The Italian Breakfast
It’s breakfast time in Italy, and you’re going to be astounded by how little Italians consume during their first meal of the day!
Perhaps it’s all relative, considering how much the people of Italy eat at other major mealtimes. In Italy, it’s not uncommon to order a starter, two main meals, dessert and coffee before calling it a substantial lunch or dinner.
Breakfast is a little different. And to properly understand the Italian breakfast one first needs to understand Italian cuisine in general.
What each individual Italian chooses to eat come breakfast time depends largely on one’s geographical location within the country.
Traditionally, Italian food customs have spurred from homemade recipes that were passed down from generation to generation. Having the rich history that it does, Italy is very much divided in terms of the different ways in which different regions prepare different foods.
Roman pizza, for example, is vastly different to pizza you’ll find in Naples. In a similar fashion, different regions in Italy have alternating methods for making the perfect gelato; there is no single correct way. As a result, breakfast foods have always been a bit of a grey area in this part of the world.
Some areas opt to wake up and cook, while other stick to hot drinks only, and perhaps a biscuit or two. In regions such as Tuscany and Umbria, it was once common practice to drink red wine for breakfast — and to dunk biscuits & rusks into the wine as well!
Of course, none of this information is probably helping you to wrap your head around what to expect at breakfast time while in Italy’s major cities. Here’s what you really need to know:
Breakfast in Italy
For the most part, Italians keep their breakfast incredibly light. And by light I mean coffee.
You’ll find few locals who don’t start their day with a piping hot cup of espresso, cappuccino or caffè latte. Those with caffeine intolerance don’t opt for tea, instead they’ll drink something called orzo; a nutty, warm drink made by roasting barley.
Something to keep in mind when ordering breakfast drinks in Italy is that the rest of the world tends to call a caffè latte a “latte”. In Italy this will get you a glass of hot milk. One needs to specify the addition of coffee, so caffè latte is the correct term.
Those who need something to hold their stomachs before lunchtime will usually accompany their warm beverage with a pastry of sorts. Italian brioche rolls and breakfast tarts are popular options.
When these types of pastries aren’t available, a peckish Italian might eat some Nutella on bread, or jam on bread. Occasionally cereal with milk is an option.
Most children eat sweet snacks for breakfast. These are usually bought prepackaged and require no preparation before consumption.
If an Italian household has leftover cakes perhaps from a previous dinner, then these will usually be eaten at breakfast as well.
One thing to note is that some Italians might split their coffee and food item by a few hours. They’ll drink the hot beverage first thing, and then often wait a few hours until mid-morning/close to midday before munching down the snack of their choice.
Breakfast in Italy is less of an event and more so simply what’s convenient at the time. Come lunch and/or dinner, then it’s an event!
Breakfast Buffets in Italy
Naturally, tourism hotspots within the country are well aware that most foreign travelers require more substantial foods first thing in the morning.
If you are staying at a hotel that provides breakfast, then you’ll probably attend a buffet spread every morning between designated hours.
In this spread you’ll find all of the traditional Italian breakfast items ranging from various coffees to pastries fo all kinds. Butter, jams and spreads are always provided. Remember, Italian natives travel their own country too!
In addition to the traditional options, most establishments will offer a continental breakfast as well. This will include all of your home comforts from eggs and bacon, to pancakes and fruits.
A continental breakfast spread is something you want to double check with your hotel before assuming/booking. Though it’s common, not all hotels venture away from the traditional light foods and it’s better to confirm to avoid disappointment.
Eating Breakfast Out in Italy
Should your hotel not provide a continental breakfast experience, or if you’re staying in a self-catering Airbnb, then you’ll spend most of your breakfast times in local city cafes.
Most lunch and dinner trattorias in Italy will open in the mornings for coffees and light pastries. It’s here you’ll find a lot of locals starting their day.
Thankfully, Italy is well accustomed to international cuisines, and you’ll find plenty of trendy cafes in which full breakfast meals can be enjoyed.
Both breakfast and brunch will be available if you are in a major Italian city. In Milan and Rome, for example, you’ll dine on Instagram-worthy smoothie bowls, Eggs Benedicts and even the occasional tofu scramble for the vegans.
Use mapping apps to make your morning breakfast hunt easier. I also find searching for “American breakfast in *insert city*” helps to sift out unsuitable options, brining eggy, bread-filled and fried-food options to the forefront. You might even treat yourself to a shakshouka if you’re lucky!
Having toured this country numerous times, I leave you with some personal revelations. Although the traditional breakfast might seem completely irrational at first, especially if you’re used to this being the most important meal of the day, I urge you to try it nonetheless.
Once you properly immerse yourself into the lunch and dinner culture of Italy (and I do hope you will), you’ll be extremely grateful for the lightness of your morning foods. After midday in Italy, consumption becomes heavy. Heavy in food, heavy in drink and heavy in celebration.
It’s part of the culture and flair of the country & it’s beautiful. Make space while you still can!