Italians are often depicted sitting around a crowded dinner table, sharing food, conversation, and laughter, and lingering long after the meal, oblivious to the passing of time. Empty dishes are scattered about, along with wine glasses and espresso cups.
Indeed, there’s a saying that perfectly describes this habit: “a tavola non si invecchia,” meaning “you never grow old at the table.” That might explain why we seem to never want to leave.
Breakfast, however, is a different story.
First of all, when we do not have breakfast at home, we stop at a bar—no, not that kind. What we call a bar in Italy is the equivalent of a café. So don’t be surprised if an Italian friend asks to meet at the local bar at 8 a.m. for a drink—that means a coffee!
While lavishness, slowness, and calm describe a typical Italian meal, the first words that come to mind to describe breakfast at a bar are simplicity, speed, and ritual.
Simplicity and Speed
The Italian breakfast is quick, something to fuel you up before getting into the office—or to cheer you up mid-morning, between two meetings.
During the morning rush hour, approaching the counter of a bar can be an intimidating ordeal. Everyone is shouting orders at the barista, trying to make themselves heard over the clattering of cups, the conversation of other customers already enjoying their orders, and the noise of the giant, shiny espresso machine, churning out espressos, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and ristrettos with precision and speed.
Once you manage to place your order, grab something to eat, too, ideally your favorite sweet pastry—Italians have a sweet tooth in the morning.
As you will notice, Italians rarely sit down at the tiny tables scattered around the bar. Follow their lead and stand at the counter, espresso cup in one hand and pastry in the other. It’ll be over in a matter of minutes, as you’re expected to quickly yield your spot to the next customer.
Lately, though, the Italian breakfast scene has been changing. Through traveling abroad, we’ve come to appreciate the pleasure of sitting down in a café for breakfast, so now you’ll see more and more Italians meeting at a bar and enjoying their espressos and pastries sitting at those little tables. Still, this is not common among the majority of people, especially during peak hours, when everyone is rushing to work.
An Everyday Ritual
Having your coffee at the bar is also a ritual, something Italians can’t do without. It’s always the same drink, the same pastry, at the same place every morning for years, so that after a while, you become a regular. The barista will recognize you from afar, nod at you, and make you il solito, “the usual,” without you even needing to ask.
I started drinking coffee during my first year of university, when I would meet up with other students at a bar near our campus. That is when I came to see having an espresso as a social ritual—more than a necessity, or even a pleasure.
It was not for the flavor of coffee (I did not even like it at the beginning, so I would fill up my espresso cup with sugar), nor for the mid-morning boost of caffeine (however needed it was). It was mostly an excuse to meet with other people, sharing a coffee standing at the counter, a five-minute chat before our next class.
As with every ritual, there are rules for how and what to order. For Italians, this is something built into our DNA. For non-Italians, here is a little help.
What to Drink
This is just a small selection of the kinds of coffee you can get at an Italian bar. Aside from coffee, you can also order tea (though I do not recommend trying to gulp down a steaming cup at the counter, as I did for years before converting to espresso), freshly squeezed orange juice, or bottled fruit juice.
This is the simplest order. You’re meant to drink it in two or three sips, and it is usually steaming hot; a cold espresso means it has been sitting on the counter for too long.
Sometimes, you can ask for your espresso “al vetro,” brewed directly into a glass: coffee connoisseurs say the flavor of an espresso is even better from a glass cup. You can add your sugar directly from little sachets of sugar at your disposal on the counter, should you need it.
A ristretto is an extra short espresso that you drink in a single sip, almost like a shot. This is as intense as it gets.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a caffè lungo is a long espresso, slightly less intense. Mind you, it is still served in a regular espresso cup, so it still only takes a few sips to finish.
This is one of the most beloved ways of having coffee in Italy. A cappuccino cup is larger than an espresso cup, so as to fit a regular espresso shot, some hot milk, and a good cap of foam. This is usually what people get for breakfast along with their pastry.
While an espresso is good for any time of day, including after a meal, unwritten rules limit drinking a cappuccino to before 11 a.m., as we strongly associate it with breakfast. If you order one later in the day, you might still get it, but it will come with a strange look from the barista.
It is strongly recommended not to order a cappuccino after a meal, however, as the milk will make it too heavy and weigh down your digestion. Spend some time in Italy, and you’ll notice we Italians take proper digestion very seriously!
If an espresso is too strong for you, but you do not feel brave enough to order a cappuccino after the morning, try a macchiato, good for any time of day. Macchiato, meaning “stained,” is an espresso with just a drop of hot milk and a bit of foam.
If you’d prefer a cold drink, try ordering a macchiato freddo, for an espresso with a splash of cold milk instead.
This is the main source of misunderstandings for native English speakers at an Italian bar. Latte is Italian for “milk,” so an order for a latte will get you just that: hot milk, with a bit of foam, usually served in a tall glass.
For a splash of espresso added to the milk, order a latte macchiato.
This is a decaf espresso; you can ask for a decaf macchiato or cappuccino, too.
If you do not feel like having a coffee, try a caffè d’orzo, which is made with roasted barley. It is very similar to coffee in flavor, but with a milder, sweeter taste and no caffeine. It usually comes in a slightly bigger cup, sometimes garnished with an orange twist. You can ask for a macchiato or a cappuccino d’orzo, too.
When summer comes, this drink is something I really appreciate. A shakerato is an espresso shaken with sugar syrup and ice, which makes it thick, frothy, and sweet and bitter at the same time. It’s incredibly refreshing, and definitely made for sultry Italian summers.
What to Eat
Once you have sorted your caffeinated order with the barista, choose your favorite pastry from the window next to the coffee counter. These are the most common choices.
We could call these buttery crescents “Italian croissants,” but you’ll realize how different they are from the first bite.
Although both are flaky, layered pastries, made with a laminated dough, Italian cornetti have more sugar in the dough, along with eggs, vanilla seeds, and orange peel. These unique ingredients make cornetti sweeter, softer, slightly denser, and more aromatic.
Thus, although you could potentially pair a croissant with ham and cheese, you could not do the same with a cornetto. The sweet pastry is better enjoyed plain, simply dusted with icing sugar, or filled with pastry cream, jam, or a chocolate spread.
Budini di Riso
These are rice pudding tartlets, with a crumbly shortcrust pastry shell. They used to be my favorite as a child, and I have still a soft spot for them. Enjoy them slightly warm, heavily dusted with icing sugar.
These are big, heavy fried doughnuts, coated with sugar and usually filled with pastry cream or chocolate—a dream. Many places fry up fresh batches twice a day, and indicate the hour on their window.
These are puff pastries, shiny with caramelized sugar. They can be filled with rice pudding, just like budini di riso, or stewed apples, jam, or pastry cream.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com