Italian

La Merenda, or How to Snack the Italian Way

by:
September 13, 2016

It's Italy Week! All week long, we're celebrating all things Italian. Stay tuned for more great recipes, stories, and travel tips.

La merenda is the typical mid-afternoon snack that most Italians tend to associate with coming home from school as a child—that moment of the day, somewhere around 4 or 5 o'clock, when little tummies are groaning and need a small something to help make it to dinnertime, still a few hours away.

Chocolate hazelnut spread on bread. Photo by Emiko Davies

It is often something sweet (and in this case is usually called la merendina, "the little snack"), such as a warm bowl of milk with biscotti for dipping, a scoop of fresh ricotta with sugar sprinkled over the top, or a slice of bread spread thickly with Nutella. In the summer, gelato is quite possibly everybody's—big or small—favorite merenda.

Shop the Story

Then there are those merende that go back to another time, before prepackaged snacks lined aisles at the supermarket—like the zabaione-ish uovo sbattuto. An egg yolk and some sugar are whipped up in seconds with a fork in a small teacup. Pellegrino Artusi describes this in his 1891 cookbook as "the antidote to a crying child." His version includes the white of the egg, whipped to peaks and folded through the creamy egg, served with bread for dipping. Some like to put coffee in it, too (my husband's nonna would do it this way).

Bread rubbed with tomato. Photo by Emiko Davies

Then there are the savory snacks. Pane con la mortadella is a classic—a floppy, paper-thin slice of mortadella sandwiched between 2 slices of bread. Or pane con pomodoro: a tomato, cut in half and rubbed over bread until it is stained pink. It needs only a sprinkle of salt and pepper and good olive oil. Toasting is optional. If you really wanted, you could embellish it—some fresh basil, some dried oregano, garlic, maybe an anchovy draped over it. But this really depends on how your nonna made it for you when you were a child.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I lived in Italy for 3 years from age 9 to 12, and I remember eating bread and nutella as a snack. At my school, it was also served as a dessert at the cafeteria. ”
— Regine
Comment

It's not just little tummies that need filling up. A merenda can happen pretty much anywhere and at any time that justifies a little something to get you through to mealtime. I think of aperitivo (which is as much an excuse for a social gathering as it is for easing into the evening and appeasing your appetite while you wait for dinner) as a sort of a grown-up extension of a merenda.

Salame and mortadella on bread, the classic merenda Photo by Emiko Davies

Patience Gray, who spent many years living in Tuscany and Puglia and wrote a beautiful cookbook called Honey from a Weed, describes it this way: "A merenda can take place under the shade of a loquat tree on one's way up the muletrack on a summer evening, in the courtyard of a bar at a marble table, or in the winter in a ruined cottage which served as an illict wine bar." She devoted an entire chapter to the subject of la merenda, noting the main cultural difference between the British "snack" and an Italian "merenda": "The snack is snatched, la merenda is shared."

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

What was the classic after-school snack of your childhood (or adulthood—snacks are important at every age)? Tell us in the comments.

6 Comments

Regine September 20, 2018
I lived in Italy for 3 years from age 9 to 12, and I remember eating bread and nutella as a snack. At my school, it was also served as a dessert at the cafeteria.
 
Jr0717 September 13, 2016
Even in a Sicilian-American family, this holds true. Some of my most cherished memories are from late afternoons spent with my mother over a loaf of bread and handful of delicious accoutrement for said bread (torn from the loaf, never cut, of course).
 
Kate K. September 13, 2016
Thank you for quoting Patience Gray! She is such a beautiful writer, and so little known.
 
Author Comment
Emiko September 13, 2016
So glad to hear you like her too. Her book is one of my favourites, and her chapter on Merenda is just wonderful!
 
urbancooknyc September 13, 2016
Emiko, love this! I grew up in Italy, and whenever I talk about snacks with americans I always describe the italian "merenda" exactly as you did in this article, wholesome real food and healthy. Growing up, we never had packaged food for merenda. Nowadays, my "merenda" may be some hummus with veggies, an apple with cheese or almond butter, fruit or granola. Sadly, I can't even keep any type of hazelnut spread in my pantry, as I just can't resist it, too good and too many memories!
 
Author Comment
Emiko September 13, 2016
That's the wonderful thing about merenda, it seems -- the memories! Your 'grown up' merende sound pretty perfect too.