Before coming here, if you asked me where I thought I would learn the most about Italian culture, I probably would have said the Uffizi, or maybe a restaurant. I definitely would not have said the grocery store. Obviously, food is pretty central to Italian culture, but if I had to make a list I would probably assume a restaurant or gelateria would come first and foremost. I’ve spoken before about my issues with navigating the italian grocery store, and by this point I have grocery shopping pretty much down. It seems an odd thing for me to fixate on—I’m not quite sure why I keep thinking about food shopping as an important experience for me here. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it is something that seems like it should be such a universal process. You go to the store, you find the food you want, you buy it, and you go home. And for the most part, it is. It’s the little things that are different that stand out. You’ll be walking along, picking food out, and then all of a sudden you hit the entire wall that is devoted to different kinds of pasta and it hits you that you’re not in America right now. And some of these little things tell you so much more about the general culture than you would first expect.
There are a couple of pretty obvious aspects of the Italian grocery store that you’d expect going in: yes, there is so much pasta (and by that I mean a large section of the relatively small stores are always dedicated to pasta, both fresh and boxed). Yes, there is also a lot of prosciutto, an abundance of cheese options, and the wine section is almost as large as the pasta section. There is always a least a few shelves devoted to nutella and other chocolate-hazelnut spreads. These findings are not surprising, except maybe in terms of the overall quantity of them. It is well known that Italians eat a lot of pasta and prosciutto.
Then, there are the things that are typical of a lot of stores in Europe, but are different from America, like unrefrigerated eggs and milk. Still not very jarring, but is still a sign that you are not standing in your neighborhood Trader Joes.
Then, there are the things that you (or at least I) did not expect going in, but that says a lot about the country and its eating habits. Some of it is not necessarily surprising in that I didn’t know about it beforehand, just that it is odd to see how that aspect of culture translates into the grocery store.
Everything is smaller. The store itself, the range of food selections, the size of the packages—you won’t find any family size boxes of Lucky Charms here. I’ve yet to find shampoo and conditioner bottles that are large enough to last me more than a month. The range of selection is pretty closely limited to Italian food—I had to go to two separate grocery stores before I found soy sauce, and even then there was only a small bottle available. The focus is on fresher food: fresh options are abundant, freezer options are not. The focus is on what is currently in season and available through Italy.
There is a surprising amount of prepackaged breakfast pastries and breakfast cookies, because Italians don’t have a large breakfast. A pastry and a coffee is the norm, not eggs and bacon. Pre-made sauce is available, but only in smaller jars. The bigger jar space is reserved for passata, because it’s more normal for people to make homemade sauce than buy pre-made.
There is also a general lack of salted butter, which frustrated me to no end until I was able to find a salted butter made in Denmark that is available in Italy. Tuscan bread is also traditionally unsalted (the reason for which is unknown and debated to either be because of the price of salt or because of a legend that says Pisa blocked a shipment of salt from Florence and the bakers just kept baking without it).
Italians love their food, and the way the grocery store ad the food markets are set up is a manifestation of that love. Fresh food and home-cooked meals are prized, and the general excess and artificiality of food that you find in the US is absent.