Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Shopping for Groceries in the Village Shops
When staying in the countryside or a small town in Italy, you can either shop at the smaller village shops or go to large supermarkets for your groceries and household supplies. I recommend using the smaller village shops for many reasons: to meet the people in the village, to support small locally owned businesses, to avoid extra driving, and because it is fun. This page describes the shops you will find in many villages.
Note: Many villages have no shops. Before booking a vacation rental in or near a village, find out how many shops it has and what kind. Do not assume that all villages will have shops that you can walk to for daily groceries.
Finding the Shops
Sometimes it is hard to recognize the shops in a village because they are mixed in with the homes in the historic center and do not always have signs. You may see a doorway covered with those strips of plastic that keep out the bugs. Are you entering someone's home or a shop? Look carefully around you to be sure you have found which places are shops. They are usually located on or near the main piazza for the village. They may also be in the modern part of town, outside the historic center.
On several trips we have completely missed some of the shops in a village, either not walking down the street they were on or walking right by, not realizing they were shops.
Small grocery store in Cetona, Tuscany.
The main thing to remember about shopping in the countryside in Italy is that most stores close for several hours every afternoon and all day Sunday. If you wander into a village in the afternoon when things are closed, it is sometimes hard to believe there are any stores. Some places close up so tight, you cannot tell if the door is to a house or a store.
Even gas stations in the small towns have an afternoon closing (but not the ones on the Autostrada). The large supermarkets are usually open all day long; no afternoon closing, but many are still closed one day a week.
It is hard for North Americans to adjust to these afternoon closings. It is best to arrange your day according to this schedule. Do not plan to visit towns and villages in the early afternoon because everything will be locked up tight and places will seem deserted. A few hours later, the shops open and a town comes back to life. It is best if you get into the habit of taking an afternoon siesta or going for your walk in the afternoon. Some churches and galleries are also closed in the afternoon, but some are not, so check your guidebooks to be sure.
Every shop has its hours displayed in the window. Here is a typical example.
This store in Massa Maritima opens at 8:00am and closes at 1:00pm. It then re-opens at 5:00pm and closes at 7:00pm. It is closed Wednesday afternoon and Sunday. The sign literally translates as shown below. The sign above the hours says "Dogs are not allowed in" (I cani non sono ammessi).
You will see signs on shops that say Open (Aperto) even though the store is closed because while it is one of the shop's opening days, you have arrived between their opening time intervals. You will see this on gas stations frequently. They are open that day, but they are currently closed for the afternoon and the sign clearly says Open.
Getting Groceries When You Arrive on a Saturday
When you arrive at your vacation rental on the Saturday afternoon, remember that you have to get your groceries before 7:30 or 8:00pm that evening. Most vacation rentals do not supply any food. You will need food for the Saturday night meal and all meals on Sunday, because the stores will not be open again until Monday morning.
Shopping in the Villages
In a good sized village, you will find all the shops that you need for groceries and household supplies. These are the types of food stores found in villages:
If the village does not have one of the specialty shops (bakery, butcher, fruit and vegetable shop), the items will be sold in the alimentari. There may be more than one alimentari.
Shopping Etiquette in Small Stores (Alimentari)
This may seem like a crazy topic but it is important. On our first few trips to Italy we didn't really know the shopping system and sometimes felt that people were rude to us or that we were being ignored. Now that I understand (somewhat) how things work, I realize that we were wrong. And I see other tourists experiencing the same frustrations because they do not understand.
The main thing to understand about food shopping in Italy is that one person is served at a time. They are served until they have everything that they want, then their order is totaled and they pay. Anyone else in the store is ignored until it is their turn. This is frustrating because you cannot get someone's attention if you just want one quick item, but it is a wonderful feeling when it is your turn to be served and all attention is focused on you and your order.
An alimentari is different from other food stores because it has two sections: open shelves with merchandise where you help yourself and a deli counter where you indicate what you want and they serve you.
When you enter a store, take note of the people that are already in the store. These people will be served ahead of you. Take the items you need from the shelves. Go to the deli counter. Most likely there will be an older woman at the counter ordering items for the day's meals. Two slices of pecorino, a few slices of meat, a serving of pesto, half a loaf of bread. She will take her time. She will discuss the merits of the different cheeses with the deli person. She will get many items. When she is done and all the items are wrapped, the deli person will take her other items (from the shelves) and ring up the order.
When it is your turn, the deli person will turn to you and say "dica" (pronounced DEE-kah). Do not try to take your turn before they are ready to serve you - that is rude. Do not speak to them until they have told you they are ready to serve you; you would be interrupting them.
On the counter, in front of every cash register, there will be a plate of some type. When your order is rung up, you can sometimes see the total on the cash register display. If they know you are a tourist, they will place the printed receipt on the counter so you can read the total. Count out your money and place it on the plate. They take the money and place your change on the plate. Take your change and thank them.
Keeping the Receipt
Until 2004 it was required by law that every store, caffe, and restaurant in Italy give a receipt for a purchase and you were required to keep it. Businesses sometimes did not give out receipts to make it an "under the table" purchase (to avoid taxes). The government sent around inspectors who would ask to see your receipt after you had left the store. This has changed, but many places will still give you a receipt. I keep them and tape them into a notebook to help me remember my day and my expenses.
Shopping Etiquette in Other Food Stores (Frutta e Verdura, Forno)
Food stores other than the alimentari do not usually have open shelves where you can take what you want. In a bakery you just join the line and place your order when you reach the counter.
Frutta e Verdura stores (fruit and vegetable) all seem to have different policies. You may see the phrase NON TOCCARE (Do Not Touch) on handwritten signs in the shops. When it is your turn to be served, the shopkeeper will walk around with you picking out what you want: 3 onions, 6 carrots, 2 apples, a few leeks - like that. The frutta e verdura on the main street in Cortona is like this. You do not touch anything. He selects your vegetables, puts them in bags and then totals your order.
Other frutta e verdura stores will have plastic bags displayed and you know you can select and bag your own vegetables. You then bring them over to the counter to be totaled.
Shopping at Farms
Food guidebooks for Italy will list farms where you can purchase their products. This is a fun way to shop because you get to explore the countryside and see the farm. Take careful note of their hours and their closing day! Near Pienza you will find farms that sell their cheeses. All over Tuscany (and the rest of Italy) you will find farms that sell their olive oil. Some farms sell their vegetables or their canned or bottled products.
You can go directly to the wineries to buy wine. There are lots of guidebooks to help you find wineries.
www.slowtrav.com/photos/showgallery.php?cat=523: Photos of small shops in the town of Cetona, Tuscany (for an example of what shops you will find in a small town).
Slow Travel Italy - Food Shops - Large Supermarkets: Shopping in larger supermarkets.
Slow Travel Italy - Trip Planning - Food Guidebooks: List of food guidebooks where you will find lists of good farm shops.
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