In spite of the incredible variety of Italian cuisine, breakfast tends to be quite minimalist in most parts of the country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hectic city of Milan.
A pastry delicacy combined with an energy-boosting hot drink, usually coffee or cappuccino, and that’s usually it. No feasts of sliced ham and cheese, no omelettes, meat, or smoked herring. Italians will keep it simple: first and foremost, they will have their breakfasts sweet. Though relatively easy to satisfy different tastes due to the cosmopolitan soul of the city, most locals regard savoury breakfasts as an odd, exotic habit.
Brioches or ‘cornetti’ – a local variation of French croissants – are the preferred breakfast treat in Northern Italian bars. They can be plain or filled with ‘crema pasticcera’ (a dense custard), ‘marmellata’ (jam – usually apricot), or even chocolate. Sold at bars and bakeries, they are cheap, filling and easy to carry around when you’re in a rush (or busy taking in the sights!). You cannot really ask for better.
For a richer breakfast, you might opt for a Sicilian treat: the southernmost region of Italy is well-known for its opulent, visually stunning delicacies, such as ‘cannoli’, ‘cassata’ or fruit-shaped marzipan. If you are interested in the latter, the Delizia (via Solari 41, M2 Porta Genova) is currently the top-rated spot to enjoy Sicilian pastries in Milan.
Along with brioche, Italians will most likely ask for coffee. In fact, coffee is taken quite seriously, and there is a whole system of rules surrounding it. Infringing on this will either amuse or irritate the locals; they will then make it their goal to enthusiastically teach foreign visitors everything they need to know about the country’s most beloved fuel.
The somewhat haughty atmosphere of Milan is well reflected in its many long-standing cafés, hinting at the city’s historic French and Austrian heritage. Enter any of them in the city centre and you will feel like time stopped still a hundred years ago.
The settings include elegant furniture, mirrors, and shelves filled with old bottles, as well all sorts of sweets, pastries and cakes. Just before Christmas, I referred to ‘panettone’ as the most famous treat in Milan, as it does not have many other sweets to call its own (even though ‘colomba’, a typical Easter cake, has a very similar texture and taste). However, this is not entirely true. The geographical proximity to famous places of confectionery like the Piedmont region, Vienna and France, provides Milan with a wealth of tasty delicacies. A small selection of ‘pasticcini’ is always a wise choice, as you will be able to try out different tastes. To compliment your tea or coffee, there are ‘tartellette’ with fresh fruit, cream-filled ‘cannoncini’, chocolate beignets, rum-drenched ‘babà’ (a typical Neapolitan treat) and ‘baci di dama’ (doughy, thick biscuits with a hazelnut cream filling). ‘Marron glacés’, candied chestnuts, are another wonderful feature of Italian confectioneries.
You can find confectioneries scattered around Milan. Some of them pride themselves on very long traditions, like Marchesi, established in 1824 and soon opening its third shop in the galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Another famous ‘pasticceria’ right in the centre of Milan is Cova which, due to renovation, will be re-opened in April 2017. Cova excels in fine chocolates and nougat. A bit further out, but just as well-rated, are Castelnuovo, offering an incredible range of delicious cakes, and Martesana, whose namesake cake ‘Torta Martesana’ has been defined as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ treat. A further address to take note of is Pavè. Compared to other offerings, this confectionery has a more modern, hip look and offers specific menus at breakfast, lunch, dinner and aperitivo. It is even possible to buy a variety of products and merchandise there. However, its main feature is its exposed laboratory, allowing customers to look in on the preparation of all of Pavè’s products.
On the subject of historical local traditions, the Carnival will soon take place in Milan. This year, Saturday 4th March will be the peak day for Carnival in Milan.
Compared to the Roman-Catholic ritual, the Ambrosian Carnival (specifically related to Milan and a few surrounding cities) is strangely celebrated after Lent has begun. As a result, ‘Fat Saturday’ replaces the traditional ‘Mardi Gras’. This is due to the bishop Ambrosius, now Milan’s patron saint, demanding that the celebration of Carnival be postponed to his return from a pilgrimage.
For the Carnival celebrations, a parade worms its way through the streets of Milan. Each year, it follows a specific theme recalling the heritage of the city. You can often spot the character of Meneghino, a servant originally from the Commedia Dell Arte. ‘Meneghino’ is also a loose term to describe a Milanese person.
Just like in the rest of Italy, it is customary in Milan to eat fried sweets for Carnival. The most famous are undoubtedly ‘tortelli’ (fried bits of soft sweet dough) and ‘chiacchiere’, crunchy strips covered in sugar, which are named in no less than thirty different ways all across Italy.