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Italian meal structure is typical of the European Mediterranean region and differs from North, Central, and Eastern European meal structure, though it still often consists of breakfast (colazione), lunch (pranzo), and supper (cena). However, much less emphasis is placed on breakfast, and breakfast itself is often skipped or involves lighter meal portions than are seen in non-Mediterranean Western countries. Late-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, called merenda (plural merende), are also often included in this meal structure.
Traditional meals in Italy typically contained four or five courses. Especially on weekends, meals are often seen as a time to spend with family and friends rather than simply for sustenance; thus, meals tend to be longer than in other cultures. During holidays such as Christmas and New Year's Eve, feasts can last for hours.
Today, full-course meals are mainly reserved for special events such as weddings, while everyday meals include only a first or second course (sometimes both), a side dish, and coffee. The primo (first course) is usually a filling dish such as risotto or pasta, with sauces made from meat, vegetables, or seafood. Whole pieces of meat such as sausages, meatballs, and poultry are eaten in the secondo (second course). Italian cuisine has some single-course meals (piatto unico) combining starches and proteins.
The most popular breakfast (Colazione) nationwide is sweet, consumed at home or at a café. If the breakfast is consumed at home, it consists of coffee (espresso or prepared with a moka pot), milk, or latte accompanied by baked goods such as biscuits, for example shortbread, or by slices of bread spread with butter and jam or with honey or gianduja cream, made with chocolate and hazelnuts. Milk is sometimes replaced by fruit juice. On some special occasions, such as Sundays or holidays, there may also be more baked goods in the house, such as cakes, pies, pastries, or other regional specialties.
If breakfast is consumed at a café, espresso coffee predominates, together with cappuccino or latte macchiato, accompanied by the classic cornetto, bombolone, or other pastry; however, the choice of breakfast desserts is varied, some of which are often present only in certain regions or cities. In recent decades, other types of coffee drinks have also spread, such as mocaccino and marocchino.
Much less frequent, but not completely unusual, is the savory breakfast (although much lighter and frugal than other European savory breakfasts), often consisting of focaccia (of different types and depending on the region) or even just toasted homemade bread and seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, tomato, or sliced salami.
However, many Italians only drink coffee for breakfast without the addition of food.
In Italian culture, lunch (Pranzo) is often considered the most important meal of the day and is, if complete, composed of four courses, namely:
The second course and the side dish are always accompanied by bread.
It is traditional in Italy that a meal, particularly lunch, be concluded with a cup of espresso or prepared with a caffè mocha, followed by the so-called ammazzacaffè, consisting of a glass of local liqueur, bitter or sweet (of which there is wide choice).
On special occasions, such as holidays and anniversaries, there are also two other courses:
Wine is often a part of the meal, especially during lunch and dinner.
See also: Merienda
The merenda (from the Latin merenda) is not a main meal, but an important snack in the mid-morning (around 10 o'clock) or mid-afternoon (around 17 o'clock). It is usually a light meal, consisting of a panino or tramezzino, fruit alone, or bread and jam, if not some typical dessert and, in summer, possibly ice cream. It is particularly carried out in childhood, but is also quite common among adults.
Along with lunch, it is the other main meal of the day. The supper (Cena) scheme follows that of the classic Italian lunch, therefore with the same courses, but with dishes and foods that are usually lighter.
Exceptions are suppers, called cenoni, consumed on the occasion of certain annual anniversaries such as New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve and the Carnival period; dinners are richer and more substantial than the lunch itself.
Unlike lunch, the Italian supper, when consumed among close family members, does not necessarily include the presence of a first course based on starchy foods (such as pasta or polenta) or cereals (such as rice), so sometimes supper consists of what during lunch would be equivalent to a second course (therefore a meat or fish-based preparation), with or without a side dish, or a single dish, such as a soup or a light soup, however including the presence of bread.
A structure of an Italian meal in its full form, usually used during festivities: