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Want to start your day in a typically Italian way? Guided by Roxana, a food expert and writer who has lived in Rome for over two decades, we have curated a guide to Italian breakfast, including customs, fun facts, and popular foods and drinks that are at the beating heart of Italian breakfast and culture.
Italian Breakfast Customs
Italian breakfast is traditionally sweet
When it comes to breakfast in Italy, sweetness takes the lead. Italians rarely mention savory options when asked about their breakfast choices.
Even most hotels in Italy offer a sweet breakfast, while bars usually have limited savory options unless they specialize in English and American breakfast or brunch.
Bars serve breakfast in Italy
Bars in Italy are not just for drinks; they also serve coffee and breakfast. If you’re looking to find a breakfast or coffee place in Italy, simply look for a bar on Google Maps.
Bars are essential to Italian culture and serve as gathering places for morning coffee, mid-morning breaks, after-lunch coffees, and socializing.
Many Italians enjoy a quick but delicious breakfast at a bar, typically a croissant and cappuccino.
Italian Breakfast is small and fast
Italian breakfasts are known for their small size. Whether enjoyed at home or at a bar, Italians don’t indulge in large breakfasts. This explains why breakfast is a quick meal, rarely lasting more than ten minutes.
Italians often opt for coffee and fast options like milk and cookies or a slice of homemade cake at home. Some may choose a bowl of milk and cereal.
In bars, a croissant and a coffee variety are popular choices. However, hotels may offer more substantial breakfast options.
Most Italians have breakfast at home
A growing trend in recent years is that most Italians prefer to have breakfast at home. Breakfast is a cherished family moment when everyone gathers to chat and enjoy each other’s company.
With lunches and dinners often enjoyed outside the home, breakfast offers a chance for Italians to savor a meal with their loved ones in the comfort of their surroundings.
Interesting Facts about Italian Breakfast
Modern Italian breakfast dates to World War I
The Italian breakfast we know today originated during World War I.
Before that time, the typical Italian breakfast consisted of leftovers from the previous day, such as bread, polenta, cheese, and salami. Furthermore, the meal took place mid-morning rather than immediately after waking up.
Cookies (biscotti) were a luxury only a few could afford, and they didn’t have the same delightful taste as today.
All this changed during the war when soldiers received simple, repetitive meals consisting of milk, coffee, cookies, and chocolate.
These items offered lasting sustenance and quickly became the basis for the typical Italian breakfast, extending beyond the military to the population.
The Italian word for breakfast is colazione
The origins of the Italian word for breakfast, colazione, are uncertain. However, the most widely accepted explanation is that it derives from the Latin word “collatiòne,” which itself comes from “collàtus,” the past participle of the verb “cònfero,” meaning “to contribute.”
“Collàtus” specifically referred to a gathering of people who would come together to converse while sharing a meal, with everyone contributing something. Initially, the word was used in convents to describe a small meal consumed in the late evening. Later on, it started to indicate the first meal after the morning prayer.
From its origins, the Italian word for breakfast has carried the essence of gathering and enjoying a meal. It continues to symbolize a coming together of families and friends to start the day with a brief yet tasty meal.
Italians may skip breakfast, but they rarely skip coffee
Even if they forego food, coffee remains a must for Italians. They typically enjoy an espresso at a bar or have a cup at home before starting their day.
Coffee holds a significant place in Italian culture, which explains why international coffee shop chains like Starbucks are less prevalent in Italy.
Italians usually savor their coffee at a bar, standing at the counter and engaging in conversation before heading to the office or during short work breaks.
Italians don’t drink cappuccino after noon
While there is no strict rule, it is a fact that Italians don’t drink cappuccino in the afternoon. Some say the cutoff time is 11 am, but it can vary. Cappuccino is primarily considered a breakfast drink.
In the afternoon, when Italians meet at a bar or take a break from work, they usually order an espresso or macchiato (espresso with a touch of milk).
One certain thing is that Italians don’t order cappuccino alongside a meal, or even before or after, for that matter.
So remember that ordering a cappuccino with pasta may elicit some surprised looks from the waitstaff.
Typical Italian Breakfast Foods
The croissant, known as a cornetto in Central and Southern Italy and brioche in the North, is a staple of Italian breakfast.
This sweet pastry can be plain or filled with various ingredients, ranging from Nutella or custard cream to different jams, honey, or pistachio cream.
Nowadays, vegan or cereal croissants are also available, further expanding the range of options. Italians usually pair their morning cornetto with a cappuccino, making this the most popular breakfast combination throughout Italy.
Fette biscottate (Italian for rusk) resemble slices of baked bread and is another popular breakfast choice in Italy. Though commonly enjoyed at home, some hotels also offer them. Fette biscottate are often accompanied by butter and marmalade.
Due to their dry texture, many people like to dip them in their cappuccino, the preferred morning drink in Italy, or milk. You can find fette biscottate in any supermarket across the country.
Bread is a common alternative to fette biscottate. Italy offers a wide variety of bread types, including different loaves and small bread rolls. Since bread is mainly consumed for at-home breakfast, people can choose their preferred type.
Like fette biscottate, bread is typically enjoyed with butter and marmalade, but Nutella and honey are also popular choices. Choose your favorite bread and pair it with your preferred marmalade for an easy yet delicious breakfast.
Marmalade is highly popular in Italy and comes in various flavors. While “marmellata” is often used interchangeably for any fruit preserve, it specifically refers to citrus preserves. Other fruit preserves are called “confettura” in Italian.
Italians usually spread marmellata or confettura on bread or fette biscottate, either alone or with butter.
The beloved chocolate and hazelnut spread, Nutella, holds a special place as Italians’ favorite sweet spread. Nutella was invented in Italy in 1964 by the Italian company Ferrero and quickly became popular all over the country.
Add a generous layer of Nutella to a slice of bread or rusk, and you’ve got yourself a delightful breakfast. However, this is more likely an occasional indulgence than a regular breakfast choice. Still, many hotels in Italy offer Nutella alongside marmalade to pair with bread or rusk.
While not as popular as other options on this list, cereal is a common breakfast choice in Italy, especially among the younger generations. Cereal made its way to Italy as a breakfast food in the 1960s.
Although the range of options may be more limited compared to other countries, particularly the US, you can find many different cereal brands.
Italian supermarkets offer a mix of imported and domestic brands, including healthier options with fewer additives and more natural ingredients such as nuts and dried fruits. Some Italians enjoy their cereal with hot milk, while others prefer it cold.
Milk and cookies, or biscotti, are another popular breakfast combination in Italy, enjoyed by children and adults. According to a 2020 study, over 50% of Italians have breakfast with cookies. This option is convenient and easy for a home breakfast.
Italy offers countless varieties of cookies, ranging from healthy options to more indulgent chocolate cookies. For an authentic Italian breakfast experience, dip your cookies in a glass of warm milk or a cappuccino.
Yogurt is not as commonly chosen for breakfast in Italy, but some people still opt for this healthier option. Hotels often serve yogurt alongside traditional breakfast foods like croissants, fette biscottate, or cookies.
Italian supermarkets offer a wide selection of yogurt types, including plain, Greek, and fruit-flavored options. For a healthier twist, try plain yogurt with added fresh fruit.
Homemade cakes are a delightful alternative to croissants, cookies, or fette biscottate. Italians who have breakfast at home may enjoy homemade cakes with their coffee.
These cakes are usually simple, like the popular ciambellone, a traditional Italian ring-shaped cake.
If you can’t have breakfast at home, visit any Italian bar, and you’ll likely find ciambellone or a similar cake on display. Pair it with an espresso or, better yet, dip it in a cappuccino.
While not considered a standalone breakfast, fruit often accompanies other food options. Hotels frequently offer fruit alongside baked goods and sweet treats for breakfast.
The variety of fruit can vary depending on the season, ranging from bananas and apples to melons, pineapples, oranges, and kiwis.
Typical Italian Breakfast Drinks
Espresso ranks among the most popular breakfast drinks in Italy. Some people may even skip breakfast and grab a quick espresso before heading to work.
At home, Italians often use the Moka pot (similar to the one pictured below), a stove-top coffee maker found in most Italian households, to make their espresso.Check Price on Amazon
When enjoying coffee at a bar, Italians typically drink it while standing at the counter. Unlike other beverages on this list, espresso can be consumed at any time, from early morning until late evening, even after dinner.
Cappuccino is THE quintessential breakfast drink in Italy, especially when having breakfast at a bar. While Italians may prefer a quick espresso at home, when they go to a bar, cappuccino is their drink of choice. A cappuccino consists of equal parts espresso, milk, and milk foam.
The milk and foam in the drink make it particularly suitable for mornings and not as much for an afternoon drink.
Although Italians consider it exclusively a breakfast drink, most places are now accustomed to foreigners ordering a cappuccino at any time of the day.
Similar to cappuccino, latte macchiato features one shot of espresso but with a larger amount of steamed milk and only a small amount of milk foam. Like cappuccino, the latte macchiato is exclusively a breakfast drink.
While you might know this drink as a “latte,” be careful when ordering it in Italy, as asking for a “latte” will likely get you a glass of milk. The term “macchiato” translates to “stained” and refers to the espresso shot “staining” the milk.
Although not as popular as in other European countries, tea is a common alternative to coffee. You won’t see many Italians drinking tea for breakfast at a bar, but it is readily available in most places.
Tea is typically enjoyed as a breakfast beverage at home. English breakfast tea is the most popular type, but Italian supermarkets offer countless varieties you can choose from.
Barley/Caffè d’OrzoCheck Price on Amazon
Barley, known as “caffè d’orzo” in Italian, is a popular coffee alternative for those who prefer to avoid caffeine.
The drink is made from roasted and ground barley, a caffeine-free grain that tastes somewhat similar to coffee.
You can have a caffè d’orzo as an espresso shot, but you may also enjoy it as a cappuccino or latte macchiato. Barley coffee is available in almost every bar throughout Italy.
Milk is a common breakfast drink, often enjoyed with cookies or cereal. It’s rare to see Italians drinking a glass of milk without something to dip in it.
Milk with cookies is the most popular choice for a home breakfast. If you’re having breakfast at a hotel, you’ll likely find both hot and cold milk. Italians typically prefer cold milk with their cereal.
Lastly, Italians may savor a glass of fresh juice with their breakfast. Freshly squeezed orange juice is the most popular choice in most bars and hotels. Other fruit juices are also common, although bottled varieties are more prevalent. Italian supermarkets offer a wide selection of fruit juices, including pear, apple, blueberry, and mixed fruit options.
Italian breakfast offers a delightful range of sweet options, from croissants and bread to cookies and homemade cakes, accompanied by delicious beverages like espresso, cappuccino, and fresh juice.
Whether enjoyed at home or a bar, Italian breakfast customs reflect a blend of tradition, taste, and the joy of starting the day on a sweet note, even better if in good company.
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Eager to try some traditional Italian breakfast foods when visiting Italy or in your home kitchen? Keep this article for later reference by saving it to one of your foodie travel Pinterest boards.
Contributor: Roxana Fanaru is a Romanian-born journalist and writer who has lived in Rome for nearly two decades. She is deeply passionate about Italian cuisine, culture, and travel and writes for a number of publications.