FRI. JUNE 19: Day 11
Italian Coffee Culture
Italian coffee culture is as strong as the espresso, and bars are always full no matter the time of day. In America, I drink my coffee so loaded with cream and sugar that it is almost white. Today, I stepped out of my comfort zone and had my first espresso.
This small shot of straight black coffee intimidated me, but just after one sip, I was hooked. There is no way I can ever step into a Starbucks again. Italy really does do everything better.
Starbucks has fooled us all. Today, I watched a lady, obviously familiar with the “Italian” lingo of Starbucks, proudly order a “latte.” The barista looked at her funny. “Latte? Caldo o freddo?” (Hot or cold?).”Caldo, of course!” she said.
He disappeared for a moment, came back, and handed her a cup of exactly what she’d asked for: hot milk.
Don’t want that to be you? Then it’s worth knowing a little bit about coffee in Italy!
Coffee is so much a part of Italian culture that the idea of not drinking it is as foreign as the idea of having to explain its rituals. The Arabica coffee blend is often perfect, the cups just the right size and shape, the machines as Made in Italy as they come, and the bartenders as charming as possible.
Here are the Rules of La Cultura del Caffè (The Coffee Culture):
1. A cafe is actually called a bar in Italy.
What Americans call a café, Italians call a bar (caffè actually means coffee). You’ll see bars on almost every corner and sometimes up to three or four in one block. To an untrained eye, you might think Italians have a drinking problem, but they’re only coffee addicts!
2. Only drink cappuccino, caffé latte, latte macchiato or any milky form of coffee in the morning (before noon), and never after a meal.*
3. Do not muck around with coffee. Coffee is coffee. Requesting a strawberry frappuccino in Italy is absurd.
4. Do not use the word espresso. This a technical term in Italian, not an everyday one. A a single espresso is simply known as un caffè.
5. Do not sit down. Drink your coffee standing at the bar.
Italians drink their coffee fast, and at the bar. They don’t waste time sipping while reading the paper or visiting with friends. Instead, they’ll pop into bars five or six times a day for a quick cup, gulped down at the counter over some chatter with the barista. It naturally sets the passing hours of the day. It is both an intimate and a public ritual.
So for an authentic experience, join the masses standing at the bar. The clink of ceramic cups and routine of shaking and stirring sugar packets is endearing, and one you won’t get from a table. If you do feel like sitting, be prepared for a slightly larger bill. It’s usually twice the price if you use table service.
7. Expect your coffee to arrive at a temperature at which it can be downed immediately as per the previous commandment. If you prefer burning your lips and tongue or blowing the froth off your cappuccino in a vain attempt to cool it down, you should ask for un caffè bollente.
8. Paying systems can vary. In most cases, you order and pay at the cash register, then bring your receipt to the barista, who will make your order. In other cases, you order at the bar, drink your coffee, and then tell the person at the cash register what you had. As a general rule, try the cash register first, or take a moment to watch what others are doing.
*You might notice throughout your time in Italy that Italians have strict food rules. Suffice it to say, these rules can seem a bit strict to the outsider, but you must know that many of these often come from now irrelevant but totally reasonable ideas.
Take the cappuccino rule for example: back in the day when refrigeration was a luxury, Italians only ever had cappuccino and milky drinks in the morning when the milk was fresh, but didn’t risk it after midday when the milk could go sour.
Also, Italians cringe at the thought of all that hot milk hitting a full stomach and say it disrupts digestion. The heavy milk and foam in a cappuccino constitute their breakfast, and they deem cappuccinos far too heavy for an afternoon coffee break.
A guide to types of drinks:
• Caffè: a shot of espresso served in a small ceramic cup. Ordered first thing in the morning, taken during a 5-minute mid-morning break, after lunch, in the afternoon, after dinner, or any time. You can take your espresso short (ristretto) or long (lungo) depending whether you like your coffee with more or less hot water. It’s not as diluted as an Americano and more authentic. Most bars will give you a small glass of water to drink afterwards.
• Caffè Americano: the Italian take on American style drip-coffee. An Americano is made by adding hot water to a shot of espresso, diluting the concentration.
• Caffè macchiato: Meaning “stained” or “spotted” coffee, this is an espresso with a dash of hot, foamy milk on top.
• Caffé freddo or Cappuccino freddo: Iced black coffee that has usually already been mixed with sugar and chilled in a bottle in the fridge. If you don’t want it sugared ask for ‘non zuccherato‘. It’s served in a glass.
• Caffè corretto: This “corrected” coffee is served with a drop of liquor, usually cognac, grappa or Sambuca. I love the way the name implies that your espresso is faulty until it has been ‘corrected’ with a sneaky dash of alcohol.
• Caffè shakerato: Delicious in the sweltering summer months, a caffè shakerato is a fresh espresso mixed with sugar and ice, and shaken vigorously like a martini until it froths as it’s poured into a chilled glass.
• Caffè latte: This is espresso with hot milk, just like a latte in the US, but careful to specify the “caffè” part, because “latte” just means “milk”. Even ordered correctly though, the caffè latte is not a common drink in Italy, and you might not get what you expect.
• Caffè ginseng: An espresso with added ginseng extract.
• Cappuccino: Saving the best for last! The cappuccino is a warm, soothing, perfect ratio of espresso to whole milk, frothed to perfection. One sip and you’ll realize it’s completely different than whatever cappuccino you’re used to, in the best way possible.
On an unrelated note, I had prosciutto e melone for the first time today, which is undoubtedly the perfect dish for the hot summer months. The sweetness of the melon combines well with the saltiness of the prosciutto, making this dish refreshing. The mozzarella was absolutely to die for and I could probably eat this dish every single day for the rest of my life. Constantine gave it to me on the house, which was unbelievably nice of him.
What is your favorite way to drink caffè? Come on! Spill the (coffee) beans. 😉