Italian Table Talk: Breakfast in Florence & Crostatine

Breakfast is such a cultural eye-opener, at no other meal time do you get such a view of a place or a person than through their first meal of the day. For some, it’s a strictly savoury affair, often resembling lunch or even dinner, for others it’s always sweet or perhaps all it consists of is a cup of coffee. We’ve decided this month to make breakfast the topic of Italian Table Talk with Giulia whipping up a fresh batch of cornetti and Valeria going back to her childhood with panini con l’uva, raisin buns. Jasmine does cake for breakfast with a torta margherita, one of my favourite cakes.

Personally, breakfast is the only meal I’ll eat the exact same version of for a week straight before varying the formula. I have long been a muesli girl, toasted (sometimes homemade) rather than bircher, with some fruit, full cream milk and natural yoghurt, often followed by a weak English Breakfast tea. I change it up now and then by doing porridge in the winter, making it just like my grandfather used to make for me, with brown sugar and milk, or eggs on the weekends. I’ve never managed to skip breakfast or eat just toast or pastries – doing either of these things simply results in the need to breakfast properly within the hour.

So I’ve never been able to properly adapt to colazione all’italiana, an Italian breakfast. The aisle of breakfast items in an Italian supermarket is completely lost on me – packets of ever-lasting plumcake, apricot jam-filled cornetti or bone-dry fette biscottate (dried, packaged squares of “toast”) to be dunked in an oversized cup of steaming caffè latte. Full of refined sugars, these options hardly make a balanced meal and wouldn’t get me through the following half hour before craving something real.

While so much care and pride is taken in other meals of the day, with fresh, seasonal fruit or vegetables and things made from scratch, I’m often surprised at what I find for breakfast in a Tuscan home. It seems that this is a more modern approach to breakfast, however, and that it wasn’t always this way – chatting with an older generation of people who work the land for their food, up at the crack of dawn and out in the fields types, breakfast when they were young might have been leftover soup and some meat from the night before, later perhaps followed by a snack of woodfired Tuscan bread dipped in wine. Looking back to Tuscany’s ancestors, the Etruscans ate cereal for breakfast (well, more or less), with milk and farro a vital start to the day. The Ancient Romans went savoury with fettunta-like ientaculum, or bread rubbed with garlic and tinged with wine. A typical medieval breakfast was bread dipped in wine, broth or milk (I’m thinking of simplified versions of pappe here or biancomangiare), or vegetable soup.

By the 19th century things had changed. Coffee, imported from the Americas, had now been around for a couple of centuries and instant coffee and Cornflakes were just about to be invented. Pellegrino Artusi, in Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891), touts the benefits of a cup of black coffee on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, and only recommends eating breakfast for those who are “healthy” and don’t have problems with digestion (as he did), being some buttered toast or coffee with milk or chocolate. This was (thankfully) followed by a “second breakfast” of more substance around 11am, which included egg dishes and little sandwiches inspired by English High Tea or even meat dishes such as this or this or polenta with sausages. In terms of sweeter things, there is jam (though it was often just used for dessert) and he also describes a winter breakfast dish of polenta baked with raisins and rosemary (reminiscent of Tuscan castagnaccio). It seems to me that today’s regular household breakfast is similar to a scarce Artusian breakfast, but sweeter and minus the mid-morning trimmings.

Eating breakfast out is no better, nutrition-wise, but it is a ritual that I quickly grew to adore, even with the post-breakfast pangs of hunger for something more substantial. The ritual at an Italian bar is an integral part of the Italian lifestyle, and one that is easy to get hooked on – a pastry or a small panino and a coffee, consumed in a matter of minutes while standing at the counter with powdered sugar falling over your clothes or crema dribbling off your chin. It took me a while to get used to this after so many years of being taught that eating while standing or walking is bad mannered. The truth is most just don’t want to bother with the extra charges that come with sitting at a table. And that’s another plus – breakfast out is not only reliably quick (perfect for when you’re on your way to a meeting or catching a train somewhere) but it’s paid for in mere pocket change.

We moved house practically every year that I lived in Florence (that’s seven different apartments, yikes) and at each different address it meant discovering the “good” bar closest to home. It never took long to make a place your new local and for the barista to memorise your coffee and pastry of choice – bomboloni filled with crema or jam, sticky, flaky, caramelised-bottomed sfoglie, cornetti (sweet and fluffy rather than buttery and flaky croissants) with jam, cream or even nutella, blackberry or apricot jam crostata, cut into large squares or made into mini tarts, bignè filled with whipped cream or crema, powdery millefoglie of puff pastry and crema, the list goes on. It’s enough sugar to make your teeth fall out at just a glance. I usually try to be “good” and get the cornetto integrale – the wholemeal croissant, plain except for a lick of sugar syrup over the top. But on occasion, when it is one of those mornings where a sugar hit is called for, a slice of crostata is just the thing.

Here’s my recipe for a crostata fit for breakfast– the way I see it, if you’re going to eat sweets for breakfast, at least they should be homemade with fresh fruit and eggs. I always use Artusi’s ‘Recipe B’ for sweet short crust pastry, perfect for making crostata (and keeping the tradition of my husband’s grandmother), but instead of jam I’ve made a fresh fruit compote, taking advantage of the natural sweetness of ripe, seasonal fruit – in this case, lusciously sweet dark spring cherries – rather than added sugar. But if you’ve been served dreaded fette biscottate at your hotel and eating breakfast out is your thing, following is a list of some of my favourite bars in the centre of Florence for a typical breakfast:

Cafe Giacosa – Wonderful pastries and very good savoury options, such as little brioche of sliced egg with truffle paste. This is always a good meeting spot and my favourite detour when on the way to the train station. My coffee of choice here is their macchiato, served in a glass with quite a bit of milk and a flourish of melted chocolate. Via della Spada, 10.

Cantinetta Verrazzano – Functioning also as a bakery, they sell more than your regular array of bread and they also do wonderful little focacce here for those who prefer savoury. The cornetti are flakier than usual and their crostata is one of those ones I’d happily succumb to. My coffee of choice here is espresso, which is always well-made on their beautiful copper machine. Via dei Tavolini, 20.

Cafe Paszkowski – Of the historical cafes in Piazza della Repubblica, this is the one I find most simpatico and least touristy. The coffee is consistently good (in the summer, try a caffe shakerato – espresso and sugar syrup shaken with lots of ice) and the sweet pastries are top notch. The savoury panini are a little more expensive for what they are compared to other places. Piazza della Repubblica, 35.

Pasticceria Nencioni – Handy if you’re on your way to the Sant’Ambrogio markets, this little pastry shop make a lovely little selection of sweets and pastries, including delicious savoury puff pastries. Many a cappuccino to warm up on cold mornings have been had here. My husband (a savoury breakfast man) prefers the efficient tabacchi/bar a few doors down at no. 12r, Caffetteria La Loggia, for their variety of very good and cheap little panini but it lacks the warmth of Nencioni, which is just a nice way of saying it has zero atmosphere. Via Pietrapiana, 24r.

Note, an ‘r’ in the address stands for ‘rosso’ or red, which denote red numbers rather than black or blue – yes, confusing, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Crostatine di ciligie
Little cherry tarts

You could use a nice cherry jam in this recipe to make it in a pinch (and if fresh cherries are out of season), but otherwise, this cherry compote makes for a guilt free, tart-filled breakfast. Have these with a smooth cappuccino for breakfast or a mid-morning snack. You don’t need any fancy equipment to make these little tarts, just a muffin tray and a cookie cutter.

Makes 8-10 crostatine

For Artusi’s short pastry:

  • 125 gr cold butter
  • 250 gr flour
  • 50 gr caster sugar
  • lemon zest
  • 1 large beaten egg

For the cherry compote:

  • 500 gr dark cherries
  • some water

To make the pastry, chop the cold butter into small pieces and add to the flour and sugar. You can do this quickly in a food processor, otherwise, with your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until you get a crumbly mixture and there are no more visible pieces of butter. Mix in the lemon zest and beaten egg until the pastry comes together to form a smooth, elastic ball. Let rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, even the day before.

In the meantime, prepare the cherry compote by pitting the fresh cherries and placing in a pot with a little water (about an inch or so deep). Heat gently and allow to simmer until the cherries are soft and have made a ‘juice’ – you want it jammy not watery, but you will want to watch the pot carefully so as not to reduce this juice too much and lose it or burn it! Set aside to cool.

After resting, roll out about ¾ of the pastry and with a round cookie cutter or egg ring, cut out circles to fit into a muffin tray. Roll out the rest of the pastry to make strips, about 1cm wide to create a lattice for the top of your tarts. Fill the tarts with the cherry compote and place your lattice strips over the top. If you want to be fancy, brush some egg yolk over the lattice for some shine. Bake at 180ºC for about 15 minutes or until golden brown on top.

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Comments

32 Responses to “Italian Table Talk: Breakfast in Florence & Crostatine”
  1. Rosa says:

    What lovely little tarts! They look divine and quite addictive.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks Rosa, yes they’re quite easy to eat more than one of (all the more reason to make them sugar -and therefore guilt- free!)! ;)

  2. These look incredibly delicious and I love this little history of breakfast! We always get a big crostata from the local bakery in Italy but I’ve never seen these mini version before – too cute and love all that cherry filling oozing out the middle.

    • Emiko says:

      Usually the little ones can be mass produced versions, not like a wonderful homemade crostata or freshly made on site bakery versions. But I quite liked the idea of these as a snack (since personally I need a bigger breakfast!) so mini tarts they became!

  3. Molly says:

    Love this, especially since it’s a Monday morning and sweet food is pretty much the only thing I can think of to wake up!

    The funny thing is that just before seeing your post ( via Julia’s tweet on her post on the topic) while I was in a caffe’ in Pistoia having breakfast I had a small crostata with frutti di bosco that looked just like this. I never usually have something so sweet for breakfast, so it must have been in the air!

    Thanks food writers for keeping us inspired to add on the calories! ;-)

    • Emiko says:

      That’s what we’re here for! Well, actually my crostate aren’t overly sweet with a sugar-free filling, so hopefully that makes them a slightly better choice for breakfast then your regular bar offerings! We must be on the same wavelength, Molly!

  4. oh I wish, I wish I could try one of these wonderful crostata! How pretty! I’m working on a similar recipe for a post soon, I discovered something and I’m sure you are going to like it :)
    I’m a savoury girl, although in the morning these days it’s oatmeal with a pureed apple and some almonds for me. During the weekend it’s eggs and in England it is a ‘fry up’ of course.
    I love big wholesome breakfasts, a sweet tart or pastry of any kind for breakfast makes for a poor girl during the day ;)

    • Emiko says:

      I can’t wait to see what you’re preparing! Yes, I’m with you on the wholesome breakfast front. I love porridge with a grated apple and cinnamon mixed through it as it’s cooking too, and I like the sound of your almonds in it too, mmmmmm.

  5. Valeria says:

    I can definitely sympathize with you, but my dislike toward Italian style breakfast was more of a path to enlightment rather than an aknowledgment. I was in with all my feet, so to speak, and I didn’t know much about any alternatives to the common sense. I know I am a sweet breakfast person, so that’s OK. But there’s sweet and sweet. And I found out pretty early that cookies for breakfast wouldn’t just cut it for the hungry girl I have always been. Albeit, from time to time, a slice of crostata was a welcomed change –but I was always having yogurt and fruit alongside it to fill me up. As I said, my mum wasn’t all that keen on baking cakes, so it was a pretty rare occasion. Now you got me a bit nostalgic with these –they look lovely. Plus, I wrote down all the bar and caffé you mentioned, for the next time we visit! :)

    • Emiko says:

      Glad the list of bars/pastry shops might come in handy – I listed just the ones in the centre but if you’re ever a bit fuori porta, let me know, there are some stellar ones to visit that are a bit further away from the centre ;)

  6. Asha@FSK says:

    Beautiful. Personally, this would fall under the category of dessert post lunch or dinner for me. I find it better to start the day with something neutral like oatmeal with only a touch of honey or a croissant or a full fledged savory one rather than a muffin or anything sweet.

    However, it would be a fantastic dessert in its simplicity!

    • Emiko says:

      I agree, which is why I made these without sugar (well, the pastry is ever so slightly sweet, but not noticeably so) – all you need is the sweetness of perfectly ripe fruit. I’d actually eat these as a snack rather than breakfast, as you’ve probably read, but if you’re doing things the Italian way…!

  7. Anthony says:

    Awesome article Emiko.

    Think that in Oz we will ever be able to master the art of a cornetto and espresso at the bar? This is one of the things I love most about Italy.Nothing irks me more than people that sit over a caffe latte for an hour in a cafe. Drink it and get out!!

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks Anthony. Standing at the bar is one of the things Marco misses the most about his homeland too (and he says the exact same thing)! He still does it wherever he can get away with it – seems silly to sit down for an espresso!

  8. Just today I was longing for fresh cherries! I absolutely adore cherry filling baked in a pie, and your little cherry tarts look so good. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and I insist on making a pot of tea and serving a proper meal every morning before the husband goes off to work. I would never make it to lunch on a cup of coffee. :)

    • Emiko says:

      I’m with you, don’t know where I’d be without a nice cup of tea in the morning – having the time to do that just seems to make the rest of the day make sense!

  9. These look absolutely delicious and cherries are my absolute fave! Definitely something I could swap my porridge for on a morning!

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks Lottie, it’s a bit of a treat to swap out something like this for porridge even if porridge gets me further through the day! ;)

  10. Thank you so much for posting about breakfasts in Florence. I am planning a trip to Italy in a few months so am excited to have found you! Grazie! Lucy

  11. Juls says:

    Here I am, I must confess, I am one if those Italians who love a sweet breakfast… My happiest days are those after a holiday or a party, when I can indulge without regrets in leftover cakes or crostate. The day after my birthday is perhaps the happiest one, when I can have a thick slice of pan di Spagna filled with crema and cioccolato and covered with royal icing. Yes I have a sweet tooth!
    This said, I completely understand you when you mention the mid morning hunger. I’ve always considered it normal until last year, when I entered in a diet which called for savoury breakfast. I realized how healthy and satisfying a protein based breakfast with eggs or almond meal could be, how full I felt for the following hours and how akawe I was soon after breakfast!
    So, I will always love sweet breakfast, I am golosa, but definitely I learnt to appreciate other savoury breakfasts which are a nice change once in a while! :)

  12. An informative and interesting article, and such a beautiful recipe.

  13. Fiona says:

    Thank you for the info on bars/ cafes in Florence, I will be returning for my second visit in September and I will add these places to my list of my visit…. Although Im not a coffee drinker, prefering tea which I discovered on my first visit to Italy, is quite a challenge!!
    I notice you have post a link to other info on Florence so I will take a look at that too.
    Fiona, Sydney.

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Fiona, yes, tea-drinking is much harder to do in an Italian bar – I actually never drank coffee until I moved to Italy. I was almost obliged to take up coffee drinking for the ease of it compared to tea – also, as they say, when in Rome…!

  14. These tarts are stunning! And by chance, I have a lot of cherries on my kitchen counter.
    This is truly a very interesting inspirational post. Thank you!

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks David, make good use of those cherries! Am quite jealous now as I’m back in the southern hemisphere (and therefore autumn) and will have to wait months now before I can eat them again!

  15. Lois says:

    I made several batches of these delicious tarts. They were all enjoyed! Thank you for a great recipe.

  16. Cecilia says:

    I tried the recipe yesterday, the cherry compote is delicious, but I made a small pie rather than little tartelettes. I had a problem with the pastry dough, as it would not hold together when rolled out, even though it was well chilled. I was able to patch together the dough to line a small pie plate, fortunately. There didn’t seem to be enough moisture in the dough, possibly due to one or a combination of things: the egg, though large, wasn’t large enough, the flour didn’t have as much moisture in it at the moment, since it is the height of summer here in France and very hot, or perhaps it was something else? I don’t know, but am curious if anyone has any suggestions. No matter, it is still delicious, but the next time I’ll stay with my regular short crust recipe, which has neither egg nor sugar in it. The next time is likely to be soon, provided there are still cherries at the market this weekend! Delicious, thank you.

    • Emiko says:

      Cecilia, so glad you tried the recipe and enjoyed the cherries but sorry to hear you had trouble with the dough. It’s one of the recipes from Artusi’s book from 1891 and is now the only dough I make when I need a sweet shortcrust pastry, so I can say I (and my in laws and probably most Italian housewives/cooks/grandmothers!) have made it many times – but probably the trickiest thing with an old recipe like this is the eggs. Sometimes the eggs can be too big and the resulting dough is too sticky and you need a bit of extra flour, other times (like it sounds like here) it is too dry and in this case, I add a couple of tablespoons (or as needed) of ice cold water and that usually does the trick. The thing with Artusi I find is that you often need a little tweak here or there but when it’s right, the result is spot on! Of course, you can use any favourite pastry recipe for this too ;)

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