Shopping in Rome
There’s another part of this site dedicated to the joys of window shopping, fashion and souvenir hunting in Rome. But this page is strictly about some of the practical things you’ll need to buy, the essentials, chiefly groceries on this particular page.
hours of business
First though, do remember that most shops in Italy are closed from around 12.30 to 4.30 every afternoon. They are also usually all closed on Monday mornings. Grocery shops however are open on Monday mornings, but are closed on Thursday afternoons and don’t re-open until Friday morning. Apart from grocery shops on Thursdays, most other shops are open every weekday evening until about 9.pm. Some modern supermarkets such as ‘SMA’ stay open in the afternoons, but don’t bank on it.
italian retail culture
Considering that today’s average Italians are all walking around in fur coats, D&G jewellery and fashions and driving new Mercedes or the latest Alfa Romeos, it’s hard to understand where all their money’s coming from, because if one judged only by the way they run their shops and service industries, they don’t actually seem very interested in making money. To the casual visitor, Italian shops appear to be closed for about half of every week, and even when they’re open, staff are rarely bending over backwards to help you.
They like to start throwing customers out their shops about ten minutes before closing time so that they don’t have to work a minute longer than they have to. Customers are often personally told by shop assistants not to touch store displays if it’s too near closing time – because it makes work for the assistants to put the dislays back in place – the poor dears. The thinking seems to be that it’s you the customer who are there to serve the staff, not the other way round. By the way, in case anyone in the Italian retail trade thinks I’m being unrealistically fussy, I’ll just add a srubbish of personal information at this point, that I don’t often do – Many years ago, I spent four years of my life working for Harrods, London, so there is absolutely nothing, no, nothing that you, dear Italian shopworker can teach me about retail customer service. Don’t even try.
In Harrods, we may have let a customer down or disappointed one from time to time, but at least we aimed to work broadly to the bottom line maxim that ‘the customer is always right’. In Italy, the retail culture is clearly that ‘the customer is always wrong’.
“adapt a shopping strategy of continual contingency planning and damage limitation…”
Also, a lot of what one buys in Italy tends to turn out to be broken or malfunctioning once you get it home and get it out the box, or if you take something to a shop to be fixed or made for you or specially ordered (not they can ever often be bothered to offer to special-order anything for you, nor even tell you the name of an alternative local supplier you could try if they don’t keep the item in stock themselves), you will quickly find that you must adapt a shopping strategy of continual contingency planning and damage limitation. For instance, if I need to buy four lightbulbs for a chandelier-type light fitting, I always buy five, in the almost sure and certain knowledge that one of the bulbs will not work. If I go to pick up a suit from the dry cleaners, I allow an extra ten minutes in my shopping schedule because I can already be half sure they will have mislaid my suit and need extra time to find it.
You’ll get used to it.
where to buy…
Sliced bread: The bread situation in Italy has actually improved since we moved here; There’s a big bakery company in Italy called Mulino Bianco, who are the equivalent of General Mills, Homepride or Mr Kipling – They manufacture an enormous range of sweet bakery snack-sized products, not exactly cakes, not exactly cookies, not exactly biscuits – Italians are not big into cookies and candy bars as we would recognise them, but they do eat a heck of a lot of these funny little spongy snack cakes and rolls, mostly filled with either whipped chocolate, yoghurt, or apricot, and most of this stuff is made by Mulino Bianco, who have saturation bombed the country with a steady succession of noxiously ubiquitous TV commercials all featuring the same familiar signature tune. However, they do make sliced bread, and it’s not bad. The loaves are tiny though, and if you’re a big toast and sandwich eater like this Englishman, you’ll get through about one loaf a day, no trouble. It’s very soft and nicely baked (is great for french toast) and comes in brown, seeded, white and soya varieties, and they also do a french-style brioche loaf. These loaves aren’t cheap though, as they’re not mainstream Italian fare yet, and are instead sold as a kind of ‘western’ luxury food item.
Be careful not to buy ‘Pan Carre’ by mistake – This is funny, dry crumbly stuff that just turns brittle in the toaster.
The other kind of bread you might experiment with is called ‘trammezzino’ – it’s what the bars use for their sandwiches – Soft, with the crusts already trimmed off, it comes in ridiculously expensive packets of about eight slices, and has a horrid sweet taste, (as does Pan Carre)
Margarine can only be bought in little 250g drums – Another radical difference from England where we buy it in cartons of 5Kg. They just don’t spread anything on their sarnies in Italy and that’s that – There’s no call for huge amounts of margarine and butter.
Marmalade doesn’t exist. Don’t buy their orange jam (called ‘marmalata’) in the vain hope that it’s marmalade; it isn’t – It’s way too sweet.
Bacon is not the average Italian’s agenda for breakfast either – The bacon they do sell is not usually meant for frying – It’s sliced so thin that it frazzles up in the pan in less than twenty seconds if you’re not careful.
Instant coffee is expensive here. Nescafe have a big ad campaign running at the moment targeted at ‘hip’ young people with a slogan encouraging the new generation of italians to ‘open their minds’ (to drinking instant coffee) instead of the traditional home-brewed espresso.
Curry – Italians don’t know what this is. They think they do, but they don’t. There’s only one Indian restaurant I know of in central Rome, it’s in Via Serpenti, it’s very expensive, and it’s rubbish. Just for fun, I’d like to force-feed half a pound of chicken Vindaloo to an Italian one day. Don’t even think of trying to find the ingredients to cook it at home, you won’t find them anywhere, unless. it’s at…
…Castroni’s, which is a swanky bar and delicatessen of sorts on Via Quattro Fontane, just off Via Nazionale, in central Rome. If you’re really dying for some HP sauce or Folgers instant coffee, Castroni’s keep quite a good stock of international food products, but the prices are exorbitant. If you absolutely can’t hold out another day without a jar of Skippy, then get along to Castroni’s – There’s a bureau de change almost opposite where you can change that fifty dollar bill you’ll need to pay for it.
We’ll keep adding to this list as the mood takes us, and as more sightings of Bovril and Kool-Aid come to light.