Monday, June 25, 2012

Eating our way across Italy (La Seconda Parte)

Mercato Centrale in Florence, the largest market in the city.
In the first part of this series (click HERE to read it), I talked about our experience buying our food during our Italian sojourn a year ago. Due to the fact that we were not eating in restaurants very often (not just for financial reasons) and because we weren’t staying in hotels, we had to quickly become adept at finding our own grub in a foreign country.

Are you thinking that this shouldn’t be very difficult? Well, it isn’t – and is. First of all, we needed to speak Italian. Since Vicki is extremely adept with languages, she set out to learn Italian, something she’s always wanted to do anyway. She found a teacher, a native Italian from the state of La Marche on the Adriatic Coast, and spent many hours studying and listening to the point where she was pretty fluent after nine months. Case in point: she talked a gondolier in Venice down to a 40% reduction in his outrageous price for his services one evening – all done in Italian! So when it came time to deal with shop owners and vendors, she could negotiate all deals in the native language.

Vicki’s Italian teacher, Sabrina, also helped with alerting us to some customs when food is purchased. While Italians are pretty forgiving where tourists are concerned, it’s never good to put your foot in it because you don’t know the locals customs. So Sabrina told Vicki a number of things we should be aware of.

First and foremost is that it’s a pretty hard and fast rule that the vendor always serves the customer. This is really not an issue when you’re buying meat or cheese because these are kept behind glass. Where it is an issue is when you buy fruits and vegetables. In North America, we generally pick our own out. In Italy, this is just not done. The vendor handles everything for you. You may point out what you want, but the polite thing is to just tell them and let them select for you based on that. Per oggi means “for today”, so if you want a perfectly ripe peach to eat with your lunch that day, this is what you tell the vendor.

It was not a pleasant experience to watch some North Americans vacationing near us in Tuscany, buying fruits and vegetables in a small supermarket in Gaiole, ignoring the protestations of the employee in this section as they picked things out in the North American way. They didn’t speak any Italian, but it was obvious she was upset. The odd thing was that they seemed to own property in the area and somehow had never picked up on this custom. We decided, based on their behavior, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to try to alert them to this.

Another wonderful thing about Italy is that supermarkets don’t have the stranglehold on the selling of food that they do in North America. From what I gathered, this is changing, especially in the big cities in the north, but while in Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Venice, we only purchased in small stores, usually single-item places like butchers, bakers, and fruttivendolos (green grocers). These shopkeepers were quick to learn to recognize us and welcome us into their shops, to the point where prices were dropped a bit.

That was another thing Sabrina told us: don’t haggle. I would have thought this would be standard practice in a country like Italy, but apparently it’s considered to be in poor taste. That’s probably why the shop owners we dealt with on multiple visits dropped prices on their own accord. They obviously wanted to keep our custom, which is the usual reason for haggling anyway.

Obviously, the Italians value good service. If someone is picking out your lettuce for you, they have a vested interest in giving you what you want and making it of the highest quality. As I mentioned before, we weren’t let down. In one case we were advised against buying something because it “wasn’t of the best quality and we would be disappointed”. An alternative suggestion followed – and it was at a higher cost – but the vendor was also probably correct.

The other huge difference between North America (especially Canada where we have mostly government-run liquor stores) is that you can buy wine and spirits almost anywhere in Italy. Most shops that sell any kind of food also sell at least wine. It may not be a huge selection, but it will be there. We saw wine amongst cabbages, on shelves in butcher shops, with the post cards in a corner store, even once in ice next to some fresh fish.

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