On a recent whirlwind guided group tour of Italy’s most storied cities and historic villages, a rainbow of produce popped into my field of vision as I meandered toward an outdoor market in the historic downtown piazza of Verona, famous for Shakespeare’s tragic-romantic balcony scene starring Romeo and Juliet. You know the one.
Under a produce stand’s umbrella cluster, a woman chopped butternut squash, bell peppers, zucchini, spinach and carrots, filling plastic bags with the mixture and tying it in a knot.
Now that’s fresh-cut. The attention to what customers want nowadays, even in medieval stone villages older than the Mayflower, highlights how advanced produce sellers are in Italy — at least in the tourist havens I visited.
I was curious how Italians fill the produce sections of their supermarkets, small grocers and outdoor markets. What do they do differently from U.S. retailers? What’s the same?
For Amy Sowder's tour of Despar in Venice, visit Produce Retailer.
First, the effects of today’s global economy were clear. The Italian retailers I visited were definitely on board with the packaged produce trend and the added value of fresh-cut convenience — just as much, if not more, than U.S. supermarkets. The demand for plant-based protein must be big there as well, as some prepared salads and salad kits included nuts, seeds, cheese and beans. Tuna was an option as well.
In the heart of Venice’s pedestrian streets threaded with canals, I found a supermarket where the packaging was next-level, from single black-skinned avocados in clamshells with an extra layer of protection of soft, crinkly sealed plastic to shrink-wrapped white trays of organic bananas.
At Lake Como’s outdoor market where I bought strawberries, there’s a “don’t touch” policy. If you want a particular piece of produce, you have to tell the salesperson, who will bag it for you. Our tour guide had warned us about this rule, common to special markets.
My mom was slightly affronted by the restriction. “You need to feel how ripe it is, especially cantaloupe,” she said.
I enjoy the tactile aspect of food shopping, but it does seem much more sanitary to have fewer hands (and germs) touching my food. Plus, I’m sure it reduces damage from squeezing or dropping produce.
This rule doesn’t work in supermarkets and larger grocery stores, of course, as nonstop vigilance isn’t possible.
At a supermarket in Rome, I found quaint straw baskets brimming with loose fruits and vegetables, including zucchini blossoms.
Across the aisle was the impressive fresh-cut, packaged refrigerated section fanning out with clamshells of cut produce and bags of salad mixes.
Here and there, I saw touches of Italian taste, such as the light-green curling threads of puntarelle. This is the inside part the Catalonian chicory, a plant whose outer long leaves are too bitter for mainstream U.S. tastes.
Clearly, Western Europe’s famed peninsula is maintaining its foodie reputation just fine.
Amy Sowder is The Packer’s Northeast editor. E-mail her at [email protected].