Up and over the hill from us is a very rare store. It is large and well lit and sells everything a modern Italian housewife might need to make her modern life easier, from diapers, to fresh mozzarella, to 90 proof gin. It looks very much like a modern American supermarket. Those nutty Italians have even given this store the quaint name, “Supermarket”. When I went to the checkout line the nice, young cashier even persuaded me to get a card just like the card in my wallet from that HumongoMart back home that gives me huge discounts on certain items. In fact, with this new card, every time I grab a bottle of wine off the shelf, they give me two Euros and a corkscrew. I do not think that we will be shopping there too often, though. It’s a bit too much like shopping at home and besides the temptation to buy lots of stuff is so great that I gave myself a triple hernia climbing the hill back to the apartment loaded down with diapers, fresh mozzarella, and gin.
Now your typical market in Florence is a mom and pop and, usually, mother-in-law operation. There is the fruit and vegetable market where you buy your fruit and vegetables, your meat market where you buy your meat, your bread and pastry market where you buy your guilt. At the foot of our road is another operation completely. Neither supermarket nor quaint family shop, it is called, simply, “Penny Market”, not “The Penny Market”, just, “Penny Market”. So what do you buy at Penny? Whatever the hell it is that they’ve swept out of the warehouse that day, tied into bundles with greasy twine, backed the truck into the rear of the store and dumped into the Penny cavern. At this point it is a free-for-all. “Anyone seen any onions? I need some onions.” “No, but here’s a six-pack of shampoo.” “O.K. what the hell. Onions, shampoo…my husband will never know the difference.”
It is very common for the small market owner to take a certain amount of pride in his window displays. Using the colors of his produce as a palette, our local fruit and vegetable vendor paints a sumptuous still-life that beckons the shopper. The windows of the Penny are completely covered over with orange sheet metal. If my sister had not dragged me there I would not know that it was a market to this day. I had assumed it was an electrical transfer station, whatever the hell that is. She explained to me with a sniff that Penny was a German outfit as if that would explain it all. And maybe it does ‘cause it sure ain’t Italian.
There are some major deals to be had at Penny, but first you need to put on your pith helmet and be sure to take a flashlight to check those expiration dates. That is, if there are any expiration dates to check. A lot of stuff at Penny comes from Slavic countries whose names you used to know. In a cost-saving measure they have skipped over the labor-intensive part of the production line where the expiration date gets stamped on the products…this includes meat products. I suspect that many of the meat products on sale at Penny were slaughtered sometime in the previous century. This notion is borne out by the decontamination booth you walk through on your way out. As soon as she opens the door, I can tell if my wife has been to Penny by the scent of one of your three choices of decontaminants"Happy-Go-Lucky Lavender Sunrise", "Citrus Rainbow Yum-Yum", or "Salami".
The tip here is that to really experience the true heart and soul of Italian culture, shop at your local markets. Get to know your shop owners and, if you go there regularly, within a little while, say three or four years, you will be treated like a family member when you walk in. That is, you will scolded by the mother-in-law for not showing up for the last 24 hours (or even writing) and be asked to mop the floor. But it will all be worth it because…wait…gotta run, I smell the shampoo burning.