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What do Italians eat for breakfast?

Just talked to a woman who recently traveled to Venice and Rome, and she complained that all Italian breakfasts consisted of cold cuts and bread. Now, I am not inclined to take her word as gospel, because I suspect that said breakfasts were eaten solely in her hotels, but what would one normally expect Italians to eat for the first meal of the day? I assume there are regional variations, of course.

This woman also told of her joy at finding a McDonald's while driving through Italy, and she advised me to pack lots of snacks such as Pringles if I should travel there so you can see how reliable her viewpoint is likely to be. Apparently she also demanded that one of the restaurants prepare French toast for her, which turned out to consist of two sandwiched slices of bread dipped in egg and cooked, with a resulting raw egg layer in the middle. Personally, I think she got what she deserved.

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  1. Just like it would be impossible to answer "What do Americans eat for breakfast", it isn't much of a leap to think that ALL Italians do not eat the same breakfast.
    Note: Huge generalization is coming .............. Some variation on coffee and a bread product is most typical. I found many different kinds of sweet pastry all over the country but coffee is standard. I have never seen an egg served for breakfast outside of a hotel setting. Ditto for orange juice, so if it's an American Breakfast you are seeking, a hotel would be your best bet.

    The woman you met is likely eating her breakfasts in a hotel as you surmised. Hotels catering to an American or English clientele will like include meat on the menu but that does not make it a typically Italian choice. French toast, waffles, muffins etc are not standard Italian breakfast fare. I lived in France and never ever saw "French Toast" for breakfast. At home, occasionally, we might have yogurt with croissant & coffee but it was rare.

    While living abroad I saw many examples of (unfortunately for me) Americans who lamented the loss of their usual breakfast foods. I cringed when I heard people complaining about this while ignoring the wealth of history and beauty surrounding them. Travel is not for everyone.

    11 Replies
    1. re: Sherri

      Never understood why people are bothered by what others want to eat. Why is it unfortunate for you to see an American want their usual breakfast foods? For some reason I suspect you'd find it endearing rather than unfortunate if an Italian visiting the US just wanted a coffee and pastry for breakfast rather than bacon and eggs.

      1. re: Rick

        Rick, I am not at all bothered by what someone else wants to eat or not eat as long as they keep the whining to a minimum and do not ruin the enjoyment of others with their complaints.

        Your statement "...........I suspect you'd find it endearing rather than unfortunate if an Italian visiting the US just wanted a coffee and pastry for breakfast rather than bacon and eggs." is incorrect. I don't give a hoot what someone wants for breakfast so long as they're not grousing about what they usually would have and negatively comparing what is currently available.

        1. re: Sherri

          This all reminds me of a postcard I wrote to my parents while on honeymoon in Tuscany nearly a decade ago. The picture was an image of Caravaggio's Bacchus (http://www.companysj.com/v231/minims.htm) and the text went something like this: "What a place for a honeymoon. We are stuck out here in the countryside with nothing to look at but each other and the view over the valley. No decent American food -- I have been forced to breakfast on fresh strawberries and ricotta. The wine isn't bad, and we are tempted to drown our sorrows, like the fellow in the picture. Maybe things will look up when we get to Florence. I hear there are some good museums there."

        2. re: Rick

          It's hard to judge others when you mind your own business.

          A recent survey of hoteliers worldwide about tourists from Europe, Asia and the Americas determined that Americans show more interest in the native culture and are more willing to sample indigenous cuisine than people from any other country. That means Americans are the least likely to demand food that reminds them of home, but you wouldn't know that from the bad rap they get (from other Americans as well as everyone else).

          1. re: Orchid64

            I don't think the original poster was trying to generalise about (US)Americans; I've met people like that fussy, demanding lady from many countries and continents. And Fawlty Towers poked more fun at the prejudices of the English hotelier ("Don't mention the War") than anyone else.

          2. re: Sherri

            I do think that a lot of people are simply very "tied to" what they eat for breakfast every day - often having the same thing every day. Probably just one of those habits that is hard to change - and I think that breakfast is different from other meals in that way.

            1. re: MMRuth

              Not me, I eat what I like whenever I like. It's a lonely life, full of small satisfactions.

              1. re: mrbozo

                I think living with someone else has great influence on what we eat for breakfast. I've now been living alone for over a decade and much to my surprise, my breakfasts of choice have slowly migrated from standard "American breakfast fare" to whatever I please, and often what pleases me is far more like a dinner than a breakfast. For example I had waffles and fried chicken for breakfast this morning for the first time ever, heavily influenced by an Alton Brown video I watched last night. Yesterday's breakfast was stacked beef enchiladas with salsa verde and a fried egg on top. Day before that was lamb chops and wasabi mashed potatoes for breakfast. I would never have dreamed of eating such outlandish things for breakfast when I was married or when the kids were growing up. Now I greatly enjoy them. But just to keep things in balance, I suppose, I do find that I have oatmeal for dinner with surprising regularity. Maybe it's just that my circadian clock has been tipped upside down? Anybody eat wierd like this who doesn't live alone, or is living alone the pathway to culinary freedom?

                1. re: Caroline1

                  Seriously, I think you're listening to your body. In Oriental medicine, there are "circadian rhythms" of different organs. Your digestive organs are supposed to be stronger during the morning as opposed to the evening. That's why you've got the statement eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a _____ (forgot the word) and dinner like a pauper. As you get older, people's digestions become weaker and need to eat simpler dinners. While I used to be able to eat large meals before I went to bed in my 20s with no repercussions, I find that I can't do that anymore. I prefer eating light in the evenings. And when I don't do that, I feel lethargic when I wake up the next morning. And my breakfasts are pretty substantial. Just had some chicken and asparagus stir-fry and home-fries for breakfast this morning. I'm also like you -- I eat whatever I'm in the mood for.

          3. Before 11AM a capuccino and a couple of biscotti are just fine.

            1. My sister lived in Italy for a few years and one of her first observations was how light the Italian breakfast was (pardon the generalization): coffee (espresso) and some kind of (delicious) pastry. From the limited time I spent in Italy, I remember the coffee shops full of commuters standing while quickly getting a coffee fix. I would say that the Italian breakfast is certainly not the elaborate affair that you can find elsewhere, including the US.

              15 Replies
              1. re: jeni1002

                Breakfasts (colazione) can vary in size depending on appetite, region, what's in season, etc. Many Italians will eat small breakfasts, often times consisting of a simple cornetto and a cup of coffee, and save their appetites for later in the day. The food selection gets better as the day progresses.

                I've included a pic with this reply that reveals a generous colazione .

                1. re: Cheese Boy

                  Cheese Boy, what is the bread (toasted I think) in the bottom left-hand corner of your picture? It looks like a wonderful bread I remember from Pisa in the 70's. It was freshly baked every morning, and we asked for "pan carray" (phonetic - we were trying like mad to speak with our limited Italian). It was a very delicious style of white bread which we loved smothered in Nutella or else made into cinnamon toast.

                  1. re: Catskillgirl

                    That cloying bread is just a simple "pane tostato" that comes pre-packaged. It tastes very much like melba toast, but there is a variation used at colazione that is sickeningly sweet.

                  2. re: Cheese Boy

                    For me, I'll take the bowl of figs please! :-)

                  3. re: jeni1002

                    <<My sister lived in Italy for a few years and one of her first observations was how light the Italian breakfast was (pardon the generalization):>>

                    I know that in Spain, many employees have a mid-morning break where they have coffee and something light to eat. People are less likely to eat a larger breakfast because they're going to eat again before lunch. Is it possible that they do something similar in Italy?

                    1. re: rweater

                      in spain they usually have lunch early afternoon (1:30-3pm), so the merienda or mid-morning snack is taken, by kids especially. lunch is the biggest meal of the day and dinner is usually very small and eaten late- after 8/9pm.
                      in italy they eat lunch around 12 and dinner is bigger than in spain.

                      1. re: fara

                        that depends actually. Where I am in Italy--the middle of the country and on a farm--there is always a merenda taken at about 10:00 or 10:30, which is usually a slice of unsalted bread, grilled over the fire and then drizzled (on both sides) with olive oil, or a sandwich of unsalted bread with prosciutto, or torta al testo (a flat bread made on a stone heated by the hot coals) with prosciutto.

                        1. re: fayehess

                          Curious. Why unsalted bread? The body loses salt during sustained physical activity and it should be replaced to prevent dehydration.

                          1. re: mrbozo

                            In Tuscany, bread is traditionally made without using salt. It takes some getting used to.

                            1. re: jlafler

                              It has been made without salt at least since Dante's day, as one of his complaints as a refugee was the salt taste of other people's bread. But it is eaten with salty things such as cheese, olives and prosciutto, so no lack of salt.

                              1. re: lagatta

                                And Dante wrote, "How salty is the taste of another man's bread." There used to be Sale and Tabacchi shops all over Italy. Salt and tobacco were state monopolies and therefore expensive. The Tuscans are notoriously, shall we say, "frugal."

                                1. re: roxlet

                                  Yes, and I think this illustrates the way that certain foods best make sense within a particular traditional way of eating.

                                    1. re: mrbozo

                                      When my fiancee was in Tuscany, he had a baker explain to him that the bread was made without salt because the prosciutto in that region usually has a much saltier taste than prosciutto from say, Friuli. And since the bread was many times eaten with prosciutto or other salty things, as lagatta explained, the unsalted bread was fine. Also, my nonni in Italy always had milk and day old bread for breakfast....when I visit my inlaws in italy, its usually tea (because I dont drink coffee), and either a cornetto (filled croissant), or fette biscotate (thicker melba toast) with jam.

                                      1. re: icey

                                        That's what they are ... fette [di pane] biscottate.
                                        Thanks for reminding me. Yuck.

                  4. breakfast in rome is very important to me.
                    i leave the apartment and grab an outdoor seat at my favorite cafe in the piazza farnese. coffee, a pastry and the ft make my morning. seriously good people watching only adds to the experience.

                    1. A friend of mine who was traveling in Italy for a while was saying that these dried toasts (similar to melba toast) spread with fruit preserves were a very popular breakfast item.

                      1. She's nuts. That sounds more like a German breakfast.

                        I love Italian food and love Italy - but am very unhappy with the Italian prima colazione - not because it is light, and I don't eat full North-American or English breakfasts at home - but because there is very little that isn't sweet, and no protein. I learned to save some cheese or something for the morning, with the divine coffee. If I don't have a bit of protein in the morning I get headachy.

                        What is actually served depends on the region and type of establishment, but it could be a kind of not-very-sweet biscotti, a cornetto, a brioche...

                        1. what no brandy or grappa with the coffee?

                          y'know it's the dangdest thing that Poptarts and Eggos are just not to be found.

                          sidenote: the Piazza d'Espana McD's is NOT to be missed (right by the metro entrance) - so different in quality from US, mmm Filet o Fish...

                          plus across the piazza are the best gloves at Sermonetta. Mine are 7 years and counting.

                          your acquaintance reminds me of the "ugly American" in that Fawlty Towers episode "I want a Waldorf salad!"

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: hill food

                            When we were in Venice we had b-fast included with our room. Muffins, breads, yogurt, fruit, meats, cheeses and divine coffee. I saw someone ask for oatmeal which was provided but all the food was great and outside with a view of the lagoon.

                            1. re: Linda VH

                              They are trying to please their non-Italian guests, which is fine. But I've never had such a copious breakfast in an Italian home, café or institution (thinking of universities, catered conferences, etc).

                              1. re: lagatta

                                lagatta, the colazione you describe, is it common across urban and rural, white collar type and physically active occupations? How do people who work up early and do agricultural/husbandry work, or operate heavy machinery have the energy just from simple carbs? In the cities, I can understand using espresso and snack stands, but what about the countryside? Fruits and cheeses and cured meats with bread? grazie

                                1. re: moto

                                  I don't know, as I've never farmed or done building work or operating heavy machinery in Italy. I suspect hard workers take off on the espresso and biscotti and then eat something serious mid-morning. But I'd have to do research. It did seem strange to me, as Italians do a hell of a lot of work between 6am - 10 am - when it is cooler. The people I was in touch with were doing research or writing etc, but some are trade unionists who had done hard physical work before, and I certainly didn't only live in upscale neighbourhoods where everyone headed off to professional or white-collar work. Hmm, a good subject for study. (Love study that involves tasty food...)

                          2. I am not yet the world traveler that I someday hope to be, but I noticed the light and sweet breakfasts in France as well. At the time, I concluded that this must be due to the very late dinners eaten in France (9pm is typical.) I know when I have a heavy, multi-course meal at a late hour here at home, I am often still full the next morning.

                            One semester, I stayed at my grandparent's house four days every week, as they lived in the city where I was taking classes. I would often not get home until ten o'clock from my last class, but my doting grandmother would stay up late and make sure that I had a hot meal every evening. In typical grandmotherly fashion, she thought I was too thin and would unfailingly serve me double portions of the protein-du-soir every night. Often, I would not finish eating until 11pm. The next day, I was never hungry for anything more substantial than maybe some trail mix until well after noon. This is what I supposed it was like for the French, and presumably other Continental Europeans.

                            1. This morning I had 3 crackers, 1/2 a banana and a mug of 8 o'clock coffee. (we are out of Blue Mountain)
                              I'm kidding. I am not from Italy, but my grandparents are. Grandma on my father's side would have coffee & toast, sometimes with sliced cold cuts from the deli but then, this was YEARS after she left Italy when she turned 8. She lived to be 99. In her later years she developed a fondness for KFC pot pies -so who knows... (they were within walking distance of her Jersey City apartment (where she lived for about 50 years)
                              A big deal breakfast involved a hot pot of coffe and a pink bakery box of stroof-a-la (I spell like it sounds) or other pastries.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                Boccone, what is stroofala? Sometimes Mid-Atlantic USian renditions of Italian treats are very different from ours.

                                Far to the south, I have cousins in Argentina with entirely different takes on translatlantic Italian breakfasts. But theirs would involve good coffee and a corneto (notice the lost t in Spanish).

                                1. re: lagatta

                                  Struffoli are little dough balls that are fried and then dressed with honey.


                                  1. re: lagatta

                                    Oops- I meant Schvee-a-tell. Which are layers and layers of pastry wrapped into trianguar (or shell) shaped goodness- with sweetened cheese inside. Sfogliatelle. They actually sell them in supermarket bakeries here in FL- but they can be a rubbery shock when aged/stale.
                                    Struffoli are for Christmas or Easter (thanks Capt Wafer!) and are another fond memory entirely!

                                    1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                      Love love love good warm sfogliatelle!!!
                                      But thanks for the reminder of how New York (or New York area transplants) pronounce "Italian" dropping the final vowel...it brought back good memories!

                                2. With a magnificent copius lunch to look forward to, who gives a flyin' foul ball about having only great bread and coffee for breakfast?

                                  1. my sister lived in florence for a year and she noticed breakfast was very light to almost non-existent except for a espresso and a pastry. she said breakfast wasn't that important since lunch and dinner were the main meals.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: trolley

                                      I find its a light pastry expresso or cappuccino (never in the afternoon) when I was in Italy.

                                      1. re: designerboy01

                                        "cappuccino (never in the afternoon)"

                                        No kidding -- my SO went to a coffee bar in a small Sicilian town just after 2 pm and said loudly and clearly in one of his few carefully learned Italian phrases: "Cappuccino per favore." Without missing a beat the female staffer asked "Coca cola?" It was quite clear that she couldn't comprehend such an order after 11 a.m.

                                        Upshot: SO returns meekly to table with brown soft drink, lesson learned :-).

                                        BTW, I'm kind of surprised that no one has mentioned (though hill food alludes to) the propensity for downing caffe corretos before 10 am, not a habit I am likely to pick up anytime soon. I am happy to drink alcoholic bevs well before the sun hits the yardarm, but grappa not so much, even hidden in espresso.

                                    2. It also goes to say that if you have a large late dinner, you really aren't hungry 1st thing in the am.

                                      In our Italy travels, we ate at the hotel mostly for breakfast which consisted of bread, cheese and coldcuts, coffee and pastries. There was also stewed fruit and plain yogurt available as well.

                                      If we ate out a cafe, we usually only had pastry and coffee. My husband loved the light meal since he is not a breakfast person. He would just have coffee and then be 1st in line when the gelato places opened, so he would have a gelato cone and a beer at 10 or so and was in heaven.

                                      We would stop for lunch whenever we were hungry, have a snack around 5 pm and dinner didn't start till around 8pm (this was early!) It was very normal for people to be strolling in for dinner at 10pm. So yeah, no wonder Italians aren't hungry for breakfast, they have long leasuirely meals that last till mid-night!

                                      1. I'm with passadumkeg. Coffee and bread, maybe some cheese is good for me in the hotel in Rome. Saving room for the fantastic lunch and fab dinner is a must.

                                        1. Coffee and possibly biscuits/cookies. Most Italians will drink either espresso or cappuccino before heading out on the motorbike. The really health-conscious ones will munch on a couple of cookies with their coffee in order to put something in their stomach :) Breakfast is not considered part of the gastronomic daily routine in Italy. It is more common for Italians to barely even think of eating until their mid-morning espresso break, when they will often pair it with a cornetto (sweet croissant) or other pastry while standing at the closest bar to where they work (followed by a quick few puffs of a cigarette). The bar is also a good place to get a fresh-squeezed orange juice, but rarely have I noticed Italians doing this in place of coffee.
                                          Savory foods for breakfast are pretty much unheard of in Italian homes (aside from the occasional soft-boiled egg), but are ubiquitous at hotels with an international clientele, where cheese and salami are usually offered, along with pastries, juice and yogurt.
                                          Children tend to eat milk and cookies for breakfast (lucky!).
                                          Pringles? French toast? Are you sure she wasn't at Epcot Italy?

                                          For the record, as notorious as Americans are for being closed-minded, I do find that Italians can be as bad (in general) as any other foreign group that comes here to our land of broad-spectrum cuisine and prefers to stick with what they know. However, I also know a lot of Italians who grow to love what they call "la colazione Americana" (the American breakfast). Just don't try to take them for Mexican or for Korean BBQ! :)

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: vvvindaloo

                                            Yeah, I remember many times when people in Italy would tell me about Canada (they had never crossed the ocean), and imagined that I lived in a forest somewhere - I live in the middle of Montréal.

                                            I don't like the overly large and fatty "full English" or "American" breakfast either, but I do need a bit of protein in the morning, and certainly nothing sweet, so I always had to make sure I had that for my breakfast.

                                            Until recently, Italy was a country of emigration, not immigration, so there was never the exposure to foods from other cultures that one would find in nearby France or Germany. I was pleased upon returning to Perugia that many former "foreign students" had opened up restaurants, shops and other businesses reflecting their cultures of origin.

                                            But Italian Chinese, or Italian Indian, is very different from the French, German, Canadian, US etc interpretations of those cuisines.

                                            Beforehand, about the only "foreign" restos I'd seen in Italy were Argentine steakhouses - run by returning Italian-Argentines.

                                          2. I never understood how anyone could go to a culinary mecca and eat McDonald's...Really?
                                            I don't know what Italians eat, but my version if an Italian breakfast is usually 1egg fried in olive oil with a slice of tomato on wheat toast, water and a piece of fruit. I'd like to think that Italians would eat very clean.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: stricken

                                              It sounds a little monk like. Your every day breakfast for a "cittadino" is
                                              a croissant like pastry, usually filled with cream. Always, but always espresso or cappuccino. (possibly water on the side, but not typically)

                                            2. Anything other than caffe and cornetti does not compute, although there are often little proscuitto and cheese tramezzini hidden somewhere behind the bakery counter. Those are awfully good.

                                              There's more variety in Sicily, of course, where a scoop of gelato tucked into a brioche is considered a fine breakfast.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: condiment

                                                yep, I was thinking about mentioning the classic Taorminese summertime breakfast: granita di caffe with whipped cream and a brioche :)
                                                In Palermo (and all over Sicily), they eat gelato in a brioche all day long, as a snack. Some of their food combos are really fun.

                                              2. Coffee and a cigarette, by my observations.

                                                5 Replies
                                                1. re: cimui

                                                  Isn't that the French national breakfast?

                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                    May well be. But the French won't admit to it if the Italians are also doing it, and vice versa.

                                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                      different brand of cigarettes and french roast rather than italian. completely different. ;)

                                                      1. re: cimui

                                                        And it should be noted that a "traditional English breakfast" is wholly different consisting as it does of a mug of tea, a smoke and a read of the morning paper. Not to be confused with a "full English breakfast" which is bacon, eggs etc.

                                                        1. re: cimui

                                                          Italians aren't also drinking Lavazza?

                                                    2. When I spent a month in a little village up a mountain road from Alassio http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&amp;h...

                                                      My breakfast normally started with a short walk into the center of town to stop at the bakery to pick up some freshly baked focaccia and then off to the salumeria for some good cured meats (assorted salumi, prosciutto, etc), then it was time to pickup some good assorted cheeses. We would occasionally chase down this fabulous meal with some prosecco. So while you could say that breakfast consisted of cold cuts and bread, this was cold cuts and bread that I would love to be able to eat for breakfast here.

                                                      1. I just returned from Italy and in my observation, Italians don't really eat breakfast. There is more emphasis on dinner. Coffee and brioche is what I saw, also what I had some days. I did see some plates with proscuitto, melon, apricots. I did see a lot of American tourist complaining there was "nothng good to eat in this country". You know the saying... you;re not in Kanas anymore. I embraced the differnce and went with the flow.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Lemoncaper

                                                          I agree, Lemoncaper, but some people will need a bit of protein in the morning for health reasons and should be forewarned. Italian food is by and large exquisite and healthy, but while loving the coffee, croissants stuffed with sweet gunk can be a bit stomach-turning in the morning. Often at home, Italians take not-very-sweet biscuits/cookies with their coffee. Nowadays you can find them in whole-grain, sugar-free and other specs, not just in health-food shops but in any good-sized supermarket.

                                                          And don't forget the wonderful fruit!

                                                        2. For breakfast, if they are at home, Italians drink a long espresso, and dry packaged bisquits which they dunk in the coffee. They might also eat a few grapes or an orange, but otherwise a breakfast of no nutritional value. Children eat the same, though the coffee may be cut with chicory and milk, and they may eat a yogurt or processed cheese with the bisquits. If they are out, they go to a cafe and order an espresso or a cappuccino and a small ham or cheese sandwich in a smooth bun, or a piece of pastry which they eat leaning over so they don't get crumbs on their ties.

                                                          1. There's a joke among Italian Americans that all we eat for breakfast are Stella D'Oro "S" cookies, with strong coffee, of course.

                                                            My observation of "real" Italians": Bread or plain pastry, coffee, maybe some sliced cured ham/prosciutto, and fruit. This would constitute an elaborate breakfast. Bread/pastry and coffee are the usual. Sorry for the generalizations.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: RGC1982

                                                              my family visits italy every year to see my nonna and aunts uncles and cousins in sicily, they still work the land and own a vineyard their breakfst is always fresh bread toasted with tomato and olive oil on top like bruschetta and sometimes accompanied by cold cuts and good cheese then a fresh glass of milk from their cows, they never eat pastries except for when my nonna bakes specially for holidays or visitors but by the sounds of it they are an exception but i should say that all the other farmers i met in the southern end near sicilly ate the same at breakfast sometimes acccompanied by fresh grilled veggies from the garden or fresh fruit too

                                                              1. re: phoenikia

                                                                Yup. A lot of my family still lives in Italy and that's what they have most mornings. Sometimes it's cookies and coffee instead, or just coffee. Not big on breakfast, in Italy.