For the last six weeks, I’ve been shopping at grocery stores in Venice, Naples, Rome, and Florence. My Carissima and I are self-catering during an extended trip through Italy. My grocery store sample is limited and unrepresentative, but even so, the experience makes me appreciate the treasures at these Italian groceries. And, it helps me appreciate by contrast what they grocery stores back home in B.C. do well.I’m a fan of finding out what food a culture does well, what is local and typical, and trying to eat that when travelling. This food usually turns out to be more interesting, more yummy, easier to find, and cheaper to buy than trying to reproduce what I’m used to eating back home. So, when I entered the grocery stores, my first goal was to find out what food they did well and plentifully.  In these Italian stores, there was some very good news.

First up was cheese. (You were sure I was going to lead with pasta, weren’t you?) The mozzarella! The ricotta! The cheese section took up several meters, top to bottom, of the cold cases. It was not surprising for a good-sized store to have an entire cold case just for varieties of mozzarella. And it is cheap! There was decent house brand mozzarella balls for 10€/kg, or about CAD $15/kg. Back home it costs three times that much. I am a huge fan of fresh-grated parmesan cheese. It was no big deal to get a kilogram block of parmesan, and I have been avalanching it onto every dish I could get away with.

Next up is pasta. The fresh pasta comes in so many varieties: stuffed like tortellini or ravioli, plain like spaghetti or the wider ribbons of tagliatelle. Being fresh, they cook quickly, and taste wonderful. Being a high-volume product, it takes less time from the maker to my kitchen, and the flavour is the better for it. I was worried that all the tortellini would have meat, but no. I have been pleasantly surprised at how many vegetarian choices there were.

Third is pasta, again. This time, the dried pasta. Again, it comes in many forms. And for some reason, it tastes better than what I remember B.C. pasta tasting like. I’m not sure why this is: greater throughput? Better ingredients? Less shelf time? But something works.

Bread has been a delight, as well, in most places. The grocery store in Venice seemed to have a nearby bakery. Every morning there were fresh croissants for less than 1€. There were a number of breads which seemed to follow some baker’s Reinheitsgebot, with a minimal set of ingredients: only flour, water, yeast, and not much else. Certainly none of the preservatives which I am used to in B.C. industrial bread, but also no eggs or oil. The flavour was a pleasant surprise. The rapid staleness was a much less pleasant surprise: overnight it went from soft to hard and crunchy.

But another delight has been adapting to daily or near-daily shopping. No doubt this is not just due to the stores being Italian. It is partly because we are living as travellers instead of locals with a job, and stay in neighbourhoods where we can walk to a store just a few hundred metres away. But it makes the instant-stale breads less of a problem. If someone goes out at breakfast time for a round of croissants, and also gets just enough bread for that day, we can eat it up before it goes stale.

Then there’s the wine. Ah, the wine! Wine is sold in grocery stores, of course. (My U.S. readers won’t be surprised by this, but my B.C. readers might be.) In fact, I think the wine section typically took up more shelf space than the soft drinks section. The middle price range — not the 5 litre box, not the best stuff on the top shelf — seems to be 5-15€ per bottle, cheaper than back home, and quite pleasant to drink. There is lots of local wine featured in each place. I am a Chianti fan. We just arrived in Florence, so I am thrilled that the featured local wine here is — Chianti! Yay!

Produce has been less satisfying. In general the produce sections have been smaller, the range of produce lesser, and the quality not as high as back in B.C. There have been some wins: figs were fine in September, and seedless grapes have been a standard. But there are not as many choices of leafy greens for salad. And Shanghai bok choy, which we stir fry a couple of times a week back home, is nowhere to be found.

In fact, this experience has made me appreciate the diversity of cuisine that my B.C. stores offer. I take for granted being able to get tofu, miso, taco spices, and naan. In these Italian grocery stores, sometimes we can find tofu. Maybe there is one kind of soy sauce among the 15 varieties of balsamic vinegar. But I have yet to see miso.

Interestingly, non-dairy milk seems to have taken root in these Italian stores. In every location, I have been offered a choice between multiple kinds: soy, almond, coconut, and sometimes oat milk. Also, there have been lots of vegetarian options. Vegetarian and vegan eating is not just a Cascadia thing, it seems.

Tomorrow will be a new day in this new city, and a chance to find the store which can sell me a good croissant in the morning. I can’t wait. And I have yet to get to Bologna, which has the reputation of having some of the best food in Italy. I am really looking forward to the grocery stores there.

[Update: 2019-11-01 copy-editing.]