One of the greatest joys about living in (or visiting) Italy is the ubiquitous Italian coffee bar. I love everything about it; the energy, the social aspect, the smell, the physical space, and yes, the coffee.
With all due respect to Starbucks, there are some things that Italians just do better. Maybe that’s why Italy resisted the invasion of the Seattle chain for so long. Oh, there have been some Starbucks knock offs for a while, but they never gained much traction. Now, alas, there is an official outpost of the American Corporate Coffee Giant in Milan. By all accounts, it’s doing quite well. And if that weren't enough to signal that The Apocalypse is imminent, they recently announced a second location in Italy... near The Vatican, of all places.
Personally, I prefer all the little rules and procedures found in an Italian coffee bar over the silly “coffee” options at Starbucks (Chai mocha Frappuccino nonfat soy latte, anyone? YUCK!).
And once you've learn these rituals, you feel like you’ve discovered something important, and in some small way, you’ve integrated into Italian society.
Italian Coffee Bar Protocols
Now, submitted for your review, are the following protocols:
- When in doubt, pay for your coffee at the cash register first, and bring the little receipt to the bar. Make eye contact with the barista as you place the receipt on the bar with a coin on top of it. 20 cents (centesimi) is enough.
- Standing at the bar (al banco) is better than sitting at a table most of the time. It’s cheaper, more social, and if I may say so, it’s more “Italian.”
- Ask for a “latte” in Italy and you will be served a tall glass of milk. The correct way of ordering the eponymous coffee drink is to request a caffè latte – coffee with milk. It’s hot glass of milk with a shot of espresso.
- That said, you shouldn’t consume ANY milk-based drinks after about 10:30-11:00 in the morning.
- Furthermore, cappuccino and such aren't really beverages; more like a meal in itself and should be taken alone or with a very simple pastry.
- In fact, coffee drinks in general are never to be consumed with a meal; they should either be enjoyed by themselves or after you’ve finished eating. But again, after breakfast, your coffee should only be an espresso, or perhaps a macchiato (just a “spot” of milk) if you can’t tolerate the acidity of a straight shot.
- Never order a caffè doppio (double espresso). Instead, return to the bar twice (or more) for another coffee throughout the day.
What to Order at a Italian Coffee Bar
Let’s break it down more precisely. Again, when ordering a coffee (un caffè), remember that a “normal coffee” (in fact, it can be referred to as caffè normale) in Italy is always an espresso. Then there are countless variations. To name just a few of the most common:
- First, there are lungo (tall), corto (short), ristretto (really short and very strong).
- An American-style coffee, is (not surprisingly) referred to as caffè americano, which is an espresso mixed with hot water in a mug.
- A macchiato is an espresso “spotted” with just a splash of milk.
- A cappuccino is a big cup of steamed milk with a shot of espresso lungo and some foam on top.
- Caffè latte is a tall glass of milk with a shot of espresso.
- Caffè corretto is literally translated as “corrected coffee.” This drink is an espresso with a measure of alcohol, such as grappa. And yes, you may have it for breakfast if you like, especially in Northern Italy, and especially in the winter months.
- On the other hand, if you’re in Southern Italy during the summer, you might order a granita di caffé; kind of like a frozen coffee slushie with a dollop of cream on top.
Coffee Throughout the Day in Italy
First thing in the morning, the most important thing is to get some caffeine into your bloodstream before you attempt any strenuous activity, whether it be physical or mental. This is the perfect time of day for this magic little potion, which contains maximum energy and occupies a minimum amount of space in your stomach.
Skipping coffee at breakfast is not an option. And you can forget about your mint-infused Chinese herbal tea, as well. No, you need the real-deal: high-octane Italian rocket fuel. It can be an espresso or cappuccino or any other incarnation of real coffee.
Later in the morning, of course you’ll need one or two more coffee breaks to keep the blood pumping. But then make sure to leave at least an hour (more time would be better) between your final coffee of the morning and your upcoming lunch. Coffee suppresses the appetite, and that’s the last thing you want as you contemplate your midday meal.
You can even eat your lunch at an Italian coffee bar. Some bars will offer a pasta dish of the day, but most just stick to pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice), panini (sandwiches), and various insalatone (big salads). The majority of Italians will eat it standing up at the counter with either just a bottle of water or a small beer. They’ll read a gossip magazine or the soccer pages before downing a quick coffee (are you keeping count?) and rushing back to work.
Following your after dinner dessert, you should certainly have a final coffee of the day. Remember, coffee always comes at the very end of the meal, and never before or during (this rule is not flexible and you may get instantaneously deported if you break it). And never forget that you may not have a cappuccino at this hour, either.
How could you even consider pouring warm, foamy milk on top of your pasta and fish? Fa schifo! But if you really can’t take the full bitterness of an espresso, remember that it’s acceptable to make it macchiato, just a tiny “spot” of milk to neutralize the acidic coffee.
Coffee is an intense taste to be savored, not to be chugged like a soft drink. It’s the period (or exclamation point!) to signify the end of a meal. The last taste on your palate. Unless…
Sometimes when you drink a coffee at this hour of the evening, you might follow it with an “amazzacaffè,” or “coffee killer,” as they are called in Rome. These are also called “amari,” or bitter after dinner drinks meant to cleanse your palate and aid in digestion. (Averna is my preferred choice.)
The bar in Italy is a unique place, even compared to similar types of locales in other Mediterranean countries. The local bar is the hub of daily life. You might stop in to read the newspaper or recharge the credit on your cell phone. It’s where you go to greet all your friends and neighbors and exchange a few pleasantries. Beautiful weather we’re having, isn’t it? Bello! Did you see Totti’s goal last night? Incredibile! Can you believe that Berlusconi has the nerve to think that he can fool us again? Stronzo! And so on.
History of the Italian Coffee Bar
These days, coffee breaks are an important part of the day in Italy, both for taste and energy. But from what we know, the consumption of coffee beverages began in northern Africa, where coffee trees grew in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa. It is thought that the beans were eaten by slaves taken from present day Sudan into Yemen and Arabia through the port of Mocha. (Are we picking up on the vocabulary lesson here?)
Perhaps the natural stimulant found in coffee, caffeine, was used to keep the slaves working hard throughout the day. (Take a peek inside the corporate America of today, and we can see that little has changed in that regard.)
But in an attempt to prevent its cultivation elsewhere and hoard all the java for themselves, the Arabs imposed a ban on the exportation of fertile coffee beans. However, by the early 1600s, the Dutch had found a way around this (it’s called smuggling) and brought live coffee plants back to the Netherlands where they were cultivated in greenhouses.
The first appearance of coffee in Italy was brought by Venetian traders in 1615. In fact, the first formal coffee house in all of Europe is said to be Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco in Venice—where it still stands today. You’ll pay a little extra (OK, a lot extra) for your espresso here, but the historical setting and view of the Basilica makes it worth every centesimo.
Drink Like an Italian
Unfortunately, the coffee culture of Italy is something that can’t be exported. But at least we can enjoy the coffee itself. There are many high-quality Italian brands found around the country, but the Italian coffee most often found abroad is Illy. What’s more, they also make some really cool espresso machines which very nearly replicate the real caffè you get in Italy.
Or if you want to have a coffee at home the way many Italians make it, buy a little Moka pot for your stove top. Bialetti is the classic brand name.
OK, so you don’t get to elbow your way to the front of the bar, or smell the fresh baked cornetti, or read Gazzetta dello Sport while you drink your espresso. But if you close your eyes and take a sip, for just a moment, you’re there.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to go have another coffee. Ciao!