What you need to know about shopping at Italian food markets

One of the very best things about visiting (or living in) Italy is having the chance to visit the country's famously wonderful food markets. But they can be a little daunting for a first-time visitor, especially if you don't speak much Italian. Here's a quick guide to what you can expect.

What you need to know about shopping at Italian food markets
Biking to the market to get your fresh fruit and vegetables is part of life in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Why shop at the markets?

In some countries, shopping for your food at a farmer's market is seen as a treat that not everyone can access or afford. But in Italy, it's the only way to go.

Here, the difference in price is usually small or nonexistant, and the difference in quality is enormous.

Fresh fruit at the Porta Palatina market in Turin. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

But more importantly, as an Italian flatmate once once tutted at my supermarket haul: “eating food from the supermarket is no way to live.”

Let's face it, he had a point.

We all know about the importance of quality fresh produce to Italians, and that's why local markets are still enduringly popular here.

There are plenty of food markets in Italy, and choosing to shop at them gives you the chance to eat fresh, seasonal produce, contribute to the local economy, practice your Italian, get a few recipe tips and maybe even make some friends.

Market halls vs. outdoor markets

If you're looking for the big, covered market halls you'll find them in cities like Rome, Venice, Florence and Turin. Elsewhere, you'll have to find out which day the weekly market descends on the village square, or on the outskirts of the town centre.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Both kinds of food market usually offer incredibly good value for money, and as well as doing your food shopping you'll be able to pick up other bits and pieces. Outdoor markets in Italy have a mixture of fresh produce stalls, cooked food stands, and stalls selling flowers, clothing, shoes, bags, bed linen, pots and pans and more.

Don’t be shy

This is the number one rule of visiting an Italian market. Feel free to ask questions about everything, and ask for (or point out) exactly what you want. Many stalls will offer you a taste of their produce, and you can also ask to try things. Sellers expect this and are usually happy to oblige.

Just a taste: here's what I got when I asked to try a piece of cheese at the market in Turin. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

And even the most socially awkward person will come to love small talk and chit-chat if they visit enough Italian markets.

Don't be surprised if market sellers start asking about your family and what you're having for lunch. And if you ask for cooking tips, you might just get a family recipe.

The chatting isn't just pleasant, though. If you're buying something, it's almost part of the transaction – particularly in the south, where personal connections are everything. I've lost count of the number of times we've been given a discount or extras just because the seller found something in common with my very chatty Italian husband.

But if you're not a confident Italian speaker, don't worry – a smile goes a really long way, too.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Be careful about haggling

Whether you love or hate the idea of haggling, it's a thing here in Italy.

But as with so much else in this country, it varies from one region or town to another. Haggling is usually fine at any market in Italy, though in the more touristy markets (such as Florence's Central Market) it probably won't get you very far. While in some places, the seller will actually be disappointed if you don't at least try!

As a very general rule, the further you are from tourist areas and the further south you go, the harder you can bargain. Use your judgement. And If in doubt, always keep it gentle and low-key – remember you were probably getting a bargain to start with!

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Learn how to queue (or not)

As you probably know, Italians have their own ideas about queuing. You might hear someone ask “chi è l'ultimo?” (“who's last?”) in order to find the end of the “line”, but that's about as orderly as things are going to get.

If it's busy, make sure you know who was in front of you and make eye contact with the vendor to let them know that you're there to buy. And early in the morning, watch out for the sharp-elbowed nonnas, who treat weaving their way to the front like a kind of competitive sport.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Time your visit

The stalls usually open from 8am and, if you're driving, the earlier you arrive the more likely you are to get a good parking spot.

As the morning goes on the market will get busier, making for a better atmosphere but bigger crowds.

Look but don't touch

As at any market elsewhere in the world, don't go around touching the produce. The sellers will not be happy.

This one may sound obvious, but market stalls often put signs up warning non toccare (don't touch), so obviously someone must be doing it.

“Don't touch for any reason”. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

And another word of warning: as in any crowded place, stay alert and take care of your belongings. Pickpockets don't usually hang around markets in small towns, but in big cities this is always a risk.

And while being short-changed is rare at food markets, it is still always best to check your change.

Beware of seasonal timetables

One of the reasons it can be hard to keep track of when and where the markets are taking place is that some will only happen at certain times of the year.

And some markets can change their hours or stop altogether in January (when it's too cold) and July and August (when it's too hot.)

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Check online

If you don't have an Italian neighbour to point you in the direction of the nearest market, the most reliable source for practical information about local markets is from your town hall (or the town hall's website). That's because the city council has jurisdiction over the organisation of the markets.

Happy shopping!

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local


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‘Harryhandel’: Is the return of cross-border shopping in Norway really a good thing? 

The pandemic cut-off Norway from its neighbours, putting a temporary end to border shopping. Now ‘harryhandel’ trips are allowed again businesses in the country fear they will lose out as shoppers look abroad for cheaper groceries. 

Pictured is Norway and Sweden's border on the old Svinesund bridge.
Will the return of border shopping have a negative affect on the country? Pictured is Norway and Sweden's border on the old Svinesund bridge. Photo by Petter Bernsten/AFP.

In eastern Norway, particularly along the border with Sweden, cross-border shopping has long been common for residents looking for cheaper groceries and a better selection of products. 

Norway’s Covid-19 rules effectively put a stop to that until this summer. The closed border meant a record year for food and beverage sales in Norway. 

“Due to the fact that there was little action and that people did not travel, we noticed that our sales increased greatly during the entire period,” Øyvind Berg, production manager at Norwegian dairy firm Synnøve Finden, explained to public broadcaster NRK.

Now producers and supermarkets fear the impact of cross-border shopping being up and running again. 

“Our challenge is that we see that more than half of the food and beverage producers, i.e. the industrial companies, fear that they will lose market share because cross-border trade will return in full,” Petter Brubakk, director of food and beverage at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), informed NRK. 

The majority of those who go shopping across borders in Norway will do so in Sweden. However, in the north, some will also venture into Finland or Russia.

Further south people will also travel to Germany or Denmark. 

Why do people go to other countries for shopping? 

Overall the main appeal of cross-border shopping is that its much better for consumers than shopping domestically. 

Norway’s EEA agreement with the EU means that most foods, drinks, tobacco products, alcohol and other agricultural products are more expensive than they are within the EU as custom duties are required to import them into Norwegian supermarkets. 

Not just that, but there is a much wider selection of products than in Norway due to laws that protect Norwegian products. For example, cheeses such as Cheddar are more readily available, cheaper and generally of better quality in other countries than those found in Norway. 

READ MORE: What is ‘harryhandel’, and why do Norwegians love it so much?

Is border shopping a bad thing for Norway?

Norwegian businesses argue that crossing the border to shop affects the whole value chain, negatively impacting everyone from Norwegian farms and producers to supermarket employees, not just companies profit margins. 

“My advice is to encourage Norwegians to buy Norwegian food, and help secure Norwegian jobs throughout the value chain,” food and agriculture minister Sandra Borch told NRK. 

In addition, shopping domestically means more tax revenue for the Norwegian system to use to fund its generous welfare state. 

While shopping domestically protects domestic jobs, shopping abroad protects jobs there, which rely on people hopping the border to get their groceries. 

Coronavirus pandemic restrictions left a black hole in some of these economies reliant on shoppers from the Norwegian side of the border. For example, in Strömstad, a Swedish town close to the border where many travel to shop, unemployment rose by around 75 percent after Norway closed its borders with Sweden.