Thursday, January 7, 2010

To Market, to market

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig;
   Home again, home again, dancing a jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
   Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

What could explain the Italian lifestyle more aptly than this little Mother Goose rhyme.  Again I go to market, once each day, and still every time I come home, I dance a little jig!  It's hard to just list all the quirks of an Italian shopping trip, so I'll just let you be a fly on the wall during a typical trip to the super-market.

I walk 3 blocks to the store, usually with kids in toe, but sometimes alone.  Upon reaching the parking lot, I decide whether I need a shopping cart (carrello) or shopping part, as Dominic calls it.  If I do, I must insert a euro as a deposit which releases the cart from the others that it's chained to.  If I don't need a shopping cart or can't use one because I'm pushing a stroller, I pick up either a regular plastic basket or a wheeled deeper basket, both conveniently and confusingly also called carrello

First is produce.  The produce department looks like a scaled down version of what we're used to in the US.  But don't you dare reach for any produce with your bare hands unless you want to incur the wrath (or disdain) of your fellow shoppers!  Stop.  You must get a plastic glove and the plastic bag to put the lettuce into.  All right, phew, now you can put it into the bag.  But don't forget to weigh it.  I have to put it on the scale, press the number that corresponds and wait for the label to print out.  I wouldn't recommend forgetting to do this as it will hold up the entire check out line while the cashier glares at you, then runs back to the produce department to print out the label.

Now on to the bread.  Take your pick of freshly baked type 00 bread.  I'm not really sure what "tipo 00" bread (pane) means yet, but it's delicious.  It's best when it's still warm.  Crunchy on the outside and soft of the inside.  I typically pick up a baguette for 57 euro cents and some rolls.   The only trouble is that the bread and produce are in the first part of the store so my basket now has several smashable items on the bottom.  Who designed grocery stores anyway?

All right, now I need to get some lunch meat (carne) and a roasted chicken (pollo da spiedo).  I've finally conquered the deli counter.  It took me 2 1/2 months to even work up the courage to try it!  But I've got it down now.  Not so for the fish counter.  Maybe next week...  So, I grab a number.  Then I loiter in front of the deli cases with the masses, always trying maintain the delicate balance of being close enough to see but far enough to be out of the main traffic, until I see my number flash on the screen or hear it yelled out, if the screen isn't working yet again.  I need to keep my ears perked and the stroller ready.  If I'm not up to the counter in a flash, no go.  They move on to the next person.  Once I got used to it, it's actually very convenient and keeps things moving.  "Hai bisogno?" they ask me.  Literally, "do you have need?"  Umm...yes.  Then I tell them what I want and how many "etti" of it.  (An etto is a tenth of a kilogram, or about 1/4 of a pound, as I just realized.)    I always pray that they don't ask me any questions otherwise I'm usually forced to just repeat my original request or resort to hand gestures.  After getting that, they ask, "poi?"  Literally, "then?"  I say, "vorrei un pollo da spiedo" or, "I'd like a roasted chicken."  After getting that, they ask, "poi?" and I respond, "basta" while making the "that's all" hand gesture (same in Italian).

Moving on.  Next, I go to the refrigerated dairy section for milk, yogurt, and cheese.   Not too difficult.  I just decide if I want whole milk (intero) or skim milk (parzialmente scremata). Yogurt is probably the easiest to choose.  They import German joghurt, but the containers look the same, and they always have pictures of the fruit on themYou can also get chocolate-chip flavored (straciatella) or coffee (caffe) flavored yogurt, if you wish...  Deciding on a cheese can be very overwhelming.  Cheddar doesn't exist.  Stare all I want at the cheeses and their tastes will become no more apparent.  Something with holes probably is a form of swiss.  Anything else, squeeze it gently to see if it's a hard or soft cheese.  Besides that? I see if I can recognize any of the names or I just take a gamble.  Almost all the cheeses we've tried have been delicious.  One nice thing is that in addition to the commercial cheeses, sold in prepackaged wrapping like edamer, asiago, fontal, etc. the deli has a refrigerator section with deli-packaged cheese sections.  They sell an 1/8 of a round of brie or feta or gorgonzola.  They sell wonderful "grateable" cheese like parmigiano reggiano (the real parmesan cheese), grana padana, and pecorino romano, but you'd better own a cheese grater because you hardly ever find any grated cheese, only the hard blocks.  But the cheese graters are amazing here, just like in fancy Italian restaurants. Today I picked out some provolone dolce for sandwiches and a block of the original, authentic parmigiano reggiano (my favorite) for making sauces and sprinkling on anything that might taste better with it (just about everything).

On my first shopping trips, I was so perplexed about eggs.  They're not in the refrigerator section.  Where are they?  I'm not really sure how or why, but they store them on the shelf, next to the "shelf milk".   It's a section with sugar, eggs, milk, and then coffee and tea.  Very strange.  So far we haven't gotten sick, though.  The eggs do have very orange yolks but otherwise they seem perfectly normal.  I prefer the "refrigerator milk" because I'm a little skeptical of what must go into this shelf UHT milk, but it does taste okay if you put in the fridge (room temperature milk still weirds me out).

The kids are getting a little antsy, so I'm going to keep this a short trip.  I'll buy a lot of the other things we need like canned tomatoes, pesto, pasta, boxed juice, and wine at Prix, a discount grocery store across the street.  I maneuver my way to the check out line.  If I have the kids and only a basket of groceries Italians will frequently tell me by their words and gestures to go ahead of them.  I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to skip the lines.  Let's just say that preference for women and children still exists here.   So now there's just one person in front of me.  With Dominic's help, we put everything up on the conveyor belt, being very careful to leave a large space between our groceries and those of the person in front of us.  And, most importantly, as soon as a divider stick is available we immediately put it between our stuff and theirs.  And again, as soon as possible, another one behind our stuff.   I haven't quite figured out the rationale for this but Italians are like hawks about this divider stick.  It's almost like a game that everyone plays--except that no one is aware it's going on.  If their is only a gap of 3 inches between your stuff and theirs they anxiously watch you, wondering when you're going to get it together and grab a divider stick.  Or if they're fed up they might ask you to pass them one, if they're still more brazen they might simply reach over you to get one, and if they're passive-aggressive, they will just re-pile their stuff to be farther from yours.  Are they afraid your groceries might eat theirs?  That the cashier will inadvertently ring up theirs with yours or yours with theirs?  Then what?  Can they not reverse this?  And where are they planning to go in the two minutes it takes to ring up their groceries? Won't they notice if Giovanni's sugar is rung up with their stuff? Or won't Giovanni notice if his lettuce sneaks up to the cashier and is placed in Mariana's bag?  It's bizarre.  But don't forget.  Not unless you want the death stare.
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.


  1. Love this. You are so brave. And next time I'm in line at Super Target, I'll make sure my groceries don't eat the person in front of me :)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post! The double zero on the bread indicates the fineness of the flour. 00 is the finest possible...similar to cake flour.

    I loved coffee flavored yogurt when i was in Italy. I ate it for breakfast every day.

    I think they radiate the eggs, which is why they can store them on the shelf. This was also very strange to me.

    I don't remember the drama over the divider sticks, but that is hilarious!

  3. Hahaha... Amy, I had forgotten about the produce price stickers. I learned that lesson the first time I went into Standa, one of the local supermarkets in Trastevere. The people behind me seemed understanding, but the cashier rolled her eyes at me and muttered something (degrading, I assume) under her breath about "Americani." :)