If you’re planning on spending any amount of time in Italy in which you will want to cook, bake, or generally not always eat in restaurants (I know, it’s hard, but your bank account will thank you!), this list might come in handy.
You might think that Italy will have everything you need, they bake and cook so it’s just a matter of translating, right? Yes...and no. It’s not as different as it could be, I can imagine living in China or the DRC would present a bigger challenge for finding and cooking with familiar ingredients and brands. But this is still a “foreign” country and will present its unique challenges. The best way to tackle these challenges is to meet them head on, and hopefully with the ones that are important to you in your suitcase!
What follows is a list of ingredients and items that could fall into these categories: nonexistent - expensive - elusive - and, - it’s just not the same. Compiled from my own experience and that of fellow expat friends, I hope you find it helpful, and, as always, let me know in the comments below what should be added or your own stories! I’m sure there are things I don’t even think about that others might really miss!
Some ingredients are carried in all main grocery stores and just located in strange places, some are only found in specialty stores, and others you might want to consider bringing with you in your suitcase. Little Ethnic stores are your friends! Of course, this list is not all-inclusive, I chose not to list most of the items that are “name brand” or not mainstream; i.e. your favorite brand of laundry detergent might not exist, but there are plenty of other detergents that do exactly the same thing, so I don’t have Arm & Hammer listed as non existent, or likewise, I won’t have Andes Mints baking bits listed because most people wouldn’t think of those let alone miss them. Make sense? Ok let’s get grocery shopping!
Asian Ingredients - Ingredienti Asiatici
If you want spring roll wraps, soy sauce, canned coconut milk, sriracha, or anything that’s more Asian than Italian, chances are you are not going to find it at the supermarket. The large Esselunga I shop at does have an Asian section (it’s a tiny end cap) but the prices are high. So, head to any Asian grocer instead! The products are authentic, variety greater, and prices much better! You might even end up with food items (we hope they’re food?!) you’ve never seen before to try, and it might remain a mystery because the packages often lack any English, Italian, or any Latin alphabet!
Apples - Mele
I love apples. I don’t love apples in Italy. They are everywhere, but I can’t understand why they are gross. It can be apple season but when you bite into a beautiful apple you get a mouthful of pith. Blech. I grew up picking fresh apples every fall with my mom and siblings so maybe I’m just apple-spoiled? The only apples that I consistently like, crisp and sweet, are the Ambrosia apples at Esselunga.
Avocados - Avocado
Avocados are found pretty easily, but they are expensive! They are usually between 3.50-5.50euro/kilo. And they’re not always the beloved Hass, often there is a smoother, greener variety that comes from Israel.
Baking Powder - Lievito in Polvere
Baking powder doesn’t come in containers or tubs like it does in the States. You will usually find it in small packets (often with the artificial vanillin flavor) in the baking section…but beware! Rumor has it it doesn’t work well, causing desserts to rise too much too fast or not rising at all. I haven’t personally tried it, as this is something I bring with me and a container lasts a long time! You could try the self-raising flour, I’ve read that works reliably well.
Baking Soda - Bicarbonato di Sodio
This is cheap and sold in all grocery stores, it’s just not in the baking section like you’d think it would be! Look on the end caps in some stores by the Alka Seltzers or by the bottled water or soft drinks in others.
Black Beans - Fagioli Neri
Don’t ask me why, but the black beans are not always with the other beans at Italian grocer stores. Sometimes they don’t carry them, sometimes they are in a “special” section maybe with other seeds and nuts. But they do exist! Pinto beans however, are yet to be seen.
Cabbage - Cavolo
Italians love their cabbage, especially when their cavolo nero or black cabbage comes into season. However, black cabbage seems more similar to kale than it does the variety of cabbage we use in the States, that light green head of cabbage. If you have a hankering to make say, sauerkraut or pickled purple cabbage, what do you do? Scour your nearest grocery store, I saw for the first time towards the back of produce section a “regular” head of cabbage! I have on occasion seen the purple cabbage, but because fruits and vegetables are still very much sold seasonably, you can’t count on them year round. The green cabbage I saw was called crauti, their name for sauerkraut, but I believe it’s also called cavolo cappuccio bianco.
Candy Bars and Candies - Barrette di Cioccolato e Caramelle
You can find these here: Snickers, Mars, Twix, Kit Kat, Skittles (since last year), M&M’s, Smarties (the Canadian M&M’s), Lindt, Bounty, Lion, Ferrero Rocher, and various other European varieties. Reese’s can be found at Vivimarket in Florence for a significant price.
Canned Pumpkin Purée - Zucca in Scatola
In Italy, this is liquid gold. To find pumpkin, you are going to need to go to specialty stores. In Florence, I know of two places that carry it. One is ViviMarket, the other is Pegna. Both places will run you about 4.60-4.80euro per 15 oz. can. I know. Like I said, liquid gold. You can find fresh pumpkin in the store, but it is not pie pumpkin and will give you a strange, strange pumpkin pie if you try and cook and purée it yourself.
Cereals - Cereali
I rarely eat cereal and I doubt you are coming to Italy dreaming about cereal, but one can’t help but notice that though cereal and granola is easily found, the selection is definitely smaller than that of an American grocery store. I’d say this is for the better, but just in case you’re a Lucky Charms or Fruit Loops die hard, realize they might not have your favorite cereal beyond the basics. There are rice krispies for making homemade granola bars, desserts, and Rice Krisipie Treats, just so you know. :)
Cilantro - Coriandolo
Fresh and dried parsley is everywhere, but cilantro? Not as much. I have found it on rare occasion in the grocery store, but you’ll have a much better chance if you head to any Asian grocer. And there are plenty, at least in Florence!
Chocolate Chips - Gocce di Cioccolato
Regular-sized chocolate chips are not to be found, just mini. But there is something about chocolate chip cookies with mini chips that are just not the same. The minis are expensive, too, upwards of 2euro for 6 oz of chips/1 cup. Otherwise, you can buy a bar of chocolate for less and chop it yourself for custom chocolate chunks.
Dill - Aneto
I haven’t come across dried dill here, but I can sometimes find fresh dill. But not always. So plan ahead if you want to make homemade pickles or add fresh dill to chicken salad, like I do. :)
Flour - Farina
There is a plethora of flour here, no worries! The tricky part is figuring out which kind you need, because the types of flour go beyond just all-purpose, bread, and cake. Someday I will write a post dedicated to the flours here and how they are best utilized, but for now just a quick overview. First, there are the two kinds of (wheat) flours; hard wheat “grano duro” and soft wheat “grano tenero.” Hard wheat is mostly used for crusty bread, pizza, and pasta because it has a higher protein content, whereas the soft wheat is used for softer breads and desserts. Second, there is the grind of the flour noted by numbers: 00, 0, 1, and 2. 00 denotes the finest grind, 2 is the coarsest. Beyond this there are also all the specialty flours you can find, including: self-raising flour as mentioned above under baking powder, farina di manitoba which is closest to what we call bread flour, almond flour, chickpea flour, cornmeal, rice flour, and more.
Grape Juice - Succo d’Uva
For all the juice variety you can find, only some grocery stores carry grape juice, and it’s only ever one type. Usually purple grape juice, I’ve never seen white. It seems all their grape juice is made into wine, none leftover for juice, haha!
Gum - Gomma
Yes, there is gum in Italy, but it’s a bit more expensive and not as good as American gum. Some of it is just gross, like licorice. If you like licorice, lucky you!
Hydrogen Peroxide - Perossido di Idrogeno/Acqua Ossigenata
This is not food, but if you use it for disinfecting wounds, mouth wash, removing stains, or any of its numerous uses, it might be helpful for you to know that it is readily available here, but the packaging made it harder to locate. Its bottle is usually white and generic and small, not the signature large brown plastic I’m used to buying in America. Search near the bandages and eye drops!
Maple Syrup - Sciroppo d’Acero
Maple syrup costs a small fortune. It can be found in most grocery stores and also at Vivimarket in Florence. A small bottle, roughly 8 oz, will cost you about 5-7euro. This is the real stuff, pure maple syrup and not high fructose corn syrup, but I believe Vivimarket carries the Aunt Jemima stuff if you’re feeling nostalgic, but I think a bottle of that will cost you more than a pure bottle, almost 8 euro! Ironic.
Marshmallows - Toffolette
Marshmallows are available here, but don’t expect Jet-Puffed fluffy big white mallows. To be honest, I’ve never bought them, but I’ve always heard they are just plain weird with a texture like stale marshmallows.
Mexican Ingredients - Ingredienti Messicani
Like the Asian ingredients, the Mexican ingredients can be found, but maybe less readily. There is a large Asian presence in Italy and no shortage of Asian grocers and restaurants, but the same cannot be said for Mexican. In Florence in fact, there is only one taco/burrito place I can think of. So you will have to find or make your own tortillas and sauces as best you can. Like the Asian section at the Esselunga I frequent, there is a small Mexican section with enchilada sauce, sour cream (it’s not refrigerated, I’m scared), refried beans, corn and flour tortillas, and other miscellaneous. Oh, and the can of refried beans costs more than 2euro. I would cook and mash my own, but I haven’t seen pinto beans here to make delicious refried beans. Black will have to do.
Molasses - Melassa
I have tried to ask at Coop and Esselunga for Molasses with varying responses. One lady was convinced they carried it only to find they don’t, and the other lady just looked at me like I was crazy. I am happy to report that it can be found at some specialty stores, for sure at NaturaSi. They are the WholeFoods of Italy, high prices and all, but a good place to checkout for natural products and specialty items the mainstream stores might not carry!
Peanut Butter - Burro di Arachidi
The main stores carry just Skippy, which costs almost 5 euro for a small bottle, or Calvé, a less expensive Dutch (?) brand. Natural peanut butter is not to be found, unless you can grind it yourself. But a life without peanut butter is sadness, so here’s the trick: go to the Chinese markets or Arab butchers, which carry more than just meat, and you’ll find the Calvé or other brands you probably haven’t heard of but for much more manageable prices. Then the next time you go back to the States stock up on Smucker’s and guard it with your life. If you’re interested in other butters, check out NaturaSi which has almond butter, peanut butter, and possibly some others.
Pecans - Noci Pecan
I thought for a long time these were non existent here, but they just like to hide. They are usually not with the other nuts like walnuts and almonds, but if your local grocery store carries them they might be by the “party aisle,” or near the soft drinks, drink mixes, peanuts and party nut mixes. But be warned, an 80g bag will run you between 3 and 5 euro a bag. I splurged once and made a pecan pie for Thanksgiving….I spent 12euro just on the 2 cups (240g) of pecans. Ayayayay.
Pretzels - Salatini
Similar to marshmallows, pretzels are available and stale tasting. These I did eat once, and haven’t again since. I bought them to make a pretzel crust for a pie, but after twirling around in my food blender for too long without breaking down, I realized these were not your ordinary pretzels. These are special stale pretzels best not used for crusts.
Salad Dressings - Condimenti per Insalata
This probably doesn’t need to be translated because you won’t need to ask or look for it. Just bring it with you if it’s important to you, like Ranch. I never would’ve thought of this but I do have some friends that this was CRUCIAL for. Salads here are always dressed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and sometimes balsamic vinegar. I’ve never turned back.
Sour Cream - Panna Acida
I haven’t tried this yet, the fact that it’s not usually found in the refrigerated section scares me a bit. I know, I’m sure it’s like the shelf stable milk products, but still. This is found in the Mexican section at my local Esselunga.
Spices - Spezie
Let’s talk about spices. When you think of Italian cooking, you can probably make a guess of which spices they will for sure have. Garlic, onion, parsley, oregano, basil, sage, bay leaf, cumin, turmeric, thyme, rosemary, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, marjoram, coriander, curry, and saffron are everywhere. Then there are whole cloves but no ground cloves. The first time I went to make a pumpkin pie I was trying to hand grate cloves…kids, don’t try this at home. Other spices like adobe chili, or smoked chilis, cardamom, mixes like garam marsala, or any ethnic spices that aren’t mainstream you will probably have to import yourself. Mint you can find at the Arab butcher shops.
Sweet Potatoes - Patate Dolci
Sometimes I can find these at the grocery store, sometimes not. A more sure bet will be Vivimarket, which has them every time I have gone, and are usually grown in the US, yeah!
Vanilla Extract - Estratto di Vaniglia
The REAL stuff, not imitation or vanillin like is found in every dessert here. And no, the real stuff doesn’t exist here. Either bring it with you or make your own! I usually bring a bottle with me to use while my homemade stuff is aging, it takes a minimum of 3 months.