• Mary Beth Chalk

Virtual Day: Eight Grocery Shopping Italian Style

Updated: May 23

Since we had family members arriving tomorrow it was time to begin gathering provisions for the group’s stay. And to help me, I thought it would be fun to hire a local linguist to teach me the Italian words for shopping courtesies. Fortunately, one of Italy’s best language schools, il Sasso, is located in Montepulciano. Through the school I was able to secure a private instructor for a 6-hour crash course.

I met Marciella at 10AM in the piazza of Montepulciano and I was wondering if perhaps I was going to learn a few Italian phrases before heading to the grocery store. But rather than getting a cappuccino and sitting at a table in the piazza to begin our instruction she walk to a nearby nondescript shop. Perhaps this was her way of adding in a little touring before our shopping?

Marceilla explained that during our time together we were going to visit three types of stores: a) family owned specialty shops (including formaggio (cheese), macelleria (butcher), il forno (baker), fruttivendolo (greengrocer)); b) a family owned mini supermarket (alimentaris); and c) a large supermarket (supermarcato). We briefly discussed my shopping list and we decided to organize the cheese and vegetables for the specialty shops, the yogurt and milk for the alimentaris, and the pool floats and sunscreen for the supermercato. I had to resist my American impulse to skip the dolce vita experience of specialty and alimentaris shopping to jump right to the supermeracto! <sigh>

Marciella began the overview of Italian shopping etiquette by explaining that upon entering a shop you should always greet the owner, as a sign of respect, and say "Buon giorno" (good day) or "Buona sera" (good evening) followed by an explanation of what you would like to buy. At that point, the shopkeeper may hand you what you are looking for (always the best that they have to offer) or they may indicate that you can look for yourself. For hygiene reasons, you are expected to carefully select and only touch those items that you will be purchasing (the alimentaris even provide plastic gloves for selecting produce). Upon departing, you address the owner again and say either “arrivederci” or “ciao” (goodbye) and “grazie” (thank you).

Our first stop was Cugusi’s cheese shop, La Pecorella. Through laughter, hand gestures, and a little interpretation from my teacher I was able to select the local cheeses for pairing with our late afternoon aperitivo. The greatest challenge came with the weights and measures (1 kilo = 2.2lbs). My hands came in helpful in demonstrating the size of portions which required that I learn which fingers to use (the thumb always represents “1” and counting out from there)! We then ventured to the fruttivendolo where the owner proudly assembled an assortment of gorgeous fruit and vegetables which were lovingly wrapped for transport to the villa.

After quick stops at the alimentaris and a drive to the supermercato in Chiusi I said goodbye to Marceilla and thanked her for helping me learn so much about shopping in Italy. What struck me, once again, was how personal all things are in Tuscany. Nothing is abstracted for convenience – everything, ultimately, flows back to an individual, a family.


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