Although the Italian sentence does not include any reference to food, it is used to indicate the purchase of food items. To go grocery shopping is: andare a fare la spesa.
One of the first things I do after arriving in Italy is to find a supermercato (grocery store) and shop for specific food items, most importantly:
- prosciutto crudo (for my husband)
- ricotta di mucca (ricotta made with cow milk whey, for myself).
I will not bore you with more details regarding my shopping list (la lista della spesa). Instead, I will describe a few characteristics of the way Italians, at least in Milan (where I lived for almost 10 years before moving to California and where I am right now) shop in a supermercato, which may be a bit puzzling for an American visitor.
First of all, you need a coin to release the lock that chains each shopping cart (il carrello) to its neighbor. The coin is only a deposit, and you will get a full refund before you leave the store, provided you return the cart to the appropriate place and lock it.
When you buy lose fruit and vegetables, you need to weigh them yourself and print the label with the price: the cashier will not be able to do this for you. Each item is marked with a number and, by pressing the relevant button on the scales, you print the label that needs to be attached to the bag containing the purchased items.
When you are done filling your cart with goodies, you need to bag them yourself, possibly keeping up with the cashier, so that by the time he or she is done scanning, you are almost done bagging. Failure to keep up may be rewarded with stern looks on the part of the people in line behind you.
What I consider the most difficult part of the supermercato experience is the bargaining about coins (monete) that occurs with the cashier. From time immemorial, in Italy we have a dearth of coins, a situation that the advent of the euro seems to have left uncured and possibly made worse, considering that certain amounts of money that once were lira banknotes (banconote) are now euro coins. As a result, you are almost always asked whether you have some coins (ha della moneta?) which will make the change include only banknotes or a smaller number of coins. For example, if your total charge is €16.30, and you pay with a €20 banknote, the cashier will probably ask you whether you can produce €1.30 in coins, so that he or she can complete the transaction by handing you a €5 banknote. If you don't have €1.30, but do have €0.30, you are still good, since that amount will require a change made up of only two €2 coins, versus the four coins needed to make up €3.70. I am so used to this way of adjusting payments that I tend to apply the same reasoning when I am in the US, often to the grave consternation of the cashier, who has the change automatically calculated by the cash register and plenty of coins to handle it without any special provisions on my part.
I hope I have not scared you with my tales of the supermercato. I actually strongly recommend you find a nice one and take the time to explore it: it will be an interesting visit, from both a culinary and a sociological perspective.
Addendum: here is another post on the same topic.