Coffee and elbows. How to have breakfast in Milan
“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.
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.