Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Italy has a well-deserved reputation for great food: from pizza and pasta to Bistecca Fiorentina. But there is one meal that – for many visitors – doesn’t quite hit the spot, and it might surprise you to learn that meal is breakfast.
Australians – and indeed people from countries where breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day – are sometimes left perplexed by the morning offerings provided at their Italian hotel. It’s not unusual to hear stories of English tourists, in particular, becoming rather grumpy when they discover they've left their eggs, sausages and bacon at the border and now find themselves confronted by sweet cakes, toast and jam (or Nutella), and maybe some cheeses and cold meats.
For Italians, breakfast (colazione) seems almost an afterthought. In fact for many it’s an espresso and a cornetto (croissant) at a local bar (what Italian cafés are called) on the way to work. That, or a handful of biscuits and a fruit juice or yogurt if eating at home. If they have cereal, it’s likely to be highly sweetened and refined. First time we went looking for muesli in a supermercato, the only type we could find came with chocolate mixed throughout. (The kids loved it...)
I should say that it wasn't always like this. I’ve been told by older Italians, especially those from the rural areas and smaller towns, that breakfast used to be a savoury affair and included legumes, bread and olive oil, or salami and other cold meats and cheeses. Things changed after World War II, as the 1960’s and 70’s brought economic prosperity (in the north initially) and a shift from a rural economy. As lifestyles improved, the trend of both eating breakfast at the bar and the rise in commercial breakfast foods were spawned.
So it’s little wonder that some hotel breakfasts don’t meet foreign guests' expectations at times.
Now, those who fork out eye-watering sums on larger, luxury hotels may find more varied breakfast options; freshly-made omelettes with ham, or a large hot buffet and fruit and juices, yogurt, breads, and muesli or granola cereals. But not always.
Usually you will have some form of continental breakfast provided. These range from Italian continental (a variety of sweet cakes and pastries, bread with butter and jam, yogurt, cereals and milk, juice, and fresh fruit) to full continental (the addition of some meats, cheeses, and maybe hardboiled eggs). And you will certainly be offered cappuccino or espresso (or tea if you prefer) and almost certainly it will be very good.
But because your breakfast might not quite be what you had expected, I do recommend that when you are lucky enough to be in Italy you head out and do as the locals do: have a breakfast at a local bar (Hint: Go out early in the morning and look for the place where the early morning workers go for their coffee.... it might not be on the main road.... it will be good) and try a contemporary Italian breakfast of coffee (my preference is a cappuccino - learn more about Italian coffees here) and a cornetto. And for a truly authentic experience, have your breakfast standing at the bar elbow to elbow with neighbourhood Italians. It's cheaper that way - it will only cost you a few euro - and you might even get to have a chat.
Cornetti come in a variety of flavours; from semplice (or plain) to marmellata (jam), crema (custard), cioccolato (chocolate custard, melted chocolate, or Nutella), or some other local variety that will be well worth trying. If you’ve chosen a good bar, it will be super-fresh.
It might not be as filling as you are used to but remember that Italians don’t wait until lunchtime before they eat next. Merenda is a mid-morning (usually around 11am) snack break that can be anything from a panino or slice of pizza or a sweet pastry or cake. Just enough to get you through to lunch-time…
For those of us used to a substantial breakfast, it does take a little getting used to, but as the saying goes, ‘When in Rome…..”
Come with us on one of our guided tours of Italy and we'll show you the best local bars where you can try an Italian breakfast for yourself!