Meal structure in Italy
Italy has its own meal structure, which in essence is the typical European one, consisting of breakfast, lunch and dinner (there is also a mid-afternoon snack called merenda). Italians also divide a main celebration meal into several different courses.
Daytime meal structure
Traditional Italian breakfast is different from the Anglo full breakfast. The breakfast in Italy is simply caffè e latte (hot coffee with milk) or coffee with bread or rolls, butter, and jam—known as prima colazione. A cookie-like hard bread called fette biscottate and regular 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. 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). Even though this is the traditional Italian breakfast, it also varies by regions and by seasons. As a matter of fact, 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.
Lunch is traditionally regarded as being the most important meal. Most shops close down in the pausa pranzo (lunch break) between 13:00 and 16:00. In most schools, children are given a lunch break where they can choose to go home and have lunch, or stay at the school cafeteria or eat a packed lunch. The introduction of fast-foods, takeaways and frozen/tinned foods has meant that Italians tend to eat less home-made food, yet fresh food is still quite common, and most people buy bread, milk and ingredients daily. Many adults still make their own food (i.e. tomato sauce from their own tomatoes), and takeaways are still not very frequent. Italians at lunch-time usually, even in normal days, have a layout: a first course (pasta, rice or similar), a second course (meat, fish or vegetables) and fruits.
Workers or commuters tend to eat less at home and quickly have a meal at some restaurant or pizzeria. Many foreign fast-food chains operate in Italy, more frequently found in big cities or along motorways. Italian fast-food chains are also prevalent, often featuring versions of local dishes, including Autogrill, which makes panini, little pizzas or more traditional Italian meals.
Mid-afternoon snack (Merenda)
In Italy, many children and adults alike have a mid-afternoon snack called merenda. Such a meal is generally consumed after school or in the middle of the afternoon, and there is a large variety of foods eaten. Traditionally, merende were 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 fruits), nuts, biscuits and cookies, cake, sweets, and similar aliments.
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 appetiser. 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 include risotto, pasta, soup and broth, gnocchi, polenta, crespelle, casseroles, or lasagnas.
- Foods consumed in this course 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. The primo or the secondo may be considered more important depending on the locality and the situation.
- A contorno, or plural contorni (side dishes), are 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 in 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 one is (see List of Italian cheeses).
- Following comes the dolce, or dessert. Frequent dishes include tiramisu, zuppa inglese, panna cotta, cake or pie, panettone or pandoro (the latter two are mainly served during Christmastime) 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 or 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-drinks 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 after a long meal.
- Pasquale Carpino, with Judith Drynan, 'La Cucina di Pasquale' (Toronto, 1980), ISBN 0920197019, p. 11)