5 Big Differences Between Italian Supermarkets and American Grocery Stores

Italian supermarkets, or "supermercati," offer a unique shopping experience compared to American grocery stores. They feature extensive deli and butcher sections with fresh cheeses, cured meats, and custom-cut meat options. Pasta aisles are vast, eggs are sold unrefrigerated, and milk is available only in one-liter cartons. Additionally, Italian shoppers bag their own groceries, reflecting a cultural shift toward sustainability.

By Cookist

In Italy, grocery stores are known as "supermercati" (pronounced soo-per-mer-KA-tee), and offer a distinct shopping experience compared to their American counterparts. The differences between Italian supermarkets and American grocery stores are notable, extending beyond just what’s on the shelves to reflect cultural norms, culinary traditions, and everyday habits.

From the way products are displayed and stored, to the checkout process and available food varieties, these differences shed light on the unique nature of Italian supermercati compared to American grocery stores. The following are five key distinctions between the two.

1. Deli and Butcher Sections


One notable difference is the placement and variety of the deli section in Italian supermarkets. Often found in the center of the store, these delis offer a vast selection of fresh cheeses, olives, and cured meats, including prosciutto, salami, and mortadella. This section also usually houses a butcher counter, stocked with fresh meats where customers can order specific quantities, and friendly staff assist with custom cuts and advice. In contrast, American grocery stores may have similar sections, but they tend to be on the periphery and may lack the extensive range and artisanal options found in Italy.

2. Pasta Aisle


The pasta aisle in an Italian supermercato is a sight to behold. Being a world leader in pasta production, Italian supermarkets devote an extensive section to this staple, featuring a dizzying variety of shapes, sizes, and brands. For the Italian shopper, this is a normal part of their culinary culture, but for visitors, the sheer volume and variety can be overwhelming. American grocery stores typically offer a modest pasta section, with fewer options, emphasizing popular international and American brands over regional Italian varieties.

3. Egg Storage


In Italy, eggs are sold on the shelves, unrefrigerated. This practice contrasts sharply with the United States, where eggs are always refrigerated. Italian eggs are gently wiped clean before packaging, preserving their natural protective layer, known as the cuticle, which protects against bacteria. This layer is removed during washing in the U.S., necessitating refrigeration to maintain freshness and safety.

4. Milk Sizes


The largest unit of milk sold in Italian supermarkets is one liter, a stark difference from the gallon-sized containers commonly found in American grocery stores. This difference reflects broader cultural trends. Italian kitchens and refrigerators are typically smaller, with less space for bulky containers. Additionally, Italian grocery shopping is often done in smaller quantities and more frequently, favoring smaller milk containers, while in the U.S., grocery shopping is less frequent and in bulk, making larger containers practical.

5. Bagging Groceries


Another notable difference between Italian and American supermarkets is the approach to bagging groceries. In American stores, it is common for cashiers to pack groceries at the checkout counter. In Italy, however, the bagging process is a do-it-yourself affair. Customers are expected to bring their own bags or purchase them at checkout, then bag their items themselves. This reflects a cultural shift toward sustainability and environmental consciousness in Italy, reducing waste from disposable bags.

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