Why are Shopping Carts Locked up in Italy, and What do You Mean I Have to Pay for a Bag to Put My Groceries Into?
Of course, the ultimate experience in buying food in Italy is to buy fresh in local town open air markets. But to do this, you need to be in the right town on the right day--these markets move from town to town with their schedules marked on signs where they take place. One town might have a market day once a week, while another larger one might have two, or even more than one market location.
When shopping in a local alimentari (grocery store) in Italy, you won't need a shopping cart. These shops are fairly small, and if you're trying to shop the way the locals do, you'll arrive with your own mesh or fabric bag to put your groceries in--or a basket, if you're feeling nostalgic. They will have just about everything you need... water, sodas, cheeses (cut to order), deli meats, sausage, produce... even very good wine (we paid no more than 5 Euro per bottle and never had a bad bottle). Perfect for gathering things for a picnic or making your own meal back at your rental apartment.
Then there's the small, in-town, chain mercato, lots smaller than American supermarkets. Think--convenience store merged with a food market. These are in city centers and are a bit tight on space. Surprisingly, what looks like a small shop entrance on the the exterior often opens up to a larger than expected store inside--still not "super" though. They might have smaller sized shopping carts or convertible basket-trolleys. You can still bring your own bags to carry your purchases in.
The same is true of larger supermercarto, usually located at one end of a town or outside the town limits entirely, except the aisles are larger and they will offer shopping carts--for a loaner fee. The first time we experienced this we were quite surprised. The carts lock together in a specific area (usually near the entrance) and a 1 Euro coin is needed to unlock one for use. If you remove the cart from the store and leave it in the parking lot, the store keeps your 1 Euro. If you return it to its lockup, you can retrieve your coin. This seems to work--we rarely saw carts left in parking lots. Here's a hint: Keep a 1 Euro coin in your car at all times in case you really do need to use a shopping cart.
People tend to shop differently in Italy and don't buy enough groceries for 1-2 weeks as many families do in the States. This is reflected in the smaller size of their refrigerators. Because of this, we rarely saw Italians with shopping carts overflowing with food, and in fact, rarely saw the carts being used at all, unless someone was buying a lot of overly heavy items. Most people tend to bring their own reusable mesh or fabric shopping bags, or even folding shopping carts like people did when I was a kid in the Fifties.
In fact, virtually everywhere (I believe it's because of a law), if you want a plastic shopping bag, you have to ask for one, and pay an extra 10 cents/Euro apiece. Essentially, you tell the checkout clerk beforehand how many bags you need so she can ring them up. And keep in mind, there are no bag boys in Italy. You bag your own groceries, unless you look befuddled and dumbfounded, like most newcomer tourists look--then you might have a nice lady helping you (or she might get very impatient, you never know.) If two of you are shopping, do like I do with Lucas--I load the groceries onto the belt area, he bags them.
(Read my article about the trend toward "Zero-Packaging" and "Zero Waste" markets in Europe HERE).
There is also another class of supermarket called the Hypermercato or for short Ipermercato (EE-perr-mher-COT-o). These are like the mega stores we have, Super-Walmart, BJs, etc. They are usually in an industrial area or well away from town centers and are as big as anything in the U.S. If you're vacationing in Italy, even for a prolonged stay in one location, you shouldn't ever need to waste your time in one of these--unless you're just curios about how similar or different they are from similar stores at home.
I should also address buying and pesatura, or weighing your produce in larger supermercadi. First of all, it's customary (for hygiene reasons) not to touch the produce with your bare hands. For this reason, you will see signs saying something like,
"Servitevi - Per motivi d'Igiene Non Toccare La Merce"
Self Service - for reasons of hygiene Do Not Touch the merchandise
(A good phrase to remember, there are "Non Toccare" signs in other types of shops, too. )
Somewhere near the fruits and veggies you will see plastic gloves. Put one on the hand you intend to use to pick up your selections and use the other hand to hold the bag to put them into.
Now, for pesatura: look around for a scale, and place your bag on the the scale. Above the scale there will be a panel with pictures of the fruit and vegetables on sale that day. Press the the corresponding picture button and you'll get a label printed out. Stick it on your bag. Repeat with your other items.
One last tip: Now all supermarkets take credit cards. Some only use their own store cards--like some COOP locations. There should be an ATM nearby, so this shouldn't be much of a problem. Besides, to really experience the Italian lifestyle, try to steer clear from supermercati, even though the quality of produce in them is much superior from what is typically found in U.S. supermarkets. My best experiences have been shopping in local Mama e Papa alimentari, with the ultimate experience being the open air markets.
Happy shopping... and don't forget to buy a mesh shopping bag before heading to Italy.
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