I recently asked a group of my fellow American expats what they wished someone had told them before they moved to Italy. I got a ton of great answers, but one of the topics that came up the most was that there are a LOT of American foods that are very difficult or even impossible to find in an Italian grocery store. Here is a list of a few of them, along with some alternatives, so you don't get halfway through baking a cake a realize the rest of the ingredients are only available in another country!
I am not sure why, but trying to find vanilla extract in an Italian supermarket is like trying to find an ancient, magic artifact in an adventure movie. You go all over the store, trying to guess which section it might be in (the baking section, right?), fighting against the crowd, trying to stay focused on your goal with all the other foods calling your name, all the while wondering if it even really exists.
Around Christmas 2020, I finally started seeing a few small bottles of vanilla extract (estratto di vaniglia) at the local Esselunga and Conad stores, but the bottle looks a lot different than the big, dark one in America (more like a small vial of clear liquid). So it does exist in Italy. But most Italians prefer Vanillina, a powdered substitute with a bit of added sugar.
Alternatively, you can make your own vanilla extract with vanilla beans and vodka, but that requires a lot of patience!
Don't panic: there is peanut butter in Italy. But it's most likely not the kind of peanut butter you are looking for. In Italy, peanut butter is usually considered an "American food," and their versions of it are all a bit different than we're used to. There are some that have to be kept in the fridge and some that are "natural" and separate into liquid and solid parts (but we have that in America too). But the main issue you will probably have is that Italian peanut butter has a lot less sugar than we're used to, so it may not be as tasty to you. It is a much more "peanutty" peanut butter!
This one is a question of semantics. There are pepperoni in Italy... but in Italy, "pepperoni" means "bell pepper." So if you ask for that, you won't be getting a spicy sausage, you'll be getting directed to the produce section.
As far as I know, there is no exact equivalent to pepperoni as we know it in Italy. Salami is a close approximation for putting on pizzas, though, and there are plenty of other types of sausage here to experiment with!
This one drove me crazy for years... Baking powder does not exist in Italy, at least not under that name. I searched and searched, and I ruined many a baked good trying to invent some sort of substitute with baking soda and an acid like lemon juice.
The solution, though, was actually very simple. There is a product called "lievito per dolci," (basically "leavening for sweets") which is a combination of baking powder and cream of tartar -- another thing I was missing! It works great for making nice, fluffy cakes and cookies (just don't mix it up with the other types of "lievito," which are for bread), and the kind I usually get, Lievito Pane degli Angeli, also includes vanilla flavoring if you can't vanilla extract either.
If you like making chocolate chip cookies, you will be very upset when you find out that brown sugar is extremely hard to come by in Italy. I'm not sure why, but they just don't seem to have our same affection for the powdery, light brown sugar we use for baking in America.
Recently, though, I was told that there actually is an equivalent here: zucchero muscovado. It is still tough to find in some stores, so many people make it at home.
American Cheese/ Velveeta /Cheddar
This is one I explore in more detail in my book, How to Be an American in Italy. It might seem obvious that there is no "American cheese" in Italy, but you would be surprised by how many people look for it!
American cheese, as well as Velveeta cheese, is considered to be a "cheese product," and thusly not a full-fledged cheese in Italy. Italy is very strict about how their cheese is produced, distributed, etc. (in some cases they even keep track of it down to the very cow that produced the milk to make it!), and not every cheese makes the cut. Sadly, the yellow, pre-sliced, Kraft Singles-style cheese we know and love is one of the ones that doesn't.
Cheddar appears to be borderline, so you can find that one in a few stores, especially Lidl, which sometimes has a special display for "American food."
Don't worry, they have eggs in Italy, obviously!!
But I wanted to bring this one up because the eggs in the supermarket may not be where you expect them to be. In America, we keep our eggs in the refrigerated section, but in Italy they are kept at room temperature. This is because of the different ways they are cleaned before they are packaged. In America, the eggs are cleaned differently and during this cleaning process, the natural protective film is removed from the egg's surface, making it more susceptible to salmonella if not kept in the fridge.
So if you can't find the eggs in the refrigerator, check the regular aisles nearby!
Can you think of any other things we have in America that are hard to find in Italian grocery stores? Let me know in the comments and I might put it in another post!
I would like to thank Nicolle Wasserman, Alexandria Brodesser, Jill Christine Sarapata, Lynnie Di Bono-Giordano, Sarah Stats for their contribution of ideas to this article.