More than any other country, Italy has played a key part in modern coffee culture. Italy is coffee’s spiritual home and Italian is the language of coffee. The mere mention of the staples of any coffee house the world over – cappuccino, espresso, latte – conjures up café terraces, bustling bars and indulgent pastry breakfasts across the Bel Paese in a way that a long black, flat white or frappé just can’t quite muster.
Drinking coffee the Italian way
On average, Italians drink four coffees a day (two as an absolute minimum; some as many as eight!).
Every Italian spends roughly 260 euros a year on coffee, both to drink at home or while out and about. Apart from first thing in the morning or at the end of a meal, most coffee in Italy is taken standing at the counter “al banco” at the local bar. Simply ordering “un caffè” will garner you an espresso, no need to specify further. Your tazzina (little cup) will often be accompanied by a small glass of water – drink this first to get rid of any other flavours you have in your mouth so you can appreciate your coffee to the full. The coffee should be hot and ready to drink, but not boiling, topped with a thin layer of brown foam or crema. Italians tend to be pretty heavy handed on the sugar, often pouring as many as three sachets into the tiny cup of dark, steaming goodness.
When to drink coffee? And cappuccino?
What many visitors to Italy don’t realise, is that like most other areas of the nation’s cherished cuisine (ever asked an Italian whether pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping?!) which type of
coffee should be drunk when is governed by a whole set of unspoken rules. These “rules” have been largely shaped by centuries of tradition. Milky coffee is only ever drunk at breakfast. Extending that
time slot to around 11am is about as far as you can push your luck. Cappuccino is never an acceptable ending to a meal! A black coffee is the only sensible way to clean the palate; rich milk is
“pesante” (heavy) and should be avoided at all costs. In Italy, each type of coffee only comes in its standard size; small, medium, large or any other serving designation (don’t even think about tall, venti, or grande!) just isn’t done. If one isn’t enough, order two!
Not necessarily your way
The modern concept of customising your order with flavoured syrups, differing amounts of foam, varying strengths of caffeine or temperatures gets short shrift in Italian bars. The same can be said of to-go cups. Coffee is to be drunk socially and in small pick-me-up doses throughout the day.
Calling in at your local bar mid-afternoon for a quick shot of espresso and a pretext to shoot the breeze for ten minutes is what many Italian days are built around. Getting your coffee to take away and nurse alone at your desk for an hour or so simply doesn’t offer the same ritual of socialising, catching up on local gossip or dissecting the latest football results as you sip.
A little extra: caffè corretto
If your palate needs more cleansing than a bitter shot of coffee alone can provide, you need a caffè corretto, literally a “corrected coffee”. Usually served after dinner, a caffè corretto consists of a shot of coffee laced with a small amount of alcohol, usually grappa, but occasionally sambuca or brandy, to give an added boost to a digestive system that may well feel overworked by all that pizza and gelato.
One final thing to remember, in Italian “latte” literally means “milk”. Order one of these and you’ll get a cup of the white stuff. If you’re looking for it to be steaming, frothy and powered with a shot of coffee, what you’re really after is a “caffè latte”. Just don’t even think about order one at three o’clock in the afternoon!