors will offer to do that for you!

Italian bakeries

Head to the forno (translates as ‘oven’) for freshly baked goods. Most of the Italian bakeries have a wide selection of bread, sweet and savory pastries, and often some choice of pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice).

Here too everything is sold by weight, so you don’t have to buy a whole loaf of bread if you know you can’t finish it. Instead, just ask for a half or even a quarter. Italians don’t like wasting food, so it’s a common practice to get the exact amount you plan to eat.

Ethnic grocery stores in Italy

If you want to shop for non-European products, you might realize that even if a supermarket has what you seek, it’s pretty overpriced. Luckily, in most of the Italian cities, you can find smaller ethnic grocery stores.

Asian ingredients are slightly easier to find. But if you live in a city like Rome or Milan, you’ll probably also come across multi-cultural shops selling Arabic, American and African ingredients too.

Convenient shopping in Italy: supermercati

Bigger shops are called supermercati. It’s probably quite self-explanatory.

The quality of fresh food in Italian supermarkets is usually a bit lower than at smaller grocery and specialty stores, and prices are sometimes higher. But the allure is in the convenience of having everything in one place.

Of course, Italy has plenty of discount supermarkets. Some of the cheapest supermarkets in Italy are Lidl and Eurospin. And, generally, larger chains such as Coop, Conad, and Esselunga are considered pretty good in terms of price vs quality.

Note: If you’re moving from the US, you might have hard times finding eggs on Italian supermarket shelves. Contrary to the USA, eggs and sometimes milk are not stored in a refrigerator in Italy.

Some of the most popular supermarkets in Italy are: 1. Conad 2. Coop 3. Esselunga Superstore 4. Carrefour 5. Il Gigante 6. Lidl 7. Iper 8. Eurospin 9. Bennet

Buying fresh products in Italy: mercato

Mercato (markets) are one of the best places to buy fruit and vegetables. Most of them will also have stands with fresh fish and meat as well as deli stalls with cheeses and cured meats. As a general rule, the quality at the market is better than at supermarkets.

The availability of fresh produce at markets varies throughout the year, depending on the season. It’s always fresh, delivered straight from local farms.

Larger markets might have multiple stalls selling similar items, so it could be hard to choose. But you can often judge quality by the length of the line and amount of locals queuing at a stall.

Just like with family-owned grocery shops - or even more so - it pays off to be a regular customer here. When the merchant recognizes you, he might give you a discount, or put something extra in your bag! That’s why it’s also a good practice to learn a few Italian phrases and try to have a little chat with the vendor.

The best food markets in Rome:

  • Mercato Campo de’ Fiori (Monday to Sunday 8:00 - 14:00)
  • Mercato di Campagna Amica del Circo Massimo (Saturday and Sunday 8:00 - 15:00)
  • Mercato Testaccio (Monday to Sunday 7:00 - 15:30)
  • Nuovo Mercato Esquilino (Monday to Friday 5:00 - 15:00 and Saturday 5:00 - 17:00)

Most of the neighbourhoods in Rome have their own local open-air markets. So if you’re looking for a place of regular shopping you might want to check which one is the closest to your accommodation in Rome.

The best food markets in Milan:

  • Mercato Settimanale "Fauché" (Tuesday 8:00 - 14:00 and Saturday 8:00 - 18:00)
  • Il Mercato di Viale Papiniano (Tuesday 8:00 - 15:00 and Saturday 8:00 - 18:00)
  • Valvassori Peroni Market (Saturday 8:00 - 14:00)
  • Mercato di Via San Marco (Monday and Thursday 7:30 - 14:00)

As the second-largest city in Italy, Milan also has plenty of markets. So explore your neighbourhood to find the one nearby!

The best food markets in Turin:

  • Antica Tettoia dell'Orologio di Porta Palazzo (Tuesday to Saturday 8:00 - 15:00)
  • Santa Rita Market (Monday to Friday 8:00 - 14:00 and Saturday 8:00 - 19:00)
  • Mercato di Piazza Madama Cristina (Monday to Friday 8:00 - 13:30 and Saturday 8:00 - 18:00)

The best food markets in Florence:

  • Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio in Sant’Ambrogio (Monday to Sunday 7:00 - 14:00)
  • Mercato Centrale (Everyday 10:00 - 12:00)

The best food markets in Padua:

  • Piazza delle Erbe (Monday to Friday 7:00 - 13.30 and Saturday 7.30 – 20:00)
  • Piazza dei Frutti (Monday to Wednesday 8:00 – 14:00)

The best food markets in Bologna:

  • Mercato delle Erbe (Monday to Saturday 7:00 - 12:00)
  • Campagna Amica (Saturday to Sunday 8:00 - 15:00)
  • Mercato di Mezzo (Tuesday - Saturday 10:00 - 22:00)

Paying for groceries in Italy

In most supermarkets, you can choose your preferred payment method, including credit cards. However electronic payment might not be possible at a market stall, or a small grocery shop. So, it’s a good idea to always carry some cash with you.

Phrases to know when doing grocery shopping in Italy

Whether you’re in a supermarket or a butcher shop, the vendor or cashier will most likely not speak much English. So, as we mentioned earlier, it’d really pay off to know a couple of words and phrases to avoid awkwardness.

Plus, believe us, Italians will really appreciate your efforts!

Here are some phrases and words you will often hear at a shop in Italy:

  • Mi dica? - Can I help you?
  • Posso guardare? - May I just look?
  • Cosa sta cercando? - What are you looking for?
  • Quanto? - How much?
  • Altro? - Anything else?
  • Nient'altro. - Nothing else.
  • Basta così. - That’s enough.
  • Comprare - to buy
  • Vorrei - I’d like
  • Soldi - money
  • Cassa - the cash register
  • Carta di credito - credit card
  • Cara [f]; caro [m] - expensive
  • Borsa/busta/sacchetta - bag
  • Vendere - to sell
  • Pagare - to pay

Online groceries in Italy

Online grocery shopping really boomed around the world in the past years. Italy is no exception.

There are multiple apps you can download to do groceries directly from your couch in Italy. The most popular ones are Cortilia and Glovo.

Just download your preferred app, select everything you need, pay with your preferred online payment method and your groceries will be soon delivered right to your doorstep!

Doing groceries in Italy is more of a social activity than a chore. So, embrace the warm culture, and start polishing your language skills. A tasty adventure awaits!

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