If you’ve rented a villa or apartment in Italy, no doubt you’ll be trying to sample all the foods of Italy that you can during your stay – both dining out and eating in. Here are a few tips for selecting and buying food in Italy, whether you’re ordering your first Italian meal at that sumptuous restaurant down the street, stopping in at a Gastronomia (delicatessen), a Salumeria (a shop that specializes in charcuterie), a Pasticceria (a bakery), buying fresh produce at the market, or a local Macelleria (butcher shop) to create your own authentic Italian food.
Shopping for Italian Food & Ingredients
One of the great delights of renting an Italian villa or apartment is shopping for produce at one of their amazing outdoor markets. Virtually all towns in Italy have an outdoor market, usually held once a week (ask around to find out which day and at what time).
When shopping at an outdoor market, a small stand, or an indoor Mercato remember one rule when shopping for fresh food in Italy: DO NOT TOUCH THE PRODUCE. We’re quite used to handling our apples and oranges in the US, but in Italy it is considered very rude. If self-service is more your style, you may want to stick to standard supermarkets or commercial markets where self-service is the norm. Also, make sure to read all signs carefully as weights are measured in kilograms (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) and money conversion (euro vs USD) may be a bit confusing at first.
At an outdoor market, you should simply indicate which fruits or vegetables you would like, and allow the seller to pick out the best specimens for you. Don’t try to indicate that you don’t, for example, want that slightly green lemon – picking out produce is a point of honor for the sellers, and rejecting their choice can be considered an insult. Another thing to note about open markets in Italy is that there is no bargaining. In Italy, the price stated is the price.
In a small grocery, you still should not touch the produce (no matter how much you might want to). Instead, wait until an employee comes to help you. Indicate your choices and the employee will pick the produce and put it in a bag for you.
If you really need control over your produce selection, try shopping in a large supermarket. At the larger supermarkets, you will be provided with plastic gloves so that you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. Weigh each bag and punch a button for that particular item, whereupon a machine will dispense a sticker that you should put on the bag before taking it to the checkout line.
Another great place to pick up some traditional Italian food is a deli. There are no special rules here (although you might have to “take a number” or wait in line). Pick up delicious marinated meats, prepared olives, artichoke salads, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, and everything else you might find at a full-service American deli – only better!
Here’s a list of some delicious common foods in Italy you should try:
- Aceto (vinegar: balsamic or wine)
- Aglio (garlic)
- Agnello (lamb)
- Basilico (basil)
- Capperi (capers)
- Carne (meat)
- Formaggio (cheese)
- Frutta (fruit)
- Frutti di Mare (seafood)
- Limoni (lemons)
- Olio di Uliva (olive oil)
- Other vegetables: potatoes, onions, carrots, green beans, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, and everything else!
- Pane (bread: get it fresh in the morning!)
- Pesce (fish)
- Pollo (chicken)
- Pomodori (tomatoes)
- Porcini (mushrooms): though keep in mind that fungi are seasonal and the season dictates what mushroom varieties will be available
- Tonno (canned tuna)
- Uova (eggs)
- Vino (wine)
Italian Cooking – A Few Quick Recipes
What could be better than cooking in Italy with all those delicious fresh ingredients? Here are a few simple Italian food recipes you can make at your rental. If these tried-and-true favorites get old, eat out and then experiment to see if you can duplicate the recipe.
- Tortellini in Brodo con Petti di Pollo: Make a broth using bullion and add tortellini, chopped chicken, and veggies. Serve with local Parmigiano cheese, mixed salad, and local bread.
- Pasta al Pomodoro: Otherwise known as pasta with tomato sauce and is traditionally made with spaghetti, this is delicious with fresh Italian ingredients! Buy fresh pasta at the market, heat sauce (or make your own), mix in garlic and basil, and add: a can of drained tuna, olives, or artichoke hearts. Serve with parmesan, insalata mista (mixed salad), and bread.
- Minestrone: Sauté onions and garlic in oil. Add broth, bring to a boil, and add vegetables (carrots, zucchini, peppers, etc.). Just before the vegetables are cooked, add pasta and spinach. Season with herbs of your choice.
Italian Dining Customs
When you go out dining in Italy, remember this: Italy is a true food culture! If you’re looking to try some delicious fine Italian foods, it’s not going to be a fast meal. Meals are social events to be savored and enjoyed slowly, one delicious course at a time.
There are typically a number of courses served in Italian meals, which include:
- Antipasti – A starter or appetizer
- Primi – A pasta dish
- Secondo – The main course: meat or fish. This course may also include the contorno, or side dishes, which are usually vegetables
- Formaggio – Cheeses
- Frutta – Fruit
- Dolce – A sweet
- Café – After-dinner drinks, including coffee, wines, liqueurs, and digestives
Note also that, depending on the restaurant in question, courses 3, 4, and 5 may be condensed or eliminated entirely (for example, only cheese may be offered).
There aren’t any hard and fast rules in Italian dining, but there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. Upon receiving a menu with five or six courses, many Americans feel like they are expected to order one item from each course. Not so! It’s perfectly acceptable to order a first, third, and fifth course if that’s all you want. When you order, try to do so all at once, with the exception of desserts and after-meal drinks. Of course, the server will be more than happy to bring you as many dishes as you like if you are still hungry.
Wine a little, laugh a lot!
When ordering wine in Italy you can usually order by the glass, bottle, or carafe. The wines in Italy are very good and if you’re looking to have more than one glass –save a few bucks by ordering a 1/4, ½, or full carafe (1 Liter). It is a great way to go for a good wine at a very affordable price.
Enjoy Discovering Eating in Italy
Whether you’re dining out or cooking your own Italian meals, have fun! If you accidentally touch that piece of forbidden fruit, remember to say “Mi dispiace!” and when the second course seems to be taking hours to arrive, sit back, relax, and have a good chat with your companions. This is la vita bella – enjoy it while it lasts.
Remember to always check local rules and regulations regarding COVID-19 precautions (vaccination status, testing, masking, etc.) prior to arranging your next trip to Italy.
Have you been planning a trip to Italy? What are you looking forward to doing, seeing, or tasting? Have you been recently? What did you experience? Where did you dine out? What did you cook? Let us know in the comments below!