So, anyway – you have almost decided on a property in Lazio! Now it is time to do what you would do faced with this situation in any country – check out the service amenities in the neighborhood, among which are the food shopping venues. This is really important: must be accessible, must be appealing, must offer a wide range of products attractive to you, and must be suitable to your life style. Again, these are just the same criteria you would use in any country.

Never my idea of a great time even in my home country, food shopping in another culture and another language, well that takes us to another level altogether. How can culture be a problem in food shopping you ask? Very easily, I say – food is a necessity in the USA; food is a religion in Italy. American consumer – in and out, quick pops, keep that line moving, never get behind old people; Italian consumer – examine and compare closely, ask opinions, take your time, help that elderly shopper count out change, stop and chat (extremely important), never shop in a hurry. Combine all these differences with language struggle and you could have the makings of a pretty stressful experience. Or not. Depends on your mind set. Adventure or disaster? Learning experience or confidence destroyer? Based on personal experience, for real estate clients I suggest choosing adventure and learning.

For expats, food shopping in Lazio needs to be confronted, not avoided – it needs to be done, so why not learn and adapt the whole experience to you, instead of the other way around. This covers everything from making your presence known in a small shop where nobody knows you, to managing the incredibly tight parking lots (if they exist), to stumbling through the vocabulary of the bread counter, to being subjected to high decibel level shouting of vendors hawking their wares in an open market.

Food shopping in Lazio can be boiled down to three main venues  –  supermarket and hypermarket, open market, and alimentari. My experience in the beginning was based mainly on language avoidance: the supermarket beckoned,  where I could just grab and go in silence, or, if forced, point and grunt.

The Italian supermarket comes in various sizes ranging from the citymart ( center city, small walk-in, 2 check out lanes,  but featuring larger market brands and prices) to the medium sized familiar supermarket (with a barely adequate parking lot, 6 check out lanes, product and brand variety) to the hypermarket (like a mini-wallmart, a bit removed from center city with ample parking).As one might imagine, in or near the large cities in Lazio, the supermarket in these forms dominates  the landscape, especially in recent years. Lets focus on the medium sized version. Here the hungry expat can expect to find pretty much the product variety they are used to, difference being the amounts of each product. So for example in American supermarkets there are aisles and indeed walls filled with variations on one product; in Lazio more a reasonable number (maybe 3 or 4) of variations – exception to this may be the amount of bottled water sold in even the smaller stores, it’s huge! Italians do love their bottled water. And frozen food products which are available, but in far smaller numbers than expats are accustomed to. Bottom line however is that, not to worry, you can find anything in the way of foodstuffs in a Lazio supermarket, AND you don’t have to speak a word of Italian if you don’t want to. Other positives are great fresh fruit and veg departments, extensive wine availability, small van delivery available if you want, good faith effort at check-out efficiency, and Sunday hours, along with expanded, even 24, hours (in the case of 2 chains). Food shopping in the supermarkets here is really just an extension of the expat comfort bubble.  But hey, how much fun is that?

Now we will look at the second type of food shopping venue in Lazio – the Alimentari. After searching fruitlessly for a supermarket in my first residential neighborhood in Rome,  I found the nearest food shop was a kind of combo small supermarket and small service shop where you had to ask for a lot of stuff, and where some of my first Italian food words were learned from a wonderful gentleman behind the bread counter who educated me on the intracacies of salato (salted), shabo (no salt), integrale (whole wheat – one of the few foods not done well in Italy), un eto (about ¼ pound), etc. All I had to do was learn how to ask for help: admit you need help and they fall in love with you immediately. After a couple of trips I cut down on point and grunt, learned the names of what I liked, and (vitally necessary) acquired the Italian art of holding your place when there are no line numbers. This kind of shopping is found in the alimentari.

Mostly located in the smaller towns and particular neighborhoods of larger cities, usually in tandem with a macellaria (butcher shop) and a frutta/verdura (fruit and veg), the alimentari used to be the most numerous of the food shopping venues. Now there are fewer of them, but they are still havens of top quality grocery products, worlds unto their own, very, very long-time customers, and the best service you are likely to find anywhere including delivery (by motorcycle). I once was looking for dried basil; not finding it,  and using a combo of sign language and pointing, I asked a shop staffer. He disappeared, returned a bit later with one bottle. Later I found out that he ran two blocks to the nearest shop, bought the basil, and then presented it to me! Of course the trade off is the slow tempo, staff judgments on your choices and elevated prices. For the expat the alimentari is rattling at first, but there is no better way to experience the “real” Italian food shopping.

The Alimentari is basically geared to the daily walk-in trade, since much of the food shopping here is done in this manner, not the giant weekly shop we expats are used to. Since the alimentari is usually grouped with adjacent meat and a fruit sellers, shoppers have the full range of food products available in one stop.  Generally speaking Italians don’t shop and freeze. This being the case there is virtually no parking available, and what is there is super illegal but normal proceeding in Lazio – double and triple parking, diagonal nose-ins, etc. Again, don’t worry, either you buy only enough to fill one bag, or you arrange delivery.

Rounding out the list of Lazio food shopping venues is the very traditional open market – food products arranged on open tables or small refrigerated portable cases outside, with the ambience of vendors shouting the benefits of their products. For public health reasons, the larger cities have also ordered the open markets to be covered, not necessarily enclosed, but in the smaller cities and towns, traditions are still intact. The most famous of these markets is the Campo de Fiori in the historic center of Rome, however most other roman neighborhoods have their own smaller versions. Of course the smaller cities and towns abound with such markets providing the main food shopping venues for these localities.

Many, but not all, of the vendors create fantastic, artistic displays on their tables, choice of colors, texture, product architecture blending into a harmonious whole. Which immediately begs the question – how does one pick out the tomatoes without causing a catastrophic collapse of the display – easy, follow the unwritten (sometimes written) law of Lazio food shopping (especially in the open markets and alimentaris) – the vendor gets to pick and bag for the customer so the display and visual quality of the product is preserved. Bottom line, don’t touch; watch, point to what you want, and trust the vendor. In supermarkets the pick and bag is handled by the customer, BUT equipped by plastic gloves provided just next to the plastic bags.

Excellent, local products (program called kilometer zero), traditional and locally particular foods, and fantastic energy are hallmarks of the open market. Drawbacks include on-your-own parking, necessity for customers to hang on to their belongings, jostling for the attention of the product vendor, high noise level. The open markets are not for everyone but everyone should try them for the adventure. Who knows – you may become an expert in negotiating this very particular Lazio food shopping experience.

Whatever venue you choose, food shopping is part of your Lazio real estate adventure, so get to know it, pick your favorite, and join the religion of food in Italy.

Kathleen Ventre