Whether you’re walking down the street on market day gushing over the frutta e verdure, planning a roadside picnic or shopping to prepare a meal in your rented farmhouse or appartamento, buying food in Italy means you’ve taken a step outside the tourist flow. You’re ready to immerse yourself into life on the streets and live like an Italian. Here are a few language skills I found helpful when food shopping in Italy.
Your Italian food buying vocabulary needs to combine words and gestures. The least common denominator for describing what you want to buy may be pointing to the item and a hand gesture to indicate the number you want. But you need to be aware that hand signals in Italy are different than they are in the States. Raise your thumb, as if you were hitchhiking to indicate the number one. Use your thumb and index finger for the number two and so on.
Also in Italy it is considered disrespectful, dare I say rude, and unhygienic to touch the fruit and vegetables at the market. In the States we rummage through the produce bin looking for the best piece of produce (good luck). In Italy it is the standard to allow the market vendor to choose for you. Why? because in Italy food is respected and the producers and growers take pride in the fruits of their labors. They take pleasure in selecting their best for you. If you are uncertain about selecting your own item you can always ask as in “posso?” meaning I can or “con permesso” meaning with your permission. However be prepared to use plastic gloves in larger food/grocery stores (alimentari). They are dispensed right next to the produce display and then carefully select and touch only those objects you wish to buy.
You’ll also need to deal with weights and measures.
- “Un chilo di mele, per favore.” – A kilo (2.2 pounds) of apples, please.
- “Un mezzo chilo di pere, per favore” – A half kilo of pears, please.
A tenth of a kilogram is an etto (etti pl.) which is just under a quarter pound and about the right amount for two people. When the butcher shop (macelleria) owner holds up a salsiccia (sausage) and asks, “Quante?” you would reply, “Un etto, per favore”. Or if you’re hungry “due etti” -(more piu) (less meno).
Also knowing directional terms in Italian will be helpful as you point to the formaggio in the front (davanti) of the cheese case and tell the commessa (saleswoman) that you want these artichokes (questi carciofi ) rather than those (quelli).
Finally, remember that a comma is a decimal in Italy and as in all shopping (fare la spesa) the one interrogatory phrase you always need to know is “quanto costa?” how much is the cost.