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Coffee and elbows. How to have breakfast in Milan

February 13, 2016

The view from pasteccherie marchesi. How to have breakfast in Milan, Italy by My Custard Pie


“We may have to use our elbows a bit”, says Sara, our gracious but determined guide. We approach through a row of people who are moving in a way that seems random but orderly at the same time – like the worker bees in a hive. The scratched, zinc bar is scrubbed clean; we give our order to the man behind it, bend our arms a little bit more than we normally would and look around in fascination at the procession of coffee drinkers. They are oblivious to our interest as this is a normal daily routine; a few pleasantries exchanged with the server, small plates of pastries placed on the counter, short dark drafts of coffee knocked back like medicine, then out through the art-deco, glass-paned doors at the ultra-swift walking pace of the Milanese. After a while we vacate our spot. Nothing has been said, but it’s just not the done thing to hog the bar at this time in the morning.

This is the most famous pasticceria in Milan dating from 1824, but similar scenes are being repeated all over the city and all over Italy.

Cakes in the window of Pasticcherie Marchesi. How to have breakfast in Milan on

Cakes in the window of Pasticcheria Marchesi

What makes a good cappuccino?

Sara explains that this is a good one – it should be all foam. When you stand your spoon up in it there should be no liquid at the bottom of the cup.

What should you order?

An espresso (pronounced as it is spelled – not with an x) is usual. A cappuccino is acceptable before 11am but never after. And don’t ask for a latte or you will get exactly that – some hot milk; caffe latte is the correct term. Don’t expect a green juice or a smoothie – a nerve-tingling shot of grappa is more likely to put the brio in your day.

How should you order?

You might encounter a very Italian system of paying, which I love. It involves placing your order at one counter, taking a ticket to the cashier who takes your money and gives you a receipt to give back to the dispenser of pastries and cakes. Also note that it is common to pay different rates based on whether you stand to eat and drink, sit at a table or take away.

The wrapping for my ‘pastries to go’ was like an art form and ensured that my purchases easily survived being bashed around in my hold luggage.  At home it was like opening gorgeous gifts; little custard-filled buns – called fratelli in Milan – and only available at carnival time, delicate chocolate cream biscuits and a small, tall pie (called a pastiera di riso I think) filled with rice, ricotta and – yes – custard.

Will there be eggs?

Forget what you might normally order. This is known as an ‘international breakfast’ and served, almost exclusively, in hotels. The generous breakfast spread and eggs Benedict (with a choice of Parma ham, bresaola or smoked salmon) pictured above is from the Hotel Excelsior Gallia, a stunning Luxury Collection hotel next to the Stazione Centrale.  Or go local and stick to pastry, butter and sugar confections with your coffee.

Where to go in Milan?

The Pasticceria Marchesi on the Via Santa Maria alla Porta is a must for the traditional wooden cabinets and painted ceilings that ooze history, the slightly tight-lipped ladies in aprons behind the pastry counters and the beautiful array of cakes and perfect cappuccino. It is now owned by Prado – don’t go to the new branch by mistake.

By contrast, Pavé Milano is has a very contemporary vibe, with geometric graphics, quirky modern interior combined with shabby chic and suspended bicycles, and a range of products with slogans like “sex, love and panetonne”. The dedication to good ingredients is not compromised – this is Italy after all – and there is a range of all butter croissant made with a sour dough yeast as well as other fruit and custard-filled breads and pastries. We were not the only ones waiting for it to open early on a Saturday morning and there was a relaxed feeling about the place – people actually sat down to eat!

For more suggestions read Best breakfast places in Milan on Sauce Milan.

And a great guide to the bewildering array of coffee by the Travel Bunny here.

For an outsider’s view on the Italian approach to breakfast rituals (and a lot more) read Extra Virgin and Ripe for the Picking by Annie Hawes.

I visited Milan as a guest of Hotel Excelsior Gallia.

  1. February 13, 2016 11:54 pm

    Fascinating! Thanks for the great photos and info :)!

    • February 14, 2016 3:34 pm

      Thank you Jama – your blog is really unique.

  2. andreamynard permalink
    February 14, 2016 2:28 am

    Lovely post, I would love one of those pastries (the custard one please) with my morning coffee! I really enjoyed those Annie Hawes books too.

    • February 14, 2016 3:35 pm

      I brought some back to the UAE with me – they were irresistible. I read that Annie Hawes may have another book out soon. I hope so

  3. February 14, 2016 7:18 am

    Wonderful post and beautiful pictures😊

  4. February 14, 2016 9:08 am

    Ah travel. It’s too long since I visited Italy, your post makes me feel nostalgic….

    • February 14, 2016 3:39 pm

      I’ve got constantly itchy feet. Would love to do a proper tour of Italy – so much vibrancy, contrasts, style, culture, gorgeous landscapes and of course the food and the wine.

  5. February 14, 2016 12:30 pm

    Sally I love your photojournal, it’s always nice first to read the story by images, then continue with reading the writing.
    Yes that elbow tehnique is common, I lived a yrar in Milan and loved my morning cappuchino at our caffè at Cassina de’ Pecchi.
    How cute those carefully packed bakery coofies look, It makes you feel the food is extra good, as it is.

    • February 14, 2016 3:40 pm

      The lady at the bakery almost refused to sell the custard buns to me as she was very concerned about them being kept at the right temperature. I love how seriously Italians take their food. Thanks for your generous comments – they mean a lot.

  6. February 14, 2016 8:14 pm

    Stunning pictures, as ever! You’ve taken me straight to Milan. And great coffee-ordering tips!

  7. February 14, 2016 8:54 pm

    Ohhh I see you met Sarah from Sauce Milan. I wasn’t lucky to catch a tour with them due to conflicting schedules when i visit last summer, but had a great chit chat with Jackie at the expo.
    Italian breakfast takes a lot of getting used to for someone who isn’t a coffee person (like me) nor crave pastries in the mornings (like me).
    So jealous of the trip, it looked amazing. Now its time for you to come to Doha!!! welcome to stay at mine!

  8. February 14, 2016 10:37 pm

    As a coffee and pastry lover I can’t think of a better place to spend a morning than Milan. I love the way they seem to take such pride in this ritual and also the traditions they have kept alive. Great post!

  9. February 15, 2016 1:14 am

    I must remember that about the Latte! I full expect to get a cup of hot milk next time I go to Italy LOL! Looks like you had an amazing time

  10. February 15, 2016 10:16 am

    We are heading back to Milano for the 3rd time this year. Great tips about ordering espresso. We always find a great local place to have our morning espressos. Don’t you love the pride they take in serving just about anything?

  11. February 15, 2016 12:41 pm

    Very nice pics, Sally, and the pasticerria section has made me decide to go up to the village to have un petit café and a butter croissant….I shall be thinking of Milanese cakes as I enjoy my petit dej:)

  12. February 15, 2016 10:36 pm

    I love this story and Milan!

  13. ramblingtart permalink
    February 16, 2016 8:19 am

    Really loved this post. 🙂 Gave me a little escape from sweltering Queensland. 🙂

  14. February 16, 2016 9:27 am

    Love your travel diaries Sally. This one especially since it has loads of coffee in it. I read the rules but can’t do without my 4 pm cappuccino, I guess I will have to live with that flouting that one 😦

  15. February 16, 2016 10:15 am

    So glad you wrote this post.. Coffee and Italy.. my two greatest loves!

  16. February 16, 2016 12:23 pm

    Thank you for the mini tour, Sally. I almost went to Milan for university, but ended up in Edinburgh after meeting my future husband there/here by chance on a holiday. I obviously made the right choice (we just celebrated 30 years together) but I have yet to go to Milan. I will have to sharpen my elbows and get booking. Love your images and descriptions. As always xx

  17. glamorous glutton permalink
    February 17, 2016 5:19 pm

    I spent three months in Italy as part of my year out when I was at uni. I was at first mystified and then mesmerised by the morning ritual. I love Milan but my favourite city of all is Florence. Lees brash, less harried and unutterably beautiful. GG

  18. February 23, 2016 10:16 pm

    I love those systems where you go to a cashier to pay and then go back to collect your goods. Ace cheesemonger off Piccadilly, Paxton & Whitfield, still uses the system in the centre of busy London. I wonder if anyone still uses those Heath Robinson network of wires where cylinders containing money would be shot around a shop – amazing fun to see as a kid!

  19. February 24, 2016 3:46 am

    Hi Sally,
    It looks like you had a lovely time. I love a good eggs benedict so when next in Milan I will check out your hotel.
    Have a yummy day 🙂

  20. mominasalim permalink
    March 1, 2016 6:38 pm

    I might have to make another trip to Milan to include these places! Thanks for these!

  21. March 26, 2016 12:54 pm

    LOVE this post. I’m researching Northern Italy at the moment as we are planning a trip to Venice this summer. I love the way you pay in Italy too. It reminds me of Japan where many noodle bars use the same system. Lovely post Sally and beautiful images as always x


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