One of the best parts about being in Italy is that everyday things are their own little adventures – even a trip to the grocery store can be a portal into a world of peculiarly pleasant new twists on seemingly familiar foods and flavors. So, point yourself towards the following, and pick up whatever else makes you say, “what is that?” along the way. Because, it’s a fact that you can’t discover your new favorite if you don’t give yourself the chance to try it.
1. Pan di Stelle
No Italian will tell you not to eat cookies for breakfast because that’s what most of them are doing at home. To avoid feeling overwhelmed in an entire aisle dedicated to making your morning a little sweeter, toss a bag of Pan di Stelle into your little wheeled basket. The sugar-starred, chocolate-hazelnut rounds are a classic. Dip them in a latte macchiato, or an glass of incredibly delicous milk (see #2), and start your day the Italian way.
2. Mukki Selezione Mugello – Latte Fresco di Alta Qualità
The luckiest dairy cows get to pass their time grazing vivid green pastures in the rolling hills of Mugello, a region of Tuscany near Florence. Happy cows should theoretically produce better milk, right? Well, this milk is the richest, creamiest, and freshest I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. Milk in Italy is either intero (whole) or parzialmente scremato (partially skimmed). Since calorie counting is not at all conducive with time in Italy, go for the whole version with the special mark alta qualità (high quality).
Italian supermarkets are overflowing with unfamiliar assortments of bagged and leaf lettuce. By now, I’ve probably tried them all, and my favorite is Valeriana. Its tender, round leaves are like eating a salad of tiny clovers. The delicate flavor pairs well with everything and won’t overpower whatever tangy balsamic vinegar or peppery olive oil you’re pouring over the top.
4. D.O.C and D.O.C.G. Wine
The grocery store is actually a great place to buy quality wine at a reasonable price. Don’t fall victim to outdoor stands or foreign wine shops selling unknowing tourists the same, or much worse, bottles for quadruple the cost. If you don’t know a lot about wine, your best bet is to go to a supermarket and pick out a bottle with D.O.C/D.O.C.G. on the label (Denominazone Di Origine Controllata/Garantita). These top classifications mean the wine has been controlled for specific processing techniques, ageing and grape varitey; the latter is even “guaranteed,” meaning it has passed a government-approved tasting. D.O.C.G. wine has an extra pink label around the bottleneck, making it especially easy to identify. I love Vermentino di Sardegna for white, and Nero D’Avola di Sicilia for red. But, if you’re in Tuscany, you can’t go wrong with Chianti Classico.
5. Spreads and Preserves
Nutella is not the only otherworldly spread waiting for you on the Italian supermarket shelf. Fichi (figs) are wildly popular throughout Italy, and their naturally sugar-sweet pulp makes the perfect confettura (preserves) to be enjoyed even when the fresh fruit is out of season. My other personal favorite is Crema di Marroni alla Vaniglia (vanilla chestnut cream). It’s surprisingly light, and not overly sweet, so you can feel better about taking a spoon and eating it directly out of the jar.
If you’re sick of Coke and Fanta and wondering why all the other sodas haven’t found their way to Italy, Spuma is your man. This traditional Italian carbonated beverage is known for it’s thirst-quenching powers and comes in several flavors to whet your palate. Spuma Bianca is reminiscent of ginger ale with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Spuma Ginger is pretty self-explanatory. Spuma Cedrata is a citrus flavored drink, made with cedro, the giant cousin of the lemon.
Just like the milk, Yogurt in Italy simply tastes better. Maybe it’s the cows, the freshness, the lack of colors, preservatives and chemicals, but whatever the case may be, this dairy is velvety-rich and not unlike eating a fancy dessert. I’ve never been a yogurt buyer, but quickly hopped on that train after trying Müller’s nocciola (hazelnut). And yes, Müller is a German brand, but the yogurt distributed in Italy is produced in Verona. If you want to be more loyal to Italia, try brands like Mukki, Parlamat and Yomo.
Sfilati are a wonderful alternative to potato chips and other less healthy, extremely addicting snacks. Like a crunchy cracker in breadstick form, they’re either plain salted, or enhanced with flavors like tomato or olive. What makes them an item on this list is their versatility. Munch on them straight out of the bag, dip them in soft cheese, stick them in a salad, or class them up by wrapping prosciutto or salmon around one end (see picture above) and you’ve got yourself the world’s easiest appetizer.
9. Fruit Juice
Juices in Italy are exceptional. Orange and pineapple are almost always 100%, and other unusual varieties like: peach, pear and apricot, have 50-70% minimum fruit content. What does that mean? They’re not watered down or tainted with artificial flavors, but a thick blend of juice and pulp that’s almost smoothie-like in texture. So you can feel like you’re actually drinking a pear, rather than a pear-flavored beverage.
10. Chianina Beef
This trademark Tuscan meat is one of the region’s most typical specialties. It takes its name from the world’s largest breed of cow, the humongous, white, Chianina, a race that has been roaming cypress-spotted valleys of the motherland for over 2,000 years. The choice meat is demanded all over the globe for its unrivaled quality. Being in Tuscany, all you have to do is go grocery shopping to get your hands on beef patties, cutlets or the legendary bistecca fiorentina (Florentine T-bone steak).
*A note on where to shop: There are plenty of supermarkets in Florence’s historic city center. However, if you’re looking for a wider selection and lower prices, you’ll have to take a well-worth-it venture just outside the city walls:
Coop: Via Cimabue 47r
Esselunga: Via Masaccio, 274 or Via Pisana, 130
*For around €7, this chain of stores will deliver your groceries to your apartment! (If you’ve ever tried to carry or bike four overflowing supermarket bags, 20-minutes, down the uneven cobblestoned streets of Florence, this just might be your dream come true.) You can set up a free account online at Esselunga a Casa (Esselunga at Home), but be prepared! The site’s only in Italian. After you’ve selected and ordered the items you need, they’ll even memorize your list to reuse the next time you shop.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve discovered at a supermarket in Italy?