Italian Grocery Stores – A Visitor’s Guide + Helpful Tips

Italian Grocery Stores – different types, important things to know, helpful tips, useful words and phrases and more!

Ah, grocery shopping in Italy.  Is it really romantic like they show it in the films?  Skipping along cobblestone streets, stopping in at the jolly bakery and choosing the freshest produce from the friendly neighborhood fruit seller?

Well, sure, some people here in Italy do still shop like that, but most of us with families and busy lives make our way to the grocery store, just like you do!

However, there are some differences between Italian grocery stores and those in your home country.  Something as simple as buying food can be bewildering here in bella Italia

Even if you don’t need anything at an Italian grocery store, if it’s your first visit to Italy, it’s a fun way for everyone – from toddlers to teens to adults – to soak up a little Italian culture.  You can learn a lot about a place and its people by exploring its grocery stores.

So, let’s take a look at Italian grocery stores and some of their unique traits.

Types of Grocery Stores in Italy

Grocery bags lying on a terracotta floor.  They are from Italian grocery stores - a white plastic bag from Coop and a yellow reusable bag from Esselunga.

You may be wondering what grocery stores are called in Italy.  There are a few different types. Italy has:

  • ipermercati (hypermarkets)
  • supermercati (supermarkets)
  • convenience mercati (smaller supermarkets in city centers)
  • alimentari (grocers)
  • discount (discount chains)
  • specialty shops
  • mercati (open-air markets)

Ipermercati (Hypermarkets)

Supermercati (Supermarkets)

Convenience Mercati (Smaller Supermarkets in Town Centers)

Alimentari (Grocers)

Discount (Discount Supermarkets)

Specialty Shops

Mercati (Open-Air Food Markets)

I’ll be focusing on the classic Italian supermercato (supermarket).

Important Things to Know About Italian Grocery Stores

You Need To Pay To Use A Cart

Small child sits in grocery cart in an aisle at an Italian grocery store.  You can see food on the shelves on both sides and in front of him - beer, rice, sunflower oil, and Kinder Egg products.  He is wearing grey sweatpants and a blue coat and is looking away from the camera.
You can’t use a cart like this in Italy for free

Put a coin in (usually €0.50 or €1 but will be written on the cart) to release the chain.   When you’re finished shopping, return the cart where you got it, put the chain back in, and release your coin.

Why do we do this in Italy?  It may seem silly, but at least we don’t end up with carts all over the lot and town.  Everyone wants his coin back, so carts get returned!

If you don’t need a cart, you can use a small (often rolling) hand basket for free.  They’re usually stacked at the store entrance.

View of small rolling hand basket at an Italian grocery store.  It's in the nut aisle - you can see peanuts and hazelnuts on the shelf.
Use a small hand basket for free

Use a Glove To Handle Produce

A hand with a plastic glove chooses a clementine from a large pile at an Italian grocery store.

Before you start gathering your fresh fruit and vegetables, you’ll need to put on a plastic glove.  Yes, that’s right!  Hygiene scorecard:  Italy 1 – Everywhere Else 0.

There’s a dispenser (or a few) with the plastic bags in the produce area.

Good To Know:  The plastic bags and gloves are biodegradable in many of the larger Italian grocery stores.

Once you’re gloved, feel free to touch and examine the produce.  But don’t just throw it in your cart!  You need to weigh your fruits and vegetables at Italian grocery stores.

Weigh Your Produce

Once you’ve chosen your produce, put it in a bag and note the number of the product on the sign nearby. 

Then, take your bagged fruits or vegetables to one of the scales in the area.  Put the produce on the scale and enter the product number (sometimes there are pictures of the products). 

Take the little sticker that comes out and stick it to the bag – all done!

Good To Know:  You can skip the bag if you’d prefer not to use one.  Just put the sticker directly on the produce.

Don’t forget to weigh your produce – the cashier doesn’t have a scale.

Order Fresh Meats and Cheeses From The Deli

The deli section of an Italian grocery store.  You can see meats on the left in the back - legs of prosciutto, sausages, salami.  In the foreground, you can see oil-preserved products like olives and sundried tomatoes.  On the right you can see a display of cheeses.

You’ll see packaged cheeses and meats in the refrigerated section.  They’re fine to eat, but the best tasting cheeses and meats are in the grocery store deli. 

You usually need to get a number from the machine and wait to be called (or have your number show up on the digital display). 

We order our meats and cheeses by the etto, or 1/10 of a kilogram (100 g).  If you need to order more, you order etti.  For example:

Vorrei… (I would like…)

Italian Weight MeasurementEnglish Translation
un etto100 grams
due etti200 grams
tre etti300 grams
quattro etti400 grams
mezzo kilo½ kilogram
sei etti600 grams
sette etti700 grams
otto etti800 grams
nove etti900 grams
un kilo1 kilogram

Listen to the pronunciation here:

Good To Know: Ordering deli meat to make your own sandwiches? A good estimate is about 90 grams per sandwich, and I usually round up. So, if you want to make 3 sandwiches: 3 x 90 grams = 270 grams, and round up to 300 grams, or tre etti.

Bring Your Own Bags Or Pay For Them

If you need to purchase bags, they’re usually €0.05-0.10 each, and are often the flimsy biodegradable bags.  At larger stores you can purchase collapsible cardboard boxes, insulated bags (for cold food), and reusable bags. 

The cashier may ask if you want bags, or you may see them where you put your groceries on the scanner belt.  If you grab some there, put them on the scanner belt so the cashier can ring them up.

If you can, bring your own bags.  It will save you some cash and will help our planet!

Bag Your Own Groceries

When it’s your turn to check out, place all of your groceries on the belt (or near the cashier if there’s no belt), then walk past the cashier to begin bagging your groceries as she rings them up.

Keep Things Moving:  When the cashier has finished ringing up your groceries, stop bagging and pay.  When you’re finished paying, you can continue bagging and the cashier can begin ringing up the next customer.  There is usually a small divider in the bagging area and he/she’ll send the next customer’s groceries to the other side of the bagging area. 

Use Your Receipt To Exit The Self-Checkout Area

If you choose the self-checkout area, don’t tuck your receipt away when you’re finished.  You’ll need to scan your receipt to leave the area.  Put the barcode of the receipt under the scanner and the gate will open up.

Good To Know:  The self-checkout attendant may also ask to see your receipt to re-scan your items.  It’s a random check and after the quick re-scan, you’ll be on your way.

Other Helpful Things To Know

Eggs Are Not Always Refrigerated

An aisle display of non-refrigerated eggs at an Italian grocery store.

Not All Milk Is Refrigerated

The refrigerated milk section at an Italian grocery store.

Italy has fresh milk, as well as UHT (ultra high temperature) pasteurized milk, which is shelf-stable.

If you buy fresh milk in the refrigerated section, pay attention to the expiration date – it’s much sooner than you’re probably used to seeing in your home country.

Tell The Cashier How You’re Paying

If you’re paying with a credit card, tell the cashier, and he/she will tell you when to insert your card or tap it to the machine.

Good To Know:  While large grocery stores in Italy will accept credit cards, smaller stores often do not, so it’s a good idea to always have some cash on hand. 

Grocery Scanners Are Only For Store Loyalty Club Members

Self-checkout scanners at the entrance of and Italian grocery store.

You may see small hand scanners on display at the store entrance.  You can use them to scan your groceries and then scan the device at self-checkout to pay without having to remove your groceries from the cart.

If you want to use one, you need to be a store member and have a tessera (loyalty card). To free a hand scanner from the display, you scan your tessera.   

Italian Grocery Stores Carry Toiletries

Toiletry aisle in an Italian grocery store.  You can see brands that may be familiar, like Dove, Loreal, and Pantene.

Grocery stores are some of the best places to buy shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and other essentials.  In some towns, it may be your only option.  In larger towns, it may be your cheapest option. 

Toiletry stores like Caddy are popping up throughout the country, and there are perfume shops as well, but many (including our family) buy toiletries at the grocery store.  We don’t have any stores with great prices like Target or Boots – yet. 

Foreign Products Are Expensive

You may be missing favorite food products like peanut butter or tahini.  Don’t be surprised by high prices for these often-imported goods.  Try to eat local, seasonal foods if you can! 

Also, these products may only be available during tourist season.

Italian Grocery Stores Can Get Very Crowded

Italian grocery stores (except for the large hypermarkets) are often in compact spaces with narrow aisles. 

If you can, try to shop in quieter times of the day – your shopping experience will be much more pleasant if you don’t have to fight your way through hordes of people or elbow nonne (Italian grannies) in the long lines at the cashier (just kidding – please don’t elbow any nonne).

Useful Words & Phrases For Italian Grocery Stores

Greetings & Basic Phrases

buongiorno/buonaseragood morning / good afternoon or evening
arrivedercigoodbye
per favoreplease
graziethank you
siyes
nono

Listen to them here:

Dov’e’…?Where Is…?
ScusiExcuse me (to get someone’s attention)
Quanto costa?How much does it cost?
scontodiscount
pesareto weigh
Vorrei…I would like…

Listen to them here:

At Checkout

busta/sacchettobag
carta di creditocredit card
contanticash
tesseraloyalty card
spicciolicoins
banconotebanknotes

Listen to them here:

Numbers

NumberItalianPronunciation
0zeroTSEH-roh
1unoOO-noh
2dueDOO-eh
3tretreh
4quattroKWAH-troh
5cinqueCHEEN-kweh
6seisay
7setteSEHT-teh
8ottoOH-toh
9noveNO-veh
10diecidee-EH-chee

Listen to them here:

Staples To Buy At Italian Grocery Stores

Shelves full of bread at an Italian grocery store's bakery.
  • Olio d’oliva (olive oil) – Best purchased after the harvest in November.  Italian grocery stores have great olive oil – you don’t need to buy expensive oil or oil from a specialty shop. 
  • Aceto Balsamico (balsamic vinegar)
  • Pasta – You’ll find an entire aisle of it at an Italian grocery store!  In addition to the dried pasta aisle, there is fresh egg pasta in the refrigerated section.
  • Pane (bread) – Most Italian grocery stores have their own forno.  We buy schiacciata and bread at the grocery store and in town at our bakery.  Other bread staples like fette biscottate can be found in the packaged food section.
  • Aglio (garlic)
  • Pomodori (tomatoes) – Fresh and preserved tomatoes are staples in any Italian kitchen.
  • Erbe (herbs) – Basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and bay leaves are used often in Italian recipes.
  • Sott’olio (literally ‘under oil’) – These items, like sundried tomatoes, roasted eggplants, and olives, can be found preserved in oil in jars or in the deli. They’re great options for aperitivo!
  • Sott’aceto (literally ‘under vinegar’) – Capers, onions, and pickles are a few types of sott’aceti that you’ll find in jars or in the deli.
  • Salumi (cured pork) – Prosciutto cotto, prosciutto crudo, and salame, to name a few. Buy them packaged if you’re in a hurry; otherwise, take a number and wait for your turn to order freshly-sliced meats.
  • Formaggio (cheese) – Take your choice of Italy’s fresh and aged cheeses in the deli section or pre-packed in the refrigerated section. Grab classics like parmigiano, gorgonzola, or pecorino. Or, try a lesser-known local slice.

FAQ