What do Italians eat for breakfast?
Food is such an integral part of Italian culture that you’d be forgiven for thinking that a typical Italian breakfast is a lavish spread of a million and one dishes, crafted with love and complete with all the bells and whistles.
It may come as a surprise then, that Italy really isn’t much of a breakfast nation.
Yes, you read that right.
The country that harbours such strong passion about food that they will literally never speak to you again if you put parmesan on seafood do not hold breakfast in as high regard as you may think.
Italian breakfast food is usually small in size, sweet in taste and, unlike a traditional English or American breakfast, a typical Italian breakfast is not really designed to sustain you for many hours.
Instead, its aim is to give your digestive system a quick kick-start and YOU a quick burst of energy in the form of sugar and caffeine.
So, whether you’re planning a trip to Italy and wanting to fit in with the locals, trying to prepare yourself for the fact that your family-owned guesthouse in Pisa will likely not be serving up smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, or simply just curious, this article is for you.
We are about to dive into what constitutes a typical breakfast in Italy, so grab a espresso, get comfy, and let’s get into it.
What Do Italians Eat for Breakfast? A Guide to the Typical Italian Breakfast
Italian Breakfast at a Glance
A traditional Italian breakfast is sweet.
Italians don’t really do savoury breakfasts, and something that I have heard numerous times from my Italian friends is that they find it SO bizarre that people from England eat eggs for breakfast!
What’s more, Italians are very strict about portion control, and you will never see an Italian buying more than one breakfast pastry for themselves.
Breakfast is a quick and simple affair.
A quick caffeine hit, a sweet snack and you’re finished.
Lingering over cooked breakfasts or going for brunch is just not an Italian thing, and if you’re paying more than a couple of euros for your Italian breakfast, you’re doing it wrong.
Where to Find a Typical Italian Breakfast
Mid-range Italian hotels tend to have a selection of sweet pastries (sometimes pre-packaged and factory made), yoghurt and granola, bread, cereal and maaaybe some cold meats and cheeses.
You will not find scrambled eggs, sausages or streaky bacon in any Italian breakfast buffet unless you’re staying at a really fancy 5-star hotel geared towards foreigners and even then it isn’t a guarantee.
The best place to enjoy a traditional Italian breakfast is at a bar.
Does that sound weird?
Bars in Italy are what the rest of the world knows as cafes. They open early, they serve piping hot coffee, and they have a large counter displaying their freshly baked sweet treats every morning.
Italians will purchase their cornetto and espresso and stand at the bar to consume them.
It is very rare to see an Italian sit at a table in a bar.
The reason for this is that sitting at a table in Italy is more expensive. If you choose to sit at a table, your coffee will be served with a coperto, which is a kind of table fee and can be as much as 2 EUR per person – even more expensive than the coffee!
It simply isn’t worth it to purchase an 80 cent espresso and then pay more than double that to sit down and drink it, so Italians will remain at the bar, even if they are having a small bite to eat.
Sidenote: I wrote a huge post about things you should know before going to Italy, so if you’re planning a trip then be sure to check it out!
You can also grab a typical Italian breakfast in a pasticceria.
Pasticcerias tend to be larger than bars, and there is often a lot more variety to choose from. The standard way to order your food here is to pay at the till first and then take your receipt to the counter. Once you present the server with your ticket, you will be given your food.
Typical Italian Breakfast Foods
Pane, Burro e Marmellata – Bread, Butter & Jam
One of the simplest yet most typical Italian breakfasts is pane, burro & marmellata.
This is what you will likely be served if you stay in an Italian’s home or at a small, family-run guesthouse.
Along with fresh bread (Italians rarely buy packaged bread) and piping hot espresso, you will presented with an array of spreads. As the name would suggest, butter and jam are staples of this Italian breakfast, but you may also find thick chocolate spread or honey on offer.
As with everything else in Italy, these spreads will differ from region to region (pistachio cream was always on offer in Sicily because pretty much every Sicilian dish out there includes pistachio!).
Those who are trying to watch their weight or prefer an alternative to bread may choose Fette Biscottate to spread their jam on, which loosely translates as ‘rusk.’
Fette biscottate are baked twice to achieve their dark caramel colour and very dry texture, and you can buy plain, wholegrain, multi-grain and more from every supermarket in Italy.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous Italian breakfast food, a cornetto (which translates to ‘little horn’) is the Italian version of the Austrian kipferl, which is the grandfather of the humble croissant.
It differs slightly from a croissant in that it has a softer texture and contains less butter, but the end result is pretty much the same (although don’t tell an Italian that!).
Cornetti can be plain, or be injected with various fillings (cornetti ripieni). These fillings can include chocolate, jam, pistachio cream or custard (which is called crema and is NOT to be confused with whipped cream!).
Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to have biscuits for breakfast in Italy and no, this rule doesn’t only apply to children!
According to a poll conducted by YouGov Italia in 2019, 57% of all Italians eat biscotti first thing in the morning, which is a crazy high amount!
A popular choice of biscuit in a typical Italian breakfast would be gentilini biscotti, because they are sweet, fairly plain, and won’t crumble when dipped into coffee (just as we Brits dunk biscuits in tea, Italians dunk them in coffee!).
This may sound like the pathway to obesity but remember what I said about portion control – while many Italians will eat biscuits at breakfast time, they will limit themselves to just a couple.
While cereals are not part of the traditional Italian breakfast, influence from the US has seen cereals growing in popularity in Italy, especially among children.
Most guesthouses and hotels will offer some kind of cereal at the breakfast buffet, and things like muesli and granola with yoghurt are increasing in popularity too.
However, don’t expect to be spoilt for choice when shopping for cereal in an Italian supermarket – this is still Italy, after all.
Ciambellone, Crostata, Cannoli & More…
While a typical Italian breakfast is a simple affair, Italians do take pride in their cake-making skills, and every bar or pasticceria in Italy will have a wonderful selection of cakes on offer at breakfast time.
If you’re in Sicily, perhaps try a cannolo, a crispy tube-shaped shell made of fried pastry dough, filled with creamy ricotta and sprinkled with a variety of toppings.
You may also find Italian apple cake on offer, or Ciambellone, which is a simple Italian sponge cake.
A crostata is an Italian baked tart or pie and is usually filled with fruit preserves such as cherry, apricot or berries.
There are also tonnes of various shaped pastries to take your pick from, and it’s even acceptable to eat gelato at breakfast time!
Trust me, if you have a sweet tooth, you will love the traditional Italian breakfast.
Granita con Brioche – The Dolce Vita in Sicily
A popular breakfast in Sicily during the summer months is granita con brioche. Although granita can now be found all over Italy, the birthplace of this refreshing summer dessert is actually Sicily!
Granita is simply shaved ice with sugar and flavouring, and it is essentially like a slushy, but with a slightly coarser texture, perfect for a light refreshment on a hot summer’s day – my favourite is the lemon flavour.
In the summertime, many Sicilians will order a coffee flavoured granita for breakfast along with a brioche, which they dip into the granita – yum!
If you’re interested in learning more about Sicilian street food then be sure to check out my post about street food in Palermo.
And Of Course, Coffee…
No typical Italian breakfast is served without one thing – COFFEE.
While an espresso is the most popular choice for Italians (with a whopping 62% of the population having an espresso every morning!), many also choose to enjoy a cappuccino at breakfast time (29%).
And YES, you CAN order a cappuccino after 11am, despite what people will tell you!
As with any cultural rumour, there is some truth to this, but it is not a hard and fast rule.
The first thing to note is that this has nothing to do with cappuccino and everything to do with milk.
The whole ‘no cappuccino after 11’ rule comes from the Italian belief that consuming milk after a meal will totally screw up your digestion and Italians are obsessed with digestion.
Breakfast doesn’t count because the accompanying pastry or cake is so small that it doesn’t really matter. In fact, the cappuccino is almost considered part of the meal, in that case.
However, if you have a large lunch and then order a cappuccino, you might get some funny looks (or even a lecture), but servers in major Italian cities are used to tourists making this odd request, and so they probably won’t bat an eyelid.
What Do Italians Eat for Breakfast? Final Thoughts
So, that’s about it for what constitutes a typical Italian breakfast (as well as some Italian food taboos!).
Of course, the specific Italian breakfast foods will change depending on which region you are in in Italy, but the general idea is the same wherever you go.
For those of you with a sweet tooth who don’t have much appetite in the morning, a traditional Italian breakfast might be an absolute game changer for you.
For me personally, I’m not a fan.
When I’m not in Italy, it’s rare for me to ever eat sweet things. I’m a savoury gal through and through, and I found the Italian breakfast options severely lacking (my go-to was always an apple slice and a cappuccino though, in case you’re wondering).
I do love cappuccino, so having one every morning was definitely something I could get on board with, and I also enjoyed being able to enjoy breakfast and a drink for less than 2.50 EUR in pretty much any café I wanted.
What do you think? Does a typical Italian breakfast appeal to you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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