Italian meal structure
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The Italian meal structure is similar to most other European ones, consisting of a breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, each called a "merenda", are also often included in this meal structure. Italians also commonly divide a celebratory meal into several different courses.
Daytime meal structure
The traditional Italian breakfast (prima colazione) consists of caffè e latte (hot coffee with milk) or coffee with bread or rolls, butter, and jam. A cookie-like rusk hard bread, called fette biscottate, and cookies are commonly eaten. Children drink hot chocolate, plain milk, or hot milk with very little coffee. If breakfast is eaten in a bar (coffee shop), it is composed of cappuccino and cornetto (frothed hot milk with coffee, and a pastry) or espresso and pastry. Other products such as breakfast cereals, fruit salad (macedonia), muesli and yogurt are becoming increasingly common as part of the meal. However the traditional Italian breakfast varies by region and by season. In some regions such as Tuscany and Umbria, in the past, people used to drink red wine (notably Chianti) in which they would dip their biscuits.
It is also very common for some Italians to have a quick breakfast snack during the middle of the morning (typically a small panino, or bread roll).
Lunch is traditionally regarded as the most important meal. Most shops traditionally close down in the pausa pranzo (lunch break) between 13:00 and 16:00. In most schools, children are given a lunch break when they can go home for lunch, or eat at the school cafeteria, or eat a packed lunch. Since the introduction of fast foods, takeaways and frozen and tinned foods, Italians tend to eat less home-made food, but fresh food is still quite common, and most people buy bread, milk and other foods daily. Many adults still make their own food (e.g. tomato sauce from their own tomatoes), and takeaways are still not very frequent. A typical Italian lunch consists of a first course (pasta, rice or similar), a second course (meat, fish or vegetables) and fruit.
Commuters and other workers tend to eat less at home, but instead have a quick meal in a restaurant or pizzeria. Many foreign fast-food chains operate in Italy, especially in big cities and along motorways. Italian fast-food chains are also prevalent, often featuring versions of local dishes, including Autogrill, which makes panini, small pizzas and more traditional Italian meals.
Mid-afternoon snack (Merenda)
Many children and adults have a mid-afternoon snack called merenda, generally consumed after school or in mid-afternoon. This may include a wide variety of foods. Traditionally, merenda was similar to breakfast, and might have consisted of a hot milky drink with bread and honey/jam or brioches; nevertheless, other foods are eaten, such as yogurt, gelato, granita, fruit salad (or just fruit), nuts, biscuits and cookies, cake, sweets, etc.
Formal meal structure
A structure of a traditional Italian meal in its full form, usually performed during festivities.
- The aperitivo opens a meal, and it is similar to an appetizer. Most people gather around standing up and have alcoholic/non-alcoholic drinks such as wine, prosecco, champagne or spumante. Occasionally small amounts of food are consumed, such as olives, crisps, nuts, cheese, sauce dips, little quiches or similar snacks.
- The antipasto is a slightly heavier starter. It is usually cold and lighter than the first course. Examples of foods eaten are salumi (such as salame, mortadella, prosciutto, bresaola and other charcuterie products), cheeses, sandwich-like foods (panino, bruschetta, tramezzino, crostino), vegetables, cold salmon or prawn cocktails; more elaborate dishes are occasionally prepared.
- A primo is the first course. It consists of hot food and is usually heavier than the antipasto, but lighter than the second course. Non-meat dishes are the staple of any primo: examples are risotto, pasta, soup and broth, gnocchi, crespelle, casseroles, or lasagne.
- This course may include different meats and types of fish, including turkey, sausage, pork, steak, stew, beef, zampone, salt cod, stockfish, salmon, lobster, lamb, chicken, or a roast. In Northern Italy some kinds of secondo (as grilled meat, charcuterie or fish) are served with polenta. The primo or the secondo may be considered more important depending on the locality and the situation.
- A contorno is a side dish and it's commonly served alongside a secondo. These usually consist of vegetables, raw or cooked, hot or cold. They are always served in a separate dish, never on the same plate as the meat.
- If the contorni contained many leafy vegetables, the salad might be omitted. Otherwise, a fresh garden salad would be served at this point.
- Formaggi e frutta
- An entire course is dedicated to local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruit. The cheeses will be whatever is typical of the region (see List of Italian cheeses).
- Next follows the dolce, or dessert. Frequent dishes include tiramisu, zuppa inglese, panna cotta, cake or pie, panettone or pandoro (the last two are mainly served at Christmas time) and the Colomba Pasquale (an Easter cake). A gelato or a sorbetto can be eaten too. Though there are nationwide desserts, popular across Italy, many regions and cities have local specialities. In Naples, for instance, zeppole and rum baba are popular; in Sicily, cassata and cannoli are commonly consumed; mostarda, on the other hand, is more of a Northern dish.
- Coffee is often drunk at the end of a meal, even after the digestivo. Italians, unlike many countries, do not have milky coffees or drinks after meals (such as cappucino or caffè macchiato), but strong coffee such as espresso, which is often drunk very quickly in small cups at very high temperatures.
- The digestivo, also called ammazzacaffè if served after the coffee, is the drink to conclude the meal. Drinks such as grappa, amaro, limoncello or other fruit/herbal drinks are drunk. Digestivo indicates that the drinks served at this time are meant to ease digestion of a long meal.