I love Italian butchers. I have never met an unfriendly macellaio, anywhere. Most Italian food purveyors are happy and even eager to talk about their goods, but my butcher has an amazing amount of interest in what I will do with the 1/2 kilo of whatever I just ordered. This is especially true when I demonstrate an inadequate thirst for his knowledge. If the right questions about my veal or lamb or sausages aren’t posed, my butcher will ask me what he suspects I need to know, then gallantly and gently coming to the rescue when I have revealed exactly how clueless I am, and showing genuine happiness if I prove to be on the right track.
My recent purchase of a simple, whole chicken, cut in pieces, was a revelation. Once we determined which bird was exactly right for me, the question-and-answer period began. Signora, are you roasting the pieces, or braising them? Do you want the breast split crosswise, so it cooks evenly with the smaller pieces? Shall I include the neck and giblets? They add such flavor to the sauce. Are you making stock? Because you will want the wing tips and backbone for that, certainly. By the time I left, the plans for my entire chicken dinner were nearly epic. Not only did I know how I wanted to prepare my exact, specific chicken, but which contorni to serve alongside and how to cook them. Roasted potatoes? I will tell you which kind to get, and the broccolini in the market today, sautéed with a bit of peperoncino, will be perfect.
Butchers are a font of culinary knowledge from which one may drink long and deep; they serve up confidence, portioned out with their cleavers, carefully wrapped and tied with string. And the sons or nephews of butchers, standing next to them in their long, white, blood-stained coats, are almost always jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
2. A Shopping Cart On Wheels Is Not A Sign of Weakness
Nobody laughs or stares at me as I trundle along, pulling my wheelie cart behind me. Everyone in Rome has one, young, old, fit or frail, because no sane person tries to wrestle ten plastic bags over a kilometer radius and in and out of multiple stores and lines. Attempting such folly only pisses everyone off. My beloved wheelie cart is about 4-feet tall, made from durable, waterproof canvas and sporting big, goofy, shock-absorbing rubber wheels to withstand the many miles of cobblestones. I can’t imagine my life before or without it. I would never dream of dragging a wheelie cart around Manhattan without enduring pointing, giggles and whispers, but in Rome, I am simply part of the crowd. Wheelie carts are sacred property, too. At the supermercato, everyone parks the cart inside the store entrance without anxiety; it is always there, intact, when you exit the register line. I remember asking one of my Italian friends, “Are you sure I can do this? Won’t it get stolen?” She stared at me. “Why would anyone do that? Everyone leaves their cart here.”
3. Just Enough is OK
I can buy only what I need, down to the gram, stem, slice or piece. Need two stalks of celery and one carrot? No problem. Six slices of proscuitto? Fine. 1/4 of a loaf of bread? Certainly. Food should not be wasted; this is a basic, accepted, universal truth, so it is understandable to only get a specific quantity. Plus, why buy more than you need right now? You are going shopping again tomorrow, aren’t you?
4. Free Parsley
Produce vendors almost always throw in a generous handful of fresh parsley on the house when I buy my vegetables, since it is likely I am making something else yummy to go with them that will undoubtedly need parsley. The first few times this happened I thought it was a weird, coincidental mistake, but it has a lot to do with reason number 5, below. I especially love it when the vendor points out how beautiful the parsley is as he shoves it into my bag. They kinda get off on it.
5. Vendors Are Intuitive
Food vendors pay very close attention to what you are buying, offering other items that are natural or logical accompaniments. A cynical view would be to assume this is purely a way to rack up a sale, but it really isn’t. Nearly everyone in the food business in Italy knows that it is important to have necessary elements to cook and enjoy food properly. When I buy celery, carrot and onion, the question often asked is, "Are you making stock or ragu?" The answer produces a bouquet of the correct herbs to use. If I ask for two young cheeses at the alimentari, I am offered an aged one to go along with it, or a cured meat from the same region as the cheese. If I buy artichokes, I am reminded that I need lemons, too.
6. Don’t Touch: Non Toccare
This is the hardest concept for Americans to understand when food shopping because we are so used self-service. Touching is a big no-no in Italy. Never, ever should the shopper handle the goods, unless given permission to do so, and it is entirely up to the individual purveyor to grant it or not. Even trusted regulars follow this rule, and I have seen many a small ruckus erupt when an unknowing visitor starts groping the tomatoes or scooping out the dry beans himself. The lines between customer and vendor are clearly drawn, and all the players know their role well. Vendors want to wait on you, partly because they are proud to offer the service, but mostly because they don’t want you manhandling anything with your careless mitts. It makes perfect sense, and this simple rule is a lot better than putting everything in suffocating, styrofoam, plastic-wrapped trays.
7. It’s All About Me
Shopping in Italy is time-consuming, and requires a lot of patience for waiting on endless lines. It is awful when you are waiting behind the nonna who is ticking off a list of forty-seven items, but the payoff comes when it is finally, blissfully your turn. All attention is riveted on you, your needs, your questions, and your preferences. Some shopkeepers are gruff, but the customer is not treated as a diversion from something more important. “My turn” is an inalienable right, and multitasking is not a virtue. Actually getting your turn can be challenging, since Italians are missing the genetic code associated with forming an orderly line, and the man or woman behind the counter is not likely to intercede in inter-customer smack-downs. But once you’ve prevailed, everyone else fades into the background.
8. Less Mystery
The customer usually knows, or can easily find out where the goods originate, and/or when they were made. In most cases it is printed on a sign as a matter of fact, and quite often, the vendor will proudly offer the information without being asked. Along with the info, you get opinions on which selection is the best choice, and, coincidentally, it is usually where they are from. Sure, you can have those beans from Sicilia, but if you want the sweetest, most delicate flavor, you should get these, from L’Aquila, where I am from. Have you been to L’Aquila?
9. Everything Out in The Open
In Rome, food is always out in the open, vibrant, alive and part of the landscape. Food bathed in sunlight and fresh air always wins over food under fluorescent light. Produce and dry goods are artfully displayed and carefully arranged, spilling out of doorways and onto sidewalks or calling out from sparkling glass windows. Open air markets are a riot of color and activity, resonating and bouncing off the buildings and into the sky; covered markets bring a sense of the outdoors in with soaring ceilings, open vaulted doorways and skylights. Customers gather and congregate from the street up to the counter. Food in Italy beckons, teases, and invites, changes the mind, awakens cravings and almost always leads to decisions about dinner.
10. Daily Adventures Into The Unknown
I never know what to expect when I go shopping in Italy, both a joy and a frustration, and always an activity full of surprises. I eye a particular brand of olive oil in the supermarket one day, and the next day it has disappeared entirely from the shelves. Yesterday, the bakery closed at 2:40 PM and reopened at 5:10 PM; today it closed at 4:00 PM and never reopened. A really good bottle of wine sits next to a jug of Lancer’s in shop window. I ask for what I want in perfect Italian one day, and am tongue-tied to the point of tears the next. I can get Special K with chocolate and figs in it. There are 23 varieties of yogurt available. Wonders never cease.
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome doing research for her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.