ou know where to sightsee, where to stay, where to dine – but where should one grocery shop in Rome?
I’m going to share three little secrets with you… and although they have nothing to do with monuments, Roman history or the best restaurants in town, as a tourist or an expat, these could change your time here.
Roman life can be delightfully exhausting with the locals’ belief that just because it’s a weeknight doesn’t mean we can’t stay out until 4am. With all this frenetic socialising you can easily find yourself waking one morning or coming back home after an aperitivo and suffering what I call the ‘Oh-my-God-I-forgot-I-was-in-Italy-and-I-desperately-need-a-supermarket’ syndrome. We praise the Italians, we’re seduced by this city, and we lust after their way of life and general insouciance. Yet when confronted by a bare cupboard and fridge, particularly on a Sunday or any weeknight after 8pm, the experience is decidedly alarming. “But… but… whyyyyyy can’t they work 24/7? But don’t they know they could be making more money from all those struck by a violent craving for biscotti at 9pm?” Yes, but they have this bizarre idea about something called ‘quality of life’ and some mad notion that Sunday should be a day you spend eating homemade gnocchi with your family. Crazy people. Much more logical is our Anglo-saxon road to robot-ville with stores that never close, families that never speak and an infinite supply of packaged, canned and frozen matter masquerading as food.
Anyway, I buy good olive oil from Tuscany and pick up my buffalo mozzarella from the south, however, it’s time to confess that the night I discovered the Despar supermarket between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, I felt a joy generally reserved for the religious. Via dei Giustiniani, 19. There it was, like some holy sacred site, its fluorescent halo guiding me into supermarket heaven. It’s open from 9am until 10pm – two whole hours later than almost every other supermarket – and in this gloriously central location. And that’s not all, pilgrims. IT’S OPEN SUNDAY. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.
Now, what about when you’ve had so much pizza and pasta and all you want is some fresh, juicy, crisp, olive-oil free fruit and vegetables? Perhaps some supplies for a picnic? I hear you. You’re probably thinking Campo dei Fiori, right? But sometimes I find it more like a show that’s put on for the tourists. I prefer to buy my groceries in a little food market that is practically hidden and yet unbelievably convenient if you’re doing the usual tourist trail around the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona. Walk down via Tomacelli, which is the big street that runs from the river to the big Fendi store and joins via dei Condotti finishing at the Spanish steps. Halfway between the river and via del Corso you will find Piazza Monte D’Oro, behind a kiosk and a store selling leather bags. Up until about 3pm Monday to Saturday you will find a cute market offering excellent produce, jovial young grocers who are only too happy to discuss what you plan to cook, and a good range of flowers for Italian men begging their women to forgive their affairs. You will also find a little stall selling scrumptious panini, salads and other fresh packages perfect to take away.
Are you ready for the third wonder of the Roman grocery world? This one’s well known to all Italians and most expats, but for those Castroni virgins out there, let me tell you about this paradise. Castroni offers everything – gourmet ingredients, foreign products, cakes, coffee – even their shopping baskets are golden! They stock Patak’s curry paste, quinoa, ground almonds, real vanilla extract, sweet chilli sauce and a hundred types of chocolate. These items just don’t exist in supermarkets in Italy. It’s like an Italian Dean and Deluca. Even if you’re not an expat dreaming of Asian flavours, as a tourist it’s a great spot to pick up high quality Italian products as well and you can find Castroni stores all over the city. Stores in the centre are via Nazionale 71 and via Cola di Rienzo 196/198 and they’re soon opening one at via Frattina 79.
So if you’re in Rome this month, that’s where you’ll find me: salivating at Castroni’s, flirting with my greengrocer or late-night cruising the aisles of my Despar heaven. I highly recommend all three.