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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 11:55 GMT
Truffles and parmesan at the corner shop
By Martin Buckley
BBC News, Italy

Italian town centres have changed with the times, but Martin Buckley, who is in Reggio Emilia in the north, says that while many small shops have closed down, the neighbourhood food shop continues to prosper.

Cheeses
Italians are looking for quality not quantity when it comes to shopping
Crossing the piazza I notice a new delicatessen, its windows offering local parmesan, parmigiano reggiano, aged for 36 months at 12 euros a kilo.

Then I recognise the proprietor, Silva. She used to run a small delicatessen in a back street, which I came back from our summer holidays to find closed down.

But here she is again, in larger, brighter, premises.

I ask for a kilo of parmigiano and Silva takes half an enormous wheel of cheese and begins to cut me a slice.

They have skilled, strong hands, workers in parmesan shops.

Silva has to make a groove in the rind, then keep forcing the short-bladed parmesan knife deep into the brittle cheese, levering off, without snapping, a long slice, that goes from the rind right to the heart of the wheel.

So, it takes a few minutes to select and buy a piece of parmeggiano, and I, for one, am happy, to take the time to watch.

Personal service

Silva buys her parmigiano directly from the dairy, so she even manages to keep her prices 25% cheaper than the supermarket and her quality is better, too.

More than half of Italian food sales are still in traditional delicatessens. And one of the joys of living in an Italian town is the array of small shops that flourish.

In nearby Bologna, whole alleys have been taken over exclusively by fruit shops, or butchers. I can tell which street I am in just from the smell.

Loisa, who runs a fruiterer's, tells me she still knows almost all her customers by name.

Many Italian shopkeepers own their leases, keeping outgoings low. And there are more shops here than in any other western European country.

A corner shop
The number of independent corner shops in the UK has declined
According to one estimate, there are three times as many as in England - almost 500,000 retail outlets, one shop per 120 people.

A London think-tank concluded recently that European governments should eliminate protection for small shops and accelerate planning permissions for hypermarkets.

This, it said, would favour the consumer, and make European retailing more competitive.

No mention was made of the quality of life in small, historic European towns, which are still substantially residential, or of the sense of security it gives you to walk home at night, not through deserted streets, but among fellow human beings who are busily buying the ingredients for their evening meal from shops that are open until 8pm.

Locals 'dying off'

As Silva sliced my parmesan, I asked her how she thought small shops here in Reggio Emilia were doing.

"Well, clothing retailers have the life cycle of the mayfly, they open and close every five minutes," she told me.

"But us food shops, we keep going, because people want quality, and they know that from us, they are gonna get it."

Nevertheless, since we arrived in this town two years ago we have seen many shops close.

Shoe shops, hardware stores, drapers have gone, and it is a nationwide trend.

Piera and Aldo Gibertoni run a small grocery almost invisibly located on a side street.

Piera, a small, jovial woman, tells me their customers are mostly office workers now.

"The old-fashioned locals who used to live in the centre are dying off," she says.

Her husband Aldo blames the car.

"Everybody is moving out of the centre," he says, "they are buying in the suburbs where they can park their car in front of their house, so naturally they drive to supermarkets to do their shopping."

Going upmarket

But immigrant workers and urban yuppies are moving into the historic city.

Yesterday I was talking to my shoe mender, who told me the legendary Italian shoe industry is in trouble
There are international phone centres for the immigrant population, and more than a score of exotic food shops.

And prosperous yuppies are doing up the city centre's tenements, attracting interior designers and furniture shops.

Trendy new bars offer happy hours when they are packed with young people.

So, many food shops, unable to undercut the supermarkets, are going upmarket, offering yuppie customers convenience and ready-cooked gastronomia.

The Gilberto family run a confectioner's, but they say most people these days get their sweets in supermarkets.

So the Gilbertos now sell niche products like luxury chocolates, handmade pastas and wine jelly, that people buy as presents or one-off treats.

Gathering truffles

Yesterday I was talking to my shoe mender, who told me the legendary Italian shoe industry is in trouble. Italians are buying Chinese shoes, and throwing them away after a season.

Yet he has decided to stock a new range of handmade shoes - from Barkers in Northampton! And he is now hand-making shoes for yuppies. I watched him finish a pair of two-tone correspondent's shoes.

And there is another modest little grocery store in Reggio.

Its owners, who have been in business for 30 years, go into the forest with their dogs at the weekend, and personally gather the truffles and wild mushrooms they specialise in selling.

As long as ordinary Italians continue to expect such extraordinary gastronomic quality, I think it will be quite a while before the hypermarkets triumph.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 1 December, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Rome's disappearing shops and cafes
25 Jun 05 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Hurdle cleared for Italian reform
04 May 05 |  Business
Country profile: Italy
20 Nov 05 |  Country profiles


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