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Colazione al Bar: Breakfasting in Milan

Unlike London, where going out for breakfast (or, more commonly, brunch) is a seated affair and often a fairly substantial meal, the typical weekend breakfast for Italians is often no more than a few (very sweet) mouthfuls. Milanese breakfast fare is usually a cappuccio e brioche: a frothy cappuccino and a delectable pastry, often consumed while standing al bancone at one of the city’s historic pasticcerie. Here, you would typically eat a small (but fabulously decadent) brioche or cornetto (the Italian version of a croissant, either plain or filled with cream or jam) along with your cappuccino – the only difficult part is deciding which pastry to choose. For me, the mouth-watering sensation of biting into a flaky pastry filled to the brim with creamy pistachio or hazelnut cream really is unrivalled… pure breakfast ambrosia. And the coffee – it’s always superb and while most bars do serve tea, I’ve yet to meet an Italian who prefers tea to coffee at breakfast. It’s worth noting that Italian coffee culture dictates that milky coffees are strictly for breakfast and are too heavy for later in the day – don’t even think of ordering a cappuccino after 11am if you want to behave as a true Italian. 

As well as the Italians’ almost sacred regard for top quality food, one of the things I enjoy most about living in Milan is its selection of historic bars and pastry shops, many of which have been legendary institutions for more than half a century. Pass by any of these establishments on a Sunday morning and you are likely to find impeccably dressed women draped in Max Mara coats carrying equally well-dressed toddlers covered in crumbs, couples huddling with indecision at the pastry cabinet, as well as dapper gentlemen reading Il Corriere at their usual tables. Along with Milan’s celebrated pasticcerie, there are numerous new cafés popping up in up-and-coming areas of town offering alternatives to the traditional Italian breakfast. Mercifully, Milan has largely resisted the spread of commercial chains of coffee bars which elsewhere have destroyed so many historic family-owned businesses.  

La colazione al bar is an Italian ritual which elevates a simple meal into a culinary fine art. On weekdays, breakfast is mainly a brief pitstop, but it is at weekends where you can linger and really enjoy the full experience. For many Italians, the ideal start to Sunday morning would be at their favourite neighbourhood bar taking time over breakfast, reading the morning papers con calma and treating themselves to a coffee and pastry, the standards of which are practically unachievable at home. In this city breakfast is a wonderfully social affair and it is commonplace to meet friends at the local pasticceria; many use the occasion to have heated discussions about the latest political and sporting developments, often accompanied by choice contributions from the baristi. Is there anything more quintessentially Italian than being part of the hustle and bustle inside one of these legendary bars at breakfast time, filled with the scent of coffee and freshly baked pastries and the sounds of lively Italians chatting away, enthusiastically gesticulating over their cups of coffee? Leaning against a polished marble counter, savouring a brioche while watching uniformed baristi whip up multiple cups of coffee whilst performing other tasks and gossiping with regular clients can be quite the spectacle. 

In this bizarre year of suspended activity and seemingly endless days cooped up at home, it’s remarkable what a small indulgence and a sense of community can do for the soul. When pandemic restrictions permit, popping to the local pasticceria feels especially rewarding – a cheering reminder of the simple pleasures in life that are worth cherishing. Yes, you may now have to queue outside and yes, your mask might end up full of crumbs but… caspita, it’s worth it. So throw on your Sunday best (mask included, mi raccomando), march down to one of the following establishments and thank me later. 

For the ultimate breakfast treat: Pasticceria Marchesi, Via Santa Maria alla Porta, 11/a

If you ask me, there is no pasticceria on earth more divine than Marchesi. There’s a reason it’s been a culinary landmark since its founding in 1824 – the coffee and pastries are exceptional, the service is flawless and the eau de nil interiors are iconic. Since its acquisition by the Prada Group in 2014, Marchesi has opened two further outposts in Milan (one up in the rafters of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with great views of the famous arcade, the other in Via Montenapoleone) and recently its first international location on London’s Mount Street. The original in Milan’s Via Santa Maria alla Porta, however, is by far the most charming.

For Wes Anderson vibes: Pasticceria Sissi, Piazza Risorgimento, 6

Join the queue outside this tiny but beloved Milanese bar in the east of the city which is packed to the rafters every weekend. Owned by an Italian-Senegalese family, Sissi serves up an excellent array of pastries (both sweet and savoury), along with impeccable service. Get there early for a table in the intimate garden at the back, which is loveliest in the spring when covered with wisteria. 

For the best people watching: Pasticceria Cucchi, Corso Genova 1

Far more than just a bar, Cucchi is a real Milanese institution with a regular posse of devoted clients who are on first-name terms with the waiters. The lively atmosphere and elegant interiors remain largely unchanged since the 1950s, with indoor palm trees, velvet armchairs and mirrored walls giving an air of opulence from a bygone era. This bar is a particular favourite of Milan’s fashion crowd, and one nearly always finds oneself sipping a cappuccino next to someone fabulous… 

For contemporary cool: Pavé, Via Felice Casati, 27

Across town in Milan’s fashionable Porta Venezia is Pavé; an informal pastry shop and café founded in 2012 by three friends hoping to make an artisanal bakery cool. The result is a hipster industrial-style space filled with mismatched furniture which bakes the best pain au chocolats I’ve tried outside of Paris. The open kitchen means you can watch the magic happen as trays of fresh pastries come out straight from the oven, accompanied by delighted squeals from the queue of hungry customers outside. 

For old school glamour: Cova, Via Montenapoleone 8

With crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths and the prettiest china in town, Pasticceria Cova is the place to go for a very glamorous breakfast, and for rubbing shoulders with Milan’s best-dressed sciure. Afterwards burn off the pastries with a stroll along Via Montenapoleone for some serious window shopping.

For a taste of Southern Italy: Pasticceria Gelsomina, Via Carlo Tenca, 5

Founded by proud southern Italians, Gelsomina is a little corner of the south in the heart of Milan, serving up the very best Sicilian pastries. Think cannoli, pistachio cream-filled brioches and delectable cassata cakes (my absolute favourite). 

For a classic brunch: God Save The Food, Via Tortona, 34

If you fancy swapping coffee and pastries for a more substantial spread, God Save The Food is Milan’s answer to brunch. Wholly un-Italian but excellent nonetheless, stylish locals come to trendy Via Tortona or GSTF’s second outpost in Brera where Instagrammable plates of eggs benedict and green juices are the order of the day. 

For traditional Milanese fare: Pasticceria Gattullo, Piazzale di Porta Lodovica, 2

Situated in the south of Milan, Gattullo has been one of the city’s chicest watering holes since the 1960s and is one of my favourites. With pink tablecloths, fresh flowers on the tables and frilly doilies on every plate, breakfast at Gattullo is a fabulously decadent, old-school affair. While I was doing my Master’s round the corner at Bocconi, my friends and I would dash to Gattullo between lectures for a coffee and a bignè (a little cream-filled profiterole). 

For a touch of Nordic magic: Hygge, Via Giuseppe Sapeto, 3

Though it’s not been open long, this little Danish café just of Corso Genova has quickly become one of Milan’s best breakfast spots. Named after the Scandinavian concept of ‘hygge’ (feeling cosy), this coffeehouse and bistro has an excellent menu of Nordic classics: think Danish pastries, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and crunchy granola. I long to return to gorgeous Copenhagen but until then, I’ll be pretending I’m there while scoffing cinnamon buns in the heart of Milan. 

For historic elegance: Pasticceria Biffi, Corso Magenta 87

Another of Milan’s historic pasticcerie, Biffi is a charming spot for a brioche under the Murano chandeliers and produces one of the finest panettoni in town, which (rumour has it) were once a favourite of Pope Pius X.

For the biggest choice of pastries: Sugar, Via Vincenzo Monti, 26

With 14 different kinds of brioche lining the gleaming glass pastry cabinets, you’ll be spoilt for choice at Sugar. Just a stone’s throw from Cadorna, this is one for a sunny Sunday morning when you sit outside and watch elegant families strolling along Via Vincenzo Monti, one of Milan’s loveliest tree-lined streets.  

For some avocado toast: oTTo, Via Paolo Sarpi, 8

As well as being a beloved evening aperitivo spot, oTTo is also well-known for its excellent weekend brunch menu. Situated in the middle of Chinatown, the plant-filled warehouse-style space is the perfect place for a lazy weekend brunch and is one of the few places in Milan which serves good old avocado toast. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list but a carefully curated shortlist of my favourite Milanese breakfast spots which should certainly provide visitors to the city with plenty of options – the only dilemma is which one to try first! Those in search of a more substantial cooked breakfast with several variations of eggs and juices should opt for somewhere specialising in brunch. But in my opinion, the traditional Italian breakfast of a cappuccio e brioche at one of Milan’s historic bars cannot be beaten. Ci vediamo al bar

 

Ella Rose Phillips lives in Milan.