Loving The Italian Coffee Culture

Loving The Italian Coffee Culture

Coffee is a major presence in Italy, taken seriously by the locals and filled with unwritten rules and customs. Though the coffee beans proper are not native to Italy, when they were first imported into Venice in the 16th century, the Italians learned what wonderful concoctions they could produce. The concept took off and now you are sure to find excellent quality coffee at any neighborhood bar.

Throughout the day Italians get their coffee at a “bar” or coffee shop – what we think of as a “cafe” they call a bar. These venues can run the gamut from basic corner bars to elegant historical coffee houses. Ordering coffee is serious business in Italy and you need to be prepared when the barista asks what you want, usually with a cursory nod, direct eye contact and the customary “Prego?” (in this case…”What can I get you?”)

First things first…coffee in Italian is caffè.

How do you order coffee in Italy?

Order caffè in a bar and you will get a small, dense espresso coffee. Italians won’t use the word espresso to order, but when a tourist orders a caffè or coffee the barista might confirm “espresso?” to make sure that is what you expect. If you ask for an espresso as a tourist that’s fine too, but you’ll get more respect asking for caffè. The barista may also ask you if you want it normale, that is, plain with nothing added to it like milk.

If you prefer the watered down American version, ask for caffè americano. This is usually an espresso that is diluted with hot water; often the hot water is presented to you in a small carafe so you can monitor how much you want. Very few bars will carry the filtered coffee that most Americans are accustomed to; if they have it, it is called caffè filtro or caffè filtrato.

Caffè lungo is an espresso with an extra tug of water.

Caffè ristretto is an espresso with less water, just a quick sip of dense coffee.

Caffè macchiato is an espresso with a small “stain” of steamed milk atop.

Cappuccino in Italy The always-popular cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 wet foamed milk. Those produced in Italy are heavenly, most foreign versions tend to pale in comparison.

If you want coffee with a large proportion of steamed milk order a caffè latte, caffè being the operative word.

Caffè corretto is a “corrected coffee” – corrected with a drop of liquor like grappa, cognac, or Sambuca. This is popular after dinner or, especially in colder northern Italy, any time of day to keep warm!

Caffè doppio is a double shot of espresso, but this is not very customary for Italians to order. It is more common to have several quick cafes during the day! An espresso does have a jolt of caffeine in it, but believe it or not since it passes through the machine in a quick “expressed” press the actual amount of caffeine is limited. We find that filtered American coffee, while perhaps less strongtasting, actually contains more caffeine due to the longer drip process used to make it which absorbs more caffeine.

Caffè shakerato is a favorite in the hot summer months. Literally a shaken coffee, the barista will put a shot of espresso into a Martini shaker with sugar and ice, shake it up and pour it usually into a Martini or fancy cocktail glass. It is frothy and perfect on a sweltering August day when hot coffee sounds like torture. Sometimes they might add chocolate for added indulgence.

Caffè freddo is another popular choice in summer months, simply cold coffee served over ice in a glass. You can add sugar or milk to taste.

A few unwritten rules

Italians don’t drink cappuccino after 11:00 AM (it’s a breakfast drink) and never at the end of a hot meal. It makes them ill just to think about it. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it…they’ll just dismiss you as a foreigner with strange habits! They think the hot milk is bad for your digestion after a meal.

They also never take coffee or cappuccino “to go” – it’s always drunk at the bar – al banco – or sitting down. Very civilized!

Coffee punctuates the day. Italians may have a cappuccino or caffè latte for breakfast, then a couple of coffees during the day (late morning, after lunch) – some take a caffè after dinner (no milk!) especially when dining out at a restaurant. Except for breakfast, Italians will always save the coffee for the end of the meal, never during it.

If you drink your coffee standing at the bar – al banco – it will cost less, perhaps less than half as much, than if you sit down at a table with service. When ordering at the bar while standing, first head to the cassa/ cash register, tell the cashier what you want, pay and then take the receipt to the bar and order form the barista. 

Most people drink their coffee quickly and move on to make room for the next customer – the standing bar is not a place to linger. During coffee rush-hour (all morning), you may have to hustle and take a clear and determined stance at the bar, fighting politely for your space, or you might never be served! Popular bars tend to be crowded much of the morning, a sign of high quality if the customers are Italian. 

When you sit at a table, there will be service and in this case you pay the server directly. Again, prices will be higher but often this is well worth the cost – especially if you are at a cafe in a historic piazza with beautiful views and fun people-watching…let’s be honest, sometimes you need to get off your feet after hours of sightseeing and a cafe can be the perfect place for a break and recharge.

Some cafes will serve your coffee with a small glass of water. Italians drink this water before they drink the coffee – as a palette cleanser to better enjoy the taste – rather than afterwards.

Prendiamo un caffè!

A popular phrase among Italians is “prendiamo un caffè” – let’s get a coffee – which is usually used as a cherished break in the day and chance to socialize with a friend or colleague while perking up with the beloved drink. Taking a coffee is a ritual and routine in Italy, without it the day is not complete. Next time you are in Italy, be sure to visit some of its historical coffee houses for a truly Italian experience.


source: anticosoleitaly.com

Download the full issue of the November-December 2023 Healthy Options News Digest here. 


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