Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and when in Italy, it’s best to do as the Italians do. We realize the idea of fueling up for a day of sight-seeing at your hotel’s continental breakfast buffet seems the most practical, but you’ll fare much better eating as a local does. The bars aren’t as intimidating as they seem. We promise.
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and countless fitness, health and lifestyle magazines advise readers to feast on a big breakfast then make the day’s subsequent meals smaller. While I never followed the smaller subsequent meals bit to a tee, I always made breakfast a big deal–whether it was a fiber rich cereal with fruit, the occasional batch of pancakes, or typical deli egg concoction, like my personal favorite: egg, cheese and a couple of hash browns on a roll doused in Tabasco sauce. Sadly, there are no delis in Italy so when I moved here from New York, I rolled with the punches and before you could say cornetti, I had had fully immersed myself into breakfasting like an Italian. When you’re vacationing in Italy, here’s how you do it.
A coffee at the bar for breakfast is compulsory. Americans, take note that if you order a caffé, you will get an espresso, not a large cup of American-style drip coffee. Italians don’t do drip coffee. However if you ask for an Americano, the barista will give you a glass of hot water on the side to add to your coffee. However, don’t ask for an espresso as it just might confuse your barista; simply asking for a caffé will suffice.
Capuccino for breakfast
The typical Italian breakfast caffeinated beverage is the cappuccino, yes that hot delicious foamy wonder you might be accustomed to drinking after dinner. Italians believe milk is too heavy to consume after a meal so a cappuccino just can’t be good for digestion as it’s too heavy. In fact, Italians drink cappuccinos at breakfast only and it’s considered taboo to order one after 11am—this is probably not the first time you are hearing this nor will it be the last. Many baristas won’t even make them for you after a certain time. Some bars in super touristy spots will make them to keep the tourists happy, but overall, cappuccino after 11.00am in Italy is a no no.
If you’re not a coffee person, orzo is popular decaf espresso-style brew made from roasted barley grains, or you can opt for a spremuta, a fresh-squeezed orange juice made from either arancia rossa (blood orange) or arancia bionda (standard orange); sometimes you have a choice, sometimes you don’t. Having a spremuta in addition to the cappuccino as I do very often is okay. Some bars might have signs offering centrifugati, fresh squeezed juices, in a variety of flavors, but the orange spremuta is usually the standard
When it comes to colazione, Italians don’t usually sit down and order from a menu of cooked breakfast offerings and wait for the meal to be served, instead they start their day on a sweet note by opting for a dolce. Breakfast is usually consumed right there on the spot standing at the bar with your coffee (coffee to go isn’t a thing in Italy), which is why you won’t see a lot of people drinking tea as that needs to steep and it’s usually slipped slowly. I wasn’t too keen on this at first, but now I’ve fully adapted and I can’t imagine breakfast any other way. Now what to eat?
The pastries that resemble croissants are brioches–the Romans call them cornetti. They differ slightly from a croissant—there are some technical differences when it come to preparation, one of the major being that the dough uses less butter and more sugar, so it’s a little sweeter. Orange zest is often mixed into the batter.
Croissants typically come plain, with marzipan and almonds or filled with chocolate in the form of a non-crescent-shaped pain au chocolat, which goes by saccottino al cioccolato here in Italy. Brioche are different. They come vuota or semplice –which translates to empty and simple respectively—both one and the same when it comes to requesting a plain, unfilled brioche. Marmellata (jam) is one of the most popular fillings and albicocca (apricot) tends to the favorite but you can also find lampone (raspberry) or frutti di bosco (berries) as well as crema (custard) and Nutella. I prefer some kind of filling otherwise it’s a little too dry for me. I usually opt for marmellata but lately, I’ve been on a bit of an integrale al miele kick, a brioche made from whole wheat dough and stuffed with honey. It’s glorious. You can even find mini versions of the aforementioned brioches as well.
The braid-shaped pastries are called treccia, which quite appropriately is the Italian word for braid. These also come with assorted embellishments which may include, raisins, chocolate, nus and jam. Also, don’t be surprised by apple strudel and other seemingly non-Italian pastries as these were brought to Italy during the Austro Hungarian empire days.
Now, the last point I’m going to address is the actual process of Italian breakfast itself. You might want to do an about face and march right back out of the bar when you see how crowded it is. But don’t! It’s not as overwhelming as it seems; it’s just one of those every man for himself situations. Some places require you to pay first then go over to the barista with your ticket to order your coffee, while others require you to order first then pay. If I’m not familiar with a particular bar’s procedure, I usually opt to attempt to pay first as I’d rather have someone tell me “Paga dopo” with a hint of kindness then “Paga prima” with a touch of smug snootiness. It’s important to note that with or without you ticket, you have to fight your way not only to the bartop, but to also have your order heard. There’s no first-come first-served organization and no camaraderie among fellow patrons—people aren’t usually mindful of the fact that someone has been waiting longer than them. If the barista goes to them before you, it’s their turn fair and square. If you can’t beat them, join them and be pushy! Don’t be mindful of the others waiting beside you and stare down the barista until he or she tends to you. Otherwise, you will never get served. You can do it!