Exploring the Boot with Grace: navigating groceries


Image via Wikimedia Commons

A market in Palermo, Italy.

By Grace McGinness, Columnist

This post was made possible in part by a grant from Year of PittGlobal.

“Conosco i miei polli” translates literally to “I know my chicken,” but Italians use the phrase to mean “I know what I’m talking about.”

And after a good part of my semester, I know what I’m talking about, too — at least when it comes to “cibo,” the Italian word for food.

Many imagine Italian food as the classy, excellent cuisine from a charming restaurant that would cost an entire paycheck, and they’re not wrong. It’s far more expensive to dine out in big Italian cities like Rome, Napoli and Florence, but you get what you pay for, which is delicious food.

But as a student studying abroad, I can’t be dropping 15 euros ($17) per meal for 90 days. Luckily, there are cheaper options that satisfy greasier palates and slimmer wallets, particularly if you learn some basic Italian cooking techniques.

Essentially, there are two types of grocery shopping here. One is simple and familiar. The other, though far more involved, can be unexpectedly rewarding.

There are grocery stores in more populated areas similar to American stores. Grocery stores such as Conad and Coop.fi are the cheapest options, where a week’s worth of groceries is often less expensive than in America.

They have nearly everything you’d expect to find in an American grocery store, and are often the cheapest option for food. My apartment’s weekly grocery expenses total 30 to 50 euros, split between four people.

There are all kinds of fruits and vegetables available, even if they aren’t in season, though they may not be worth buying out of season. Prosciutto, salami, other sliced meats and cheese are abundant, but come in small containers of about eight slices each. There is a small frozen-food selection, scorned by every Italian native.

There is no aisle dedicated to breakfast cereal, but there are aisles for wine and oil as far as the eye can see.

If you are fortunate enough to come across peanut butter, it will be in a small jar, and there will be a dozen jars at best. Plus, you may have to fight every other American student in the city to claim it.

But the worst part may be the glares from locals when you try to go through the checkout line with 30 items, while everyone behind you has no more than five.

The idea of weekly groceries is a foreign concept here. Above all else, the Italians value freshness in their food, so most people only buy what they’ll need for the next three days.

The secretary of my school, for example, said they buy fresh milk and bread every single day.

This brings me to the second and more traditional method of getting groceries.

Rather than doing all of your shopping in one place, you can head to the “macelleria” (butcher) or “pescheria” (fishery) for protein, and go to any open-air market for a wide variety of produce priced by the gram. And, of course, no Italian would forget the “enoteca” (wine bar) or “pasticceria” (pastry shop) on their grocery trip.

Only things that are in season will be for sale, and the market is only open from the morning until early afternoon.

These particular shops also generally close earlier and may be closed for lunch hours, unless they serve lunch. Their hours are elusive, so it’s best to practice your Italian and ask the owner when they’re usually open.

They’re chaotic, yet calm, and the owners run the show.

I’ve felt very intimidated at the mere prospect of even entering these shops. They seemed to operate under a whole new set of rules that I had no clue how to interpret.

But this confusion to Americans is part of tradition to Italians.

It is exactly in these spaces that real Italian culture can be observed and Italian language flourishes, dancing between dialects and skill levels.

Even if they seem antagonistic at first, most shop owners are nice and understanding. They want you to buy their product, and if they can’t communicate to you with language, they do so with food, handing you sample after sample of every variety of fruit they carry.

Once you’ve purchased your fresh tomatoes, pungent basil, half-dozen of eggs that you’re sure not to refrigerate — since eggs in Europe aren’t washed and therefore don’t need refrigeration — the Italian extra-fine “tipo 00” flour and some fresh bread from the bakery, get ready to experience food the way you should in Italy.

Find a recipe for homemade pasta — or use the one at the bottom of this post — and start kneading. Pair it with your favorite sauce or a traditional marinara like the one listed below, and you’re one step closer to forever eschewing brittle, dry pasta and canned sauce.



600g “tipo 00” flour

6 large eggs



  • Build a small well using the flour and a large pinch of salt on your workstation. Crack eggs into center and beat with fork until smooth. Incorporate flour slowly using your hands. Knead vigorously until dough is smooth and silky, instead of rough.
  • Roll small pieces of dough using a rolling pin or pasta machine until it’s roughly the thickness of a playing card. Cut into desired shape and cook in boiling salt water until al dente.



2 cloves of garlic

15g fresh basil (1/2 bunch)

Olive oil

1 can plum tomatoes, or 4 medium fresh tomatoes (chopped)

Salt and pepper


  • In a pan over medium heat, cook finely diced garlic in olive oil until it has a bit of color, about 20 seconds. Add tomatoes and basil, and mash with back of wooden spoon to break down the structure of the tomatoes. Add salt and pepper, and remove from heat once sauce reaches a boil. Strain through a sieve, return to pan and cook for another five minutes, or until sauce reaches desired thickness. No sieve? Chop the tomatoes or serve a thicker sauce.