Anyone who has met me knows that I love coffee and that I tend drink it in excess. Although, lately I have been trying to reign myself in a bit which is probably why I have coffee on my brain. I come from a family of coffee drinkers. When I was growing up, I remember my parents having one of those metal percolators sitting on our avocado countertop. I always loved it when my Dad made coffee in the morning and I would hear the gurgling sound of the it bubbling up and the aroma wafting up the stairs. I thought coffee was so adult and at ten years old I definitely thought I was ready to be a grown-up even though a few decades later it is still highly questionable if I am a “real” grown-up. Sometimes, I would tiptoe down the back stairs of our house after my Dad had poured his coffee and I would sneak a bit of coffee into my favorite hot chocolate mug. I would add about the same amount of sugar as coffee and tip the plastic gallon jug of milk into my cup until the coffee was the color of a vanilla biscuit. I felt so grown up. In fact, I kept drinking coffee like this until I moved to Italy and learned how to drink and appreciate coffee like a grown up without making funny faces.
So what’s the big deal with Italian coffee?
When you think of you Italy, you think of coffee, right? Italy, like everything here, has a long history with coffee. The culture of coffee was born in Italy with the opening of first coffee house in Europe in 1629 in Venice. Italians invented the first espresso machine (Turin, 1884) as well as the macchinetta or the stovetop percalator which was first produced by Bialetti in 1933.
In Italy, you won’t find any peppermint or pumpkin spiced coffee concoctions. You will find, however, probably the best cup of coffee you have ever sipped. Simply put, when coffee is made the traditional Italian way using a dark roasted bean without too much oil, freshly ground and in an espresso machine, it is what coffee should taste like…dark, full bodied and smooth. In fact, the coffee is so good here, that I don’t put sugar in my coffee anymore…which I’m sure is shocking to those who know me.
The nuts and bolts of ordering a coffee in Italy
When I first arrived in Italy, I definitely needed a guide to understand the rules of Italian coffee drinking. Coffee is so engrained in Italian culture that the mere idea of someone not drinking coffee is as strange as it is for a foreigner to understand all of its rules.
Forget about sitting down for a liesurely coffee unless you want to pay double or triple for table service. The norm is to have your coffee standing at the bar. Yes, coffee shops or cafes are called bars in Italy. Taking a coffee is probably the only things Italians do fast, but they do it several times a day so maybe that is why they need to do it standing. A coffee first thing in the morning with your cornetto or brioche, a coffee mid morning around 10:30 with your colleague, another coffee after lunch and, yes, another coffee mid-afternoon and maybe one more on your way home from work. The baristas certainly get to know their regulars; even at the train station!
So here are the basic rules:
- Dairy only in the morning…never after a meal. So, take your cappuccino at breakfast and not after lunch.
- Coffee is usually just that..coffee. You definitely won’t find a caramel frappuccino in Italy.
Here is a list of the kinds of coffee you can order.
Caffe: this is a single shot of espresso. Italian typically don’t order “un espresso”, but “un caffe”
Cappuccino: this is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 foam (you can also ask for cacao (cocoa powder) sprinkled on top.
Caffe ristretto: This is a single shot of espresso with less water than the traditional shot of espresso.
Caffe lungo: This is a shot of espresso that has less water than an Americana, but more water than an espresso (caffe).
Doppio: A double shot of espresso.
Freddo: An iced espresso.
Corretto: This is an espresso “corrected” with a glug of brandy or grappa.
If you want to really look a like a local, ask for a glass of water (un bicchiere d’acqua). The barman will give you a small glass of water. The idea is to drink it before you have your coffee to clean your mouth and prepare your palette for the taste of coffee. See, I told you Italians take their coffee very seriously. When my Dad and his wife came to visit my husband and I, we ducked into a small bar to grab a coffee after lunch. My husband asked for water for all of us. When I saw my Dad drinking the water after his coffee, I whispered to him that here in Italy you drink the water first, then the coffee. He said that he needed to rinse his mouth from the coffee taste…oh the look of horror on my husband’s face. He innocently asked my father if the coffee was “chofeka” or bad. My Dad informed him that it was a perfect cup of coffee and that he just doesn’t like the lingering taste of coffee in his mouth which was frankly a bit baffling to my husband. I will let you in on a secret…I still sometimes drink my water after my coffee. Sometimes I just don’t want the taste of coffee to linger. So, yes, Dad I do understand. I guess you can’t completely take the American out of me! 😉
There are a couple of exceptions to just “regular” coffee.
Caffe all Nocciola: This is a speciality from Naples. It is a wonderfully frothy espresso with a hazelnut cream on top. The best place to try this is in Naples at a bar called Gran Caffe Gambrinus.
Marocchino: In the Milan area, you can ask for a marocchino. It is like an upside down cappuccino served in a small glass which is first sprinkled with cocoa powder. Next comes a couple spoonfuls of frothy milk, then a shot of espresso.
Shakerato: Thisi s just a shot of espresso mixed with milk, sugar, and ice and shaken in a cocktail shaker. It is typically served in a tall martini like glass with the foam scooped from the shaker on top. A great alternatve on a hot day.
Caffe d’orzo: This is a coffee substitute made from barley. Typically, people will drink this if they want the taste of coffee, but have issues such as acid reflux or stomach problems and can not drink normal coffee. It is similar chicory coffee in the U.S.
Cioccolata calda: I can not say enough good things about Italian hot chocolate. It is like drinking a hot chocolate pudding…and it goes to whole other level if you ask for panna (whipped cream). I am drooling just thinking about it.
Te caldo/Tezana: hot tea.
Finally, a few more important notes:
- You must pay first then order. When you go to the bar to order, put your recipt on the bar and let the barista know what you ordered.
- Standing room only…stand at the bar and have your coffee like the locals…unless you have a good reason to sit down…you will pay more for your coffee for table service. It is worth it sometimes. My husband and I like to go to a bar in Rome that is on the Pantheon piazza. Taking a table on a crisp fall day and watching the world go by in front of the Pantheon is not a bad thing…and worth every bit extra that you pay.
If you are in a less touristy area, the less this rule applies and you can usually take your coffee from the bar and sit down at one of the bar’s tables. When my husband I lived in the residential area of Prati near the Vatican in Rome, I would go to our local bar across the street from our palazzo after lunch with our puppy Loki and sit outside at one of the tables for my coffee and watch the world go by for a little while.
- You know you have an experienced barista if when you receive your coffee the coffee cup is warm to the touch (they have special warmer for this) and you coffee is hot, but not too hot (bollente). You will never receive a coffee that is bollente (unless you specify this to the barman). You recive your coffee at a temperature where it can be drunk immediately…that way there is not a traffic jam at the bars as bars are always busy in Italy.
So there it is, how to drink coffee like an Italian.