Do Italians do it better? When it comes to retail they know when to stick to doing it the old-school way. A few generations of refinement can work wonders for a local small business, be they the green grocers, chemists or butchers.
Despite big, impersonal supermarkets sprouting up across Europe in suburbs and cities, many Italians still stick to old shopping habits and buy daily essentials from small, family-run businesses that are often just a few footsteps away from home. In Genoa, I Fruttarelli is owned by fruit-and-veg vendors Maurizio (pictured above right) and Luciano Balossino, two brothers who are familiar faces in the alleyways of the port city’s medieval old town, an area now designated as a Unesco World Heritage site. The pair’s own storefront boasts a stone bas relief from the 15th century.
“Everybody knows us and stops by for a chat,” says Maurizio, who delivers groceries using a three-wheeled Piaggio Ape van or a scooter when not debating the merits of the city’s two football clubs with passers-by. “I’m the one who gets out and about, going around the city and the port, where we often take fruit and veg to yacht owners but my brother still loves to man the counter.”
The shop owners serve a useful role keeping tabs on the neighbourhood and police officers on patrol check in to get updates on any suspicious activity. Pensioners, meanwhile, do errands and leave their shopping bags with the Balossinos, who drop them off at residents’ homes free of charge together with the paper sacks of produce from I Fruttarelli, a name that fuses the Italian words for fruit and brothers.
The siblings started the store 30 years ago and rise before dawn to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from growers largely based in the surrounding region. On sale are crates of plums, stringy Ligurian squash and, of course, bunches of fragrant basil to make the popular regional favourite pesto sauce. The duo even have foragers busy in the hinterland gathering mushrooms and reporting back to Luciano, who mans the counter and answers the old analogue phone next to the till.
I Fruttarelli Via di San Bernardo 16R, Genoa
Monocle comment: It’s important to see a familiar face when being served and neighbourly shop owners can help build a sense of community between local residents. An extra pair of eyes at street level also helps to keep crime in check.
For hundreds of years the Piazza del Mercato Nuovo in central Florence was a gathering place for merchants trading silk and gold. “There, a pharmacist was a highly regarded personality,” says Filippa Arcuri, the current owner of the two-roomed Farmacia del Cinghiale, which still operates in the square. “I feel as if we are carrying on the legacy of those old times.”
Official records mention the Farmacia del Cinghiale in 1752. “We are a point of reference for many doctors in Florence who need to prescribe drugs that are no longer available on the market,” says Arcuri’s husband Maurizio Incorvaia. “We make them in our laboratory at the back of the store.”
The pharmacy has another laboratory located in Fano on the Adriatic Coast. It produces natural products for the body such as face lotions, shampoo, soaps and perfumes. “We produce an exfoliating face lotion made with apricot pit micro-particles,” Arcuri says. “We are also shifting our production to become entirely certified organic.”
This culture of an independent apothecary-style farmacia is not uncommon in Italy. Like many historic family-run establishments, Farmacia del Cinghiale dispenses conventional pharmaceutical drugs alongside natural ones. Arcuri has become an expert on Australian flowers and deals in homeopathy, herbal therapy and aromatherapy too.
Monocle comment: Regulation has helped preserve Italy’s pharmacies. In Italy, by law, there has to be at least one pharmacy for every 3,500 people.
Milan is well known for its high-quality fashion, with the centrally located Quadrilatero della Moda shopping district teeming with boutiques selling well-cut clothes. But locals also like to tuck into good food and the discerning Milanese have a favourite place when it comes to finding a choice cut of meat: Macelleria Annunciata.
Opened in 1996 by Mauro Brun and his meat-carving colleague Bruno Rebuffi, the butcher’s shop sits on a quiet side street, steps from the city’s high-end clothing stores. “Our philosophy is that when you eat, eat only quality foods. People may not consume as much meat today as in the past but a good steak is one of the finer pleasures in life, like wearing a good suit,” says Brun. The steaks are from Fassone cattle, a Piedmontese breed known for tasty and tender meat. Brun also tries to get clients interested in less popular cuts too. For traditionalists, there are meatballs for pasta and local classics such as Milanese Cotoletta – a breaded veal cutlet.
Monocle comment: A lively retail scene on the high street needs a mix of independent traders. A good standalone butcher’s shop staffed with knowledgeable hands should be a staple of any city neighbourhood.