From the realms of brunch-obsessed London, my best friend recently sent me a screenshot of a tweet that was going viral on the Twitterverse. “Italy went so mf hard on dinner and lunch that they had nothing left to give for breakfast… just coffee and the worst pastries you’ve ever tasted,” it read. Hundreds of comments flooded in, and over 10k people duly re-tweeted.
The responses for and against Italian breakfasts were impassioned on both sides, and made for a good chuckle over my own Italian breakfast. Some people, clearly, were not fans: “Cornetto tastes like stale panettone Christmas cake,” tweeted one user. “Cantucci are like hard breadsticks with some nuts in it,” wrote another. And there was a lot of hate for “weird pre-made toast in plastic bags”–fette biscottate–best enjoyed with marmalades, stracchino or chocolate spread.
But many more were up in arms to defend the brekkie institution. “I’m sorry, have you had a bombolone?” “Which Italy are you in?” and “Pan di stelle, gocciole… pane e Nutella… ciambellone, cannoli, maritozzi, pasticciotti… the list is never ending,” were a few exclamations. “We literally gave y’all Nutella now sit down.” And from the south of Italy, a roaring chorus of sfogliatelle lovers, telling haters that their palates probably just weren’t developed enough to appreciate anything other than a Dunkin’ Donut.
In other words, it got personal. Despite the hilarity of this whole “argument”, like almost everything surrounding food in this country, feelings about breakfast are deeply rooted in childhood and a sense of home. Italians who’ve moved away from the place they grew up in often fondly recall the breakfast traditions of a life left behind. “Spoken like someone whose nonna never dragged them out of bed at the crack of dawn on a weekend by pouring coffee and milk over a huge bowl of yesterday’s bread” was one retort, which–though this mushy breakfast might sound dubious to the uninitiated–is of course soaked in nostalgia.
It’s true that breakfast in Italy is rarely a lingering feast like other meals of the day. And it’s also true that the first meal of the day is almost always sweet: the savoury fry-up or substantial eggs and bacon you might find elsewhere simply isn’t part of Italian breakfast culture. But my response to anyone who suggests pastries are better in France or elsewhere is to point to the cremino.
A good cremino–and here we are not talking about the classic Piedmontese cremino, or the square shaped one with chocolate and gianduia, but about the croissant with custard, otherwise known as a cornetto di crema–is perfection in pastry form. It’s got all the elements of a Portuguese pastel de natas (custard tart). From the outside, it looks like a squat, dry croissant, the day-old sort you might get in a service station, but sprinkled with lashings of icing sugar. As you bite in though, the flakey croissant pastry almost collapses and the yolky custard is soft and velvety, sweet without being cloying.
In Florence, I get my cremino hit from an unassuming local bar called I Ghibellini in Piazza di San Pier Maggiore. Once I’d discovered the custardy completeness of the cremino, I tried to limit them to weekend treats, washed down with a black coffee and the newspaper. It didn’t work though, and almost every morning I find myself cycling towards I Ghibellini for my cremino before work. Occasionally I get there too late and they’ve sold out–always a bad omen for the day.
ITALIAN REGIONAL BREAKFASTS
Aside from this Tuscan treat, Italy has all sorts of other regional breakfast delights. Starting in the north, the mountainous South Tyrol is home to various plaited breads, often flavoured with fennel or enriched with raisins. You’ll also find cheeses, speck and other cold cuts influenced by their Germanic neighbours, fuel for a hearty day of outdoor pursuits. In Venice, like much of Italy, bomboloni–feather-light doughnuts filled with custard and sprinkled with sugar–rule. Torino’s famous bicerin drink–espresso, drinking chocolate and whipped cream in a glass–is the perfect breakfast accompaniment to some simple biscuits. Over in Emilia-Romagna, the sweet, rustic breakfast cake ciambella romagnolo (or brazadela in local dialect)–crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside–has been eaten for centuries.
There’s a general rule, not always true, that the further south you get, the sweeter the breakfasts. By the time we get to Rome it’s all about maritozzi con la panna–the classic local brioche bun, filled with slightly sweet whipped cream. Antico Forno Roscioli is an iconic spot for enjoying these. At Faro, a pine nut and lemon cream has something of a cult following, while tiny Maritozzo Rosso in Trastevere serves savoury maritozzi all day long.
At roughly the same latitude over in Abruzzo, there is an exception to the small breakfast rule: each Easter day, the Abruzzese people prepare a splendid breakfast feast called sdiuno or sdijune for family and friends. The table is piled high with special dishes like lamb entrails, omelette with mint, and pizza dolce (sweet pizza).
Head down to Naples and it’s all about the cream, ricotta or rice-filled sfogliatelle. You’ll also find varieties of zeppole–piped, deep-fried dough balls, which may be filled with a squeeze of custard, zabaglione, pistachio cream, marmalade or more, and topped with a candied cherry. In Puglia, don’t skip out on a pasticciotto–delicious eggy custard-filled shortcrust pastries originally from Lecce–eaten still warm from the oven with a cappuccino.
Sicily has breakfast traditions all of its own. Here, eating ice cream for breakfast is not only tolerated but encouraged–in the form of granita, topped with sweet whipped cream. This normally comes with a brioche col tuppo, a golden bun with soft, stretchy insides and a little knot on top. There are also the world-famous cannoli, fried pastry dough tubes piped with sweet ricotta, equally delicious as a breakfast or a snack.
Of course, this just scratches the surface on the subject of Italian breakfasts. But it’s really all to say that you’re wrong, random twitter man: Italian breakfasts may be generally quick, sweet and casual–a cappuccino and a sugary bite–but they’re no less delightful.
WHERE TO EAT THE BEST BREAKFASTS IN ITALY:
- Caffè al Bicerin, Turin
- Orso Laboratorio del Caffè, Turin
- Farmacia Del Cambio, Turin
- Caffè Miretti, Turin
- Pai Bikery, Turin
- Pastarell, Turin
- Pasticceria Sissi, Milan
- Pasticceria Marchesi 1824, Milan
- Pasticceria Cucchi, Milan
- Pavé, Milan
- Pasticceria Gelsomina, Milan
- Caffè Libertà, Florence
- Forno Ghibellina, Florence
- Pasticceria Buonamici, Florence
- Pasticceria Mannori, Prato
- Caffè Cibrèo, Florence
- Pasticceria, Gualtieri, Florence
- Caffè Nuovo Mondo (for the Pesche di Prato), Prato
- Pasticceria Gamberini, Bologna
- Aroma Caffè, Bologna
- Forno Brisa, Bologna
- Pasticceria Battistini, Parma
- Forno Campo de’Fiori, Rome
- Ciampini Roma, Rome
- Pasticceria Linari, Rome
- Regoli pasticceria, Rome
- Caffè Perù, Rome
- Gran Caffè Gambrinus, Naples
- Pasticceria Carraturo Vittorio, Naples
- Pasticceria Pintauro, Naples
- Zanzibar Pasticceria, Ruvo Di Puglia
- Bar Cotognata Leccese, Lecce
- Forno Biancuccia, Catania
- Pasticceria Costa, Palermo
- Cioccolateria Lorenzo, Palermo
- Caffe Sicilia, Noto
- Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Modica
- Pasticceria De Santis, Aosta
- Pasticceria Biasetto, Padova
- Pasticceria Rizzardini, Venice
- Pasticceria Tonolo, Venice
- Gran Forno, Marina di Altidona
- Pasticceria La Fenice, Porto San Giorgio
- Latteria Marini, Ascoli Piceno
- L’assalto ai Forni, Ascoli Piceno
- Moldavia dal 1920, Ancona
- Pasticceria Iannetta, Campobasso
- Pasticceria Emo Lullo, Guardiagrele
- Cafe Monika, Bolzano
- Caffè Beltrame, Udine
- Antico Caffè San Marco, Trieste
- Caffè Tommaseo, Trieste
- Pasticceria Mosaico Aquileia, Aquileia
- Cafe Giardienetto, Cormons
- Mamm Ciclofocacceria, Udine
- Gran Caffe Defilla, Chiavari
- Pasticceria Gelateria Mangini, Genova
- Vedova Romanengo, Genova
- Cambi cafe, Genova
- Pasticceria liquoreria Marescotti, Genova
- Il Botteghino delle Vigne, Genova
- Pasticceria Profumo, Genova
- Pasticceria Tagliafico, Genova
- Antica Confetteria Romanengo, Genova