Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “My local…”! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.
Sometimes I feel like I have lived through the 1970’s twice.
I did my first turn around the block in the US, growing up in the Midwest. The 1970’s was a time when there were still small neighborhood shops and locally owned grocery and department stores. Our day-to-day shopping was broken down into a number of stops: the butcher’s downtown, the bakery on the corner (watching our loaf go though the bread slicer was the highlight of the trip), and even – if I plumb the depths of my toddler memory – the dairy. (Side note: the Weber Dairy building had a big cement milk bottle out front, which was huge when I was three years old. It towered at least 2 stories above my head. Two years ago, I happened to pass the building, now an office complex called The Dairy Center. The milk bottle is still there, but I had to laugh at how small it had become over 40 years.)
Even the larger stores were local chains. Our grocery store of choice was Honiotis Bros. because, you know, Greeks. (The Xoniotis family, who became the Honiotis family, was from Mykonos like our Theodosis and Vardoulakis – now Vardal – families, so we bought our carrots and toilet paper from Honiotis’ out of national pride.) But sometimes we would make a big trip to Dominick’s, which was a local chain. If we had to stock up on school clothes, it was off to to Wieboldt’s or Goldblatt’s (Wieboldt’s was better, because they gave out S&H Green Stamps), but a family wedding merited an excursion to Kline’s or The Boston Store. We loved The Boston Store, because the name conjured up that sophisticated and exotic city on the East Coast.
And then things started to change, and we all know how. First it was large supermarket chains that offered unbeatable prices during the recession, then it was newfangled malls that replaced the main streets for teenagers and adults alike. Not long after, the first big-box stores appeared, funneling business from the locally owned shops, and the vacant storefronts were replaced by national franchises.
None of the businesses I remember from my elementary school years are still around. Honiotis went first in 1985, then Dominick’s began to falter. Wieboldt’s, Goldblatt’s, Kline’s, and The Boston Store (not to be confused with Boston Store)…all gone. Now it’s chains as far as the eye can see, and everything from the suburbs to the downtowns look pretty much the same across great swathes of the US.
When I first came to Umbria in the mid-1980’s, in many ways it resembled the US a decade or two before. Franchises and big-box superstores were virtually unknown, and the retail sector was almost exclusively small, family-run businesses. Grocery shopping was divided between the local outdoor market for produce, the dry goods store, the butcher, and the bread shop. Buying a pair of black pants meant stopping in at one or two central emporiums, announcing that you needed black pants, and trying on whatever they brought you from the shelves. It was more time consuming and less efficient, but also more human and kept residents living in the otherwise inconvenient confines of the town centers.
Unfortunately, the same process that tore the fabric of American downtowns twenty years before began taking hold in Italy shortly after my first trip. The convenience and competitive pricing of supermarkets began to squeeze out the tiny markets and food shops, the novelty of the mall trumped the fustiness of historic clothing stores for younger customers, and the powerhouse marketing of national and international franchises crushed local shops. I have watched in dismay over the past two decades as more and more local businesses struggle while Foot Locker, H&M, and even the Italian chain Intimissimi seem to multiply overnight like mushrooms.
Though, in my heart of hearts, I long for an Ikea, I also have seen (twice!) the damage this modern franchise culture can do to communities and their local economies. I try to limit my excursions to the mall and the sprawling grocery stores along the highway to dire emergencies, and spend my time and money in the admittedly more expensive but also charmingly timeless shops in the center of Assisi.
This vintage photo is from the menu of Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi
Case in point: the Piazzetta delle Erbe. This tiny square just steps from Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune has been the local produce market for decades, if not centuries. Certainly long enough that the spot was officially dubbed “Greens Square” at some point and is now home to an excellent restaurant of the same name.
The home I stayed at on my second trip to Assisi in the late 1980’s had rooms overlooking this square, including my bedroom. I would wake to the friendly squawking of the local ladies bargaining for everything from potatoes and tulips each morning, mixed in with local gossip and good natured ribbing. The Piazzetta delle Erbe was both market and meeting place, and the small space was crammed with makeshift stands and tables, three-wheeled Apes, or simply stacked crates holding towers of seasonal fruit, vegetables, fresh eggs, ricotta, honey, and anything else these farmwives from the surrounding countryside had to sell that morning.
Today, just Novella remains. With enough energy and warmth to fill a piazza, but with just one lone stand of goodies she and her sweet husband Bruno bring in from their farm plot outside of town each morning, Novella holds court from dawn to lunchtime each day. She is almost never alone, as the local ladies take turns resting on her guest stool to swap news while she tirelessly rearranges buckets of fresh flowers, piles of greens, and crates of fruit. She holds the scales in her hand to weigh purchases, and then always throws in something extra after declaring an (often seemingly arbitrary) price.
It makes be both sad and joyful to see Novella still out there every morning. “Bongiorno, core!” she calls out as I pass. She knows what each of my sons prefer, and will spend a good five minutes picking the radicchio leaves out of my mixed greens to please them. She will scoff at my selection of tomatoes, tossing them back into the pile and choosing others. “Those are for salad, cocca. You want the sugo ones,” she explains after placing what look like identical ones on the scales. She will pick out a melon with all the gravity of a Antwerp diamantaire, after inquiring about the exact time I plan on serving it.
I know it takes me twice as long to buy from Novella, but I love the familiarity of it. I love being grilled by a group of housewives about my menu for the day, and then standing back as they argue amongst themselves about recipes and ingredients. I nod and smile, often feigning exaggerated ignorance just to revel in their animated conversation. The vast Coop supermarket will be there for years into the future, but one morning soon Novella will be gone, and with her the Piazzetta delle Erbe market. And until that day comes, she’s my local go-to vegetable lady.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
Though I’m not a huge shopper and certainly not a collector (I own so few things that I was once asked by a date who stopped by my apartment if I had lost all my belongings in a house fire), when I do spend money I try to spend it well. I do my best to support small local businesses, especially artisans who have to struggle so hard to keep crafting traditions alive.
I feel especially strongly about this in Umbria, a region with a long and proud artisan past and a thriving artisan present…if you know what to search out and where. Purchasing their handcrafted wares is killing two birds with one stone: doing good (by supporting the local economy) and doing well (by taking home an excellent quality memento that truly captures the essence of Umbria).
Read here to see what are four of Umbria’s most iconic products, and some suggestions as to where to find them:
Do you have any favorite artisans or ateliers? Post them in your comments below to spread the word!
It may look like I’ve abandoned you all, whiling away my days on the divan whilst imbibing on wine and chocolates.
Oh, yee of little faith. I’ve been here this whole time, just not here here.
I’ve been doing a bit of writing about Umbria and Italy for a number of other travel publications and sites, and as some of these articles may be of interest to folks planning a stay in Umbria or at Brigolante, I’m going to catch you up over the next few weeks.
I’ll begin with shopping.
Photo by G. Dall Orto
I wrote a Shopping Guide for Assisi post many moons ago, but some of the information there has changed in the meantime. So, recently I put together two new posts listing some of my favorite haunts to drop coin in Assisi and Perugia. You can read them here:
If you have any other favorite shops or suggestions, please leave a comment below!
I feel I am uniquely qualified to research and write an article about shopping in Assisi for two reasons:
- I absolutely abhor shopping.
- I only rarely go into the center of town.
Given these two details, is has to be something really special to lure me into a store in town, but luckily Assisi is full of lovely, offbeat little boutiques unique enough to tempt even the avid non-shopper.
Unfortunately, average run-of-the-mill souvenir hawkers specializing in what we affectionately call in our family “shitky-ditky” are both more numerous and more prominent near the monuments and churches, so at first glance it’s easy to miss my favorite specialty shops. If you are looking for pressboard crosses, friar salt and pepper shakers, or plastic replica medieval weapons, read no further…you can find all that without my help. But if you have your heart set on bringing something home to remember Assisi by which you won’t be able to find anyplace else on earth, you’ve come to the right place.
Food and Wine
Il Baccanale, Via del Comune Vecchio 2
I love this wine and gourmet shop….Luana (proprietor and friend) has a wonderful selection of both Umbrian and other Italian wines. She also stocks high end chocolate and coffee, top quality olive oil and pasta, and a whole range of jams, sauces, and condiments. She can help you with your selections and make up a gift basket to bring home with you.
Il Baccanale di Assisi
Farmer Shop, Via San Francesco 4a
This great mix between rustic stone vaulted space and minimalist design furnishing sells products from a local agricultural consortium…heirloom legumes, wild boar salami, hearty aged sheep cheese…but their big seller is their organic, unfiltered, unpasteurised, bottle refermented beers from the San Biagio estate…you can sample before you buy!
Farmershop Assisi's beer
Farmershop Assisi's Cheese
Alice Laboratorio Artistico, Via San Francesco 8I
I can’t talk up the kids’ t-shirts Alice hand-paints enough…sunflowers, doggies, dinosaurs, poppies, whimsical scenes of Assisi. If you give her a couple of days (and she’s not too busy), she’ll even personalize the back with your choice of name painted in a rainbow of colors. A one-of-a-kind gift.
One of Alice's hand-painted t-shirts
My favorite tee that Alice makes
Franchi, Via Portica 15A
This shop is bursting with wooden toys and decorations…Pinocchio in all sizes and colors, mobiles, wall clocks, rocking horses. Toys from another era yet somehow ageless.
Alice Laboratorio Artistico, Via San Francesco 8I
Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints. All in her lovely, whimsical style.
A sample of Alice's charming wares
Claudio Carli Studio, Via San Rufino
Claudio Carli is a well-known local artist who works in both watercolor and oil…primarily scenes of Assisi and Umbria. I love his work (we have some hanging in our house) and even if you are not in the market for a work of art, I suggest you stop by his gallery and take a look.
An example of Claudio Carli's work
Artestampa, Via S Francesco, 10c
Handmade woodcut prints of the monuments and backstreets of Assisi. Much more charming than the ubiquitous posters.
This antique shop has mostly big ticket furniture and art, but there are a few small, packable (or shippable) items which are fabulous…primarily their antique prints and majolica tiles. Claudio, the proprietor, is affable and knowledgeable, and the space is chock full of beautiful, unique pieces.
A tragically hip gathering of local contemporary art—if you are looking for something beautifully offbeat, or perhaps offbeatly beautiful, stop in here and have a chat with Francesco, the loquacious and charming gallery curator.
Detail of a painting shown in Minigallery, Assisi
Assisi has two wonderful jewelry designers with shops: Artigianato del Gioiello on Via San Francesco and Il Forziere on Via San Gabrielle dell’Addolorata. They both make lovely gold and silver pieces worked around precious and semi-precious stones, and also sell commercial lines (though I like their own work better). If you would like something uniquely “Assisan” to remember your visit, consider a gold tau—symbol of redemption much loved by Saint Francis.
L'Artigianato del Gioiello, Assisi
Fashion and accessories
I Colori del Tempo, Via Portica 6/b
A tiny boutique is crammed with scarves, purses, hats, jewelry, and some clothes. Most of their stock is in silk, wool, or cotton and in lovely hues and eye-catching prints.
Il Tapiro, Via San Francesco
This leather workshop has hand-made purses, wallets, belts, and jackets…the shop is owned by Mauro, who is passionate about his products and will treat you right. Florence is the place to go for leather, but if you’re not going to make it there, this boutique is runs a close second place for price and quality.
Paper and Books
Zubboli, Piazza del Comune
One of my favorite stores in Assisi, for both the beautiful antique wooden and glass show cases and the leather-bound wares in them. This shop has gorgeous hand-bound photo albums and journals, florentine printed notepaper, fountain pens, and hard-to-find books about Assisi and Umbria.
Outside of town
Terra Umbra, Via Patrono d’Italia 10, Santa Maria degli Angeli
A wonderful gourmet shop for Umbrian specialties….cheese, cold cuts and cured pork, truffles, and olive oil.
Duda Dida, Via de Gasperi 9, Bastia Umbra
This is an amazing toy store…fabulous european educational toys, dolls and stuffed animals, science and art projects. Definitely worth the stop in an otherwise unexceptional town, or a perusal of the website for online shopping.
Duda Dida, Assisi
Margiò, Via Los Angeles 57, Santa Maria degli Angeli
A wonderful fresh pasta shop where you can get tagliatelle, cappelletti (with meat filling) and a number of different types of ravioli filled with the traditional spinach and ricotta to the more exotic truffle and sheep cheese made fresh daily.
Broccatelli or Brufani, Via Los Angeles 33 or 35, Santa Maria degli Angeli
These two cheese shops (oddly right next door to each other) have fabulous fresh local cheese, both cow and sheep.