Italians aren’t big on breakfast. It tends to be the smallest and simplest meal of the day, partly because lunch and dinner are often complex and large. Some people even skip breakfast entirely. So, what should you do if you’re looking for traditional Italian breakfast foods?
Well, thankfully there are some – just don’t expect a large and filling breakfast. Instead, just like in France, Italian breakfasts tend to be simple and sweet.
They often rely on a fresh cup of coffee, along with some type of sweet pastry. The choice of pastry can vary dramatically depending on the part of the country, along with whether people are eating at home or at a café.
Italians tend to eat dinner later in the day, sometimes just a few hours before bed. This means that most Italians won’t be very hungry at breakfast time and a pastry or even just coffee is enough to keep them going until lunch. This is also why eating something sweet early on in the day isn’t such a big problem.
There are, of course, exceptions to these rules. Some people will turn to savory breakfasts instead or rely on breakfasts that are more common in the United States and many other countries, like cereal and yogurt. However, for this post, we’re interested in the traditional options from Italy rather than the exceptions, so let’s take a look.
Italian Breakfast Foods (With Pictures!)
A cornetto is basically an Italian version of the French croissant and is a very popular choice for anyone eating breakfast away from home. Of course, a cornetto isn’t quite the same as a croissant. For one thing, a cornetto is made using margarine rather than butter. It tends to be softer as well.
Another difference is that cornettos are often filled, while fillings are much rarer in croissants. Potential fillings include custard cream, chocolate, or jam, although some cafés will get more creative with their fillings.
The word cornetto translates to little horn, which is a reference to the shape of the pastry. While the pastry is called cornetto in Central and Southern Italy, people in Northern Italy call it a brioche instead (just to make things confusing).
Coffee is the classic pairing with this breakfast, with many people focusing on an espresso. However, other ways to drink coffee can work well too, like adding in a little milk. Tea is another option, as is milk. Milk is especially common for children and a little sugar might be added to make the milk sweeter.
A cornetto (or brioche) with coffee is often considered the most classic Italian breakfast and remains popular even these days. However, while a cornetto can still be a regular breakfast food for some people and families, others only have the pastry occasionally as a treat.
This is another type of pastry that is sometimes chosen for breakfast, especially in Rome. It is a simple treat, where sweet buns are sliced in half and then filled with whipped cream.
You may have seen similar treats locally, but the Italian version tends to be freshly baked and relies on fresh whole food ingredients. There’s nothing processed to worry about, so decadent as these may seem, they’re still healthier than many processed foods that you’ll find.
Biscuits will often grace the Italian breakfast table too. It’s common to eat them with some jam and a small cup of coffee.
But, to be clear, we’re not talking about American biscuits here. We’re talking about the version that you’ll find in the UK and various other places, which range from sweet to salty. These are more similar to our cookies than to what we call biscuits, but even then, the biscuits used in Italy tend to contain less sugar than most American cookies.
Biscuits will often be purchased from the store, and there are plenty of types to choose from. They can be made at home too. As is the case here, homemade biscuits can be similar to ones from the store or might be made more healthily.
We’re not talking about a large number of biscuits either. Two or three may be all that’s required in many cases.
As with other Italian breakfasts, biscuits aren’t particularly filling, but they’re a good way to get something in your stomach and a boost of energy that gets you out of the door.
And, while this type of breakfast mightn’t seem healthy, it’s important to put it all in context. Breakfast tends to be the main time when Italians are enjoying sweet food. Most aren’t eating sugary snacks throughout the day and aren’t having a sweet dessert after dinner either.
Biscotti is another classic choice. This is a type of sweet bread that has been baked twice to create a hard biscuit-like product. Almonds are often used as a key ingredient and other ingredients for texture and flavor might be used too, like cinnamon, orange zest, or vanilla.
Because they’re twice-baked, pieces of biscotti tend to be awfully hard. It’s best to dunk them in your coffee or milk before eating them, otherwise you might hurt your teeth.
Fette biscottate also make their way onto the breakfast table. This snack is a type of hard and dry biscuit. Some people refer to it as pre-packaged toast or as a type of rusk.
Opinions about fette biscottate are mixed. Some people enjoy them, especially with marmalade or Nutella on top. Others find that they are dry, stale, and generally unappealing.
While fette biscottate is often purchased pre-packaged, it is also possible to make the same thing at home and some people do. Doing so gives you the chance to control the ingredients used and the amount of sweetness.
Fresh bread, either sliced or in the form of a roll, is a simple breakfast for people in a hurry. A little jam might be spread on the bread too and, occasionally, some butter. This creates a meal that can be easily eaten at home or taken on the go.
Nutella features as a spread too and Nutella isn’t just for kids either. Plenty of adults use Nutella as part of their breakfast too.
However, we’re specifically talking about fresh bread here, not toast. The bread might be warmed a little or just eaten cold. Some people even dip their fresh bread into their coffee.
Toast, on the other hand, tends to be much less common in Italian and isn’t a traditional breakfast choice in most parts of the country. Instead, the focus truly is on fresh bread.
Bread With Cheese
There aren’t many traditional savory breakfasts in Italy, with bread and cheese being one of the only common examples. Ciabatta is a common choice here and always complements cheese nicely.
Various types of cheese might be used, including parmesan, ricotta cheese, or mascarpone. Families have their own favorites too, so there’ll be plenty of variation from one household to the next.
The term brioche can be slightly confusing, as some Italians refer to cornetto as brioche. However, in general, brioche is a type of soft and sweet bread. You can find it in the form of a loaf or buns.
This bread can be enjoyed fresh for breakfast in the same way as any other type of bread, which includes adding a spread like jam or dunking the brioche into a cup of coffee.
Cake isn’t just a dessert food. Or, at least, it isn’t in Italy. Instead, cake sometimes makes its way onto the breakfast table. This isn’t so surprising, as there isn’t that much difference between a cake and a sweet pastry.
Most of the time, we’re not talking about a chocolate cake or something decadent like that. Instead, the cake will tend to be fruit-based, like an apple and cranberry cake, or one that relies on citrus fruits.
There are exceptions and some people do end up with chocolate cake as part of their breakfast. This might sound overly indulgent but, as we mentioned earlier, Italians don’t eat many sweet things throughout the day. So, what’s wrong with having your treat first thing in the morning rather than later in the day?
Rustico isn’t as popular as many other Italian breakfasts, which mightn’t be surprising, as this is a savory option. And, while it is often considered a traditional Italian treat, rustico was developed around the 1700s.
The treat relies on two layers of puff pastry and a savory filling. Some versions of rustico use spinach and/or ricotta as fillings, while others rely on mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and béchamel sauce.
Rustico is most often found as a type of street food, especially in Leece. It can be enjoyed as breakfast or an afternoon snack, depending on where you are and whether you want something savory early in the day.
Milk With Bread
This breakfast is somewhat old-fashioned these days, but there are still some people who eat it regularly. The idea is simply stale bread that is soaked in sweet milky coffee.
Creating a caffeine-free version is as simple as leaving out the coffee. Just don’t skip the sugar, as the sweetness is a key feature of this breakfast.
Eating milk and bread like this is starting to make a comeback among some people in Italy, partly because it is a good way to reduce waste. The breakfast can also be ideal for people who need to eat soft food.
Frittatas aren’t as common as the sweet and light breakfasts that we’ve been featuring. However, some families do eat them.
Most of the time, a frittata relies heavily on eggs and has plenty of vegetables to make it more interesting and nutritious. The use of eggs makes this a more filling breakfast than most others on this list.
Bread And Jam
It’s hard to get simpler than this – just bread and jam for breakfast. There might be some butter as well.
We’re not even necessarily talking about toast. Many people will simply spread a thin layer of butter and jam on top of fresh bread and eat that with a cup of coffee.
While we’re on the topic, coffee really does deserve a mention. It’s an incredibly common component of Italian breakfasts and may be served with any of the breakfasts on this list.
Some people even skip the other foods and just have an espresso for breakfast. Well, honestly, that’s not so different from here in the United States.
We’ve featured a variety of breakfasts, including some unfamiliar ones. So, how can you make these for yourself at home?
The site Cooking Italian with Joe is a great place to start. Joe has a fantastic recipe for Italian Cornetti, complete with a video for you to follow. There is a variety of other Italian recipes on the site, including plenty of breakfasts.
The site Cooking Frog also features an authentic maritozzi recipe that’s incredibly detailed. You should be able to easily follow the recipe, even if you don’t bake very often at all.
A glance at this list might make you think that Italian breakfasts are incredibly unhealthy and quickly lead to diabetes. Yet, that’s not really the case.
Remember, it’s never a single meal that leads to poor health. It’s our diets as a whole and our patterns of eating.
In fact, the small, light, and sweet breakfasts of Italy make complete sense when you consider the eating patterns for the rest of their day. For one thing, Italians often eat a big meal relatively late at night, so their breakfasts don’t need to be sustaining. Instead, their breakfasts are just a way to kick off their digestion.
The sugar isn’t a huge issue either, as they don’t consume much sugar in other parts of the day. So, they’re not having sugar for breakfast, sugary snacks, and then sugary desserts. They’re just having a bit of sugar in the morning.
Many Italians will actually consume much less sugar than the average American. They’re just having the sugar at a different time of the day.