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By Jennifer Cowden
Prendiamo un caffè!
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 for a bargain price.
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?”)
Ready to take notes?
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.
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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 order a latte you will get a cup of milk which is what the word means; if you want coffee with a large proportion of steamed milk order a caffè latte, caffè being the operative word.
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 strong-tasting, actually contains more caffeine due to the longer drip process used to make it which absorbs more caffeine.
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 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 an 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!
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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 from 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.
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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.
Best places to try coffee in Italy:
Happily you will find top quality coffee in any bar across Italy, but there are certain cities that are historically known for their coffee culture. Here are some to try:
Coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia and later introduced to Europe through the Ottoman Empire. It was in Venice, a port city of merchants and traders, that coffee was first imported into Europe and introduced to Italians in the 16th century. In Italy’s original coffee houses, coffee was brewed Turkish style, boiled with spices and sugar in a heated pot. Only in the 19th century was espresso coffee introduced in the city of Milan.
Caffè Florian, the renowned cafe in Piazza San Marco, celebrated its 300th anniversary this year and is considered the oldest operating coffee house in the world from 1720. For decades the historical cafe has been serving clients from around the world in what was established as an elegant meeting place for socializing and drinking in this cosmopolitan city.
Today you can enjoy your coffee at a table in the plush time-capsule interior, or outside in the piazza with a view – prices are notoriously high here, but we find worth it for the experience and setting in this historical venue.
The northern Italian city Torino, capital of the Piedmont region, enjoys a long history of coffee house culture going back to the 17th century when politicians, artists and revolutionists would meet in these now-historical cafes. Since the area is also renowned for its fine chocolate, it is often combined with coffee to create heavenly concoctions. On another coffee note, the prominent Italian coffee brand Lavazza, served in bars around the world, was founded in this city in 1895.
Iconic coffee house in Turin:
Caffè al Bicerin is the definitive historic coffee house in Turin dating back to 1763. It is most known for its signature coffee drink bicerin, a dreamy mix of quality hot chocolate, coffee and cream for which they jealously guard the original recipe. For the ultimate pick-me-up, pop in for a bicerin at this elegant cafe in the heart of Turin.
Rome has several excellent historic coffee houses, including the second oldest bar in Italy:
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Antico Caffè Greco, situated on the glamorous shopping street Via dei Condotti near the Spanish Steps, opened in 1760 and remains the second oldest coffee house in Italy after Caffè Florian in Venice. It has been frequented by artists and intellectuals over the centuries, like Goethe, Stendhal, Keats, Byron, Henry James, Mark Twain, Wagner and Casavona to name a few. Its posh interiors are decked with silk wall fittings and hundreds of old paintings, a walk through the past and perfect spot to sit for a cappuccino or caffè shakerato as you are touring the Eternal City or shopping in the elegant surrounding boutiques.
While near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona area, be sure to try coffees at one or both of these iconic coffee houses:
Tazza d’Oro sits just a few meters off the Piazza della Rotonda, the lively square in front of the ancient Pantheon monument. This mid-century decorated bar is considered by many to serve the best coffee in Rome – try the granita di caffè con panna, a sweet coffee slushy with fresh cream on top, a delightful treat. In operation since 1944, the shop proudly toasts its own coffee beans – the scent will permeate your experience inside. Enjoy your caffè at the bar or take your granita outside into the piazza to contemplate the glory of ancient Rome.
Sant’Eustachio il Caffè Here is the nearby cafe that gives Tazza d’Oro a run for its money, in the Piazza S. Eustachio, 62 (right around corner, on back right corner of Pantheon but slightly hidden…ask a Roman if in doubt, it’s worth it). Their excellent coffee comes pre-sweetened, so if you like it bitter you must specify amaro. The baristas carefully keep their preparation secret with shields that guard the coffee machines, so their famous recipe remains secret. Frothy, creamy…exceptional. As one of Rome’s most popular cafes, it is always very crowded, so be prepared to fight for your space at the packed bar. They also have a few tables outside in the piazza and a nice shop with coffee and related sweets like chocolate-covered coffee beans for sale in their trademark yellow-and-brown packaging.
For the actual quality of the coffee itself, Naples is one of the top cities in Italy. The caffè napolitano is black, boiling and less sweet, satisfying to the end. Locals boast that Napoli is the undisputed coffee capital of Italy, and we won’t argue.
It was in post-World War II Naples that the concept of the caffè sospeso started, the “suspended coffee” where customers would pay for two espressos, one for themselves and for the next customer that could not afford to pay for one. A generous tradition of solidarity and humanity that continues to this day, especially revived now during the difficult pandemic crisis when many have lost their jobs. Coffee is that important in Naples!
Iconic coffee houses in Naples:
Gran Caffè Gambrinus is the most popular coffee house in Naples, standing directly on the city’s impressive Piazza Plebiscito where it was founded in 1860 during the Unification of Italy. A city landmark, literary salon and art gallery, it hosted illustrious artists, writers and politicians over the decades including Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriele D’Annunzio and others. Today you can enjoy a caffè together with one of their renowned pastries in the grand salon, imagining what Naples was like in its prime when it was one of the most beautiful cities in Italy.
Bar Nilo (The Maradona Bar) is a must-see stop when walking around the characteristic Spaccanapoli quarter in the heart of Napoli. Here you will find the infamous Altarino di Maradona, an altar where “relics” like a hair and tear of the beloved Diego Maradona, the Argentine ex-Napoli soccer pro who played for Naples in the 1980s and 90s and even now has near-saint-like status, is kept in a kitchy blue-and-white niche (the colors of the team). This is true and quintessential Naples, more than any elegant coffee house, where you can better understand the character of this unique city while tasting the perfect dense Napolitano espresso al banco just like the locals do.
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Prendiamo un caffè!
A popular phrase among Italians is “prendiamo un caffe” – 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.
Publisher’s note: This piece was originally published on the website Antico Sole Italy by the author. You can see it over there and also take a look around this travel advisor services’ website. Mille grazie to the folks over there for permission to reprint.