To understand Italian coffee culture, we need to talk about bars, which are the framework of coffee consumption in Italy and the herald of our other curiosities.
If you’ve been to Italy before, you’ve surely noticed that there are bars everywhere. At first glance, it might seem the Italians have a serious collective drinking problem. After all, bars are open day and night, and you’ll find Italians in them at all hours. So what’s up with this ubiquitous bar thing?
To understand this puzzling but important aspect of everyday Italian life, we have to put aside the things we as foreigners associate with the word “bar”. In Italy, a bar is a place to get coffee, beverages, sandwiches, and pastries. Basically, it’s what we could call a café. Well, a café with a cultural twist — you can also get alcoholic beverages in a bar in Italy.
Even though bars in Italy serve beer, wine, and cocktails, they are family-friendly places. Getting inebriated is something you’ll rarely see people doing at an Italian bar because that’s not its raison d’être. In Italy, a bar is a place for folks to have a refreshment and chat with friends, other patrons, and the barista.
The equivalent of an American bar — a place where minors are prohibited and the focus is the consumption of alcohol — is called a “night” in Italy. Might seem like an odd name but it’s actually a truncation of the word “nightclub”. (Borrowed English words are frequently curtailed in this way in Italy; for example, a “toast” is a toasted sandwich, “basket” is basketball, and a “reality” is a reality show.) American bars can be found in larger metropolitan centres and in areas such as beachside resort communities, but their numbers and popularity are nothing to compare with the classic Italian bar, which you will find in even the tiniest of Italian hamlets.
At an Italian bar, coffee takes centre stage. To follow are a few things that might surprise you about Italian coffee culture.
Italian Coffee Culture Curiosity One: Two Sets of Prices
In destinations that get a lot of tourist traffic, the cost of your refreshment might triple or quadruple depending on where in the bar you consume it. In bars that charge customers for the luxury of occupying a table, there will be two sets of prices: one if you stand at the counter (“al banco”) to consume your drink or snack, and another if you sit down at a table (“a tavola”).
For those accustomed to paying $5 for a coffee at Starbucks, the cost of a coffee with table service in a place like Rome or Florence probably won’t phase you. But when you consider that an espresso at the counter (or at a table in non-tourist places) costs around 1 Euro (about $1.10 US, $1.45 Canadian) and a cappuccino about 1.50 Euro, you realize that coffee is amazingly cheap in Italy. Amazingly cheap and amazingly good. It’s pretty much impossible to find a bad coffee anywhere in the country; even in places like train stations and airports, the coffee is excellent.
Italian Coffee Culture Curiosity Two: Coffee that Needs Correcting
A curious coffee that you will come across in Italy is the caffè corretto. This literally means “corrected coffee”. As awesome as Italian coffee is, there’s apparently something about it that needs fixing, and the fix is a splash of liquor! That’s right, a caffè corretto is an espresso laced with alcohol, usually something powerful such as whiskey, cognac, Sambuca (anise-flavoured liqueur), or grappa (the jet fuel you get when you distill wine down to its purest form). Don’t be surprised if you see Italians drinking caffè corretto first thing in the morning, especially in the colder months due to the boosted warming effect.
Speaking of coffee that needs correcting, you should take care when ordering coffee in Italy so as to avoid erroneous beverages being placed in front of you. If you order a caffè in Italy — even if you ask for a coffee in English — you will get an espresso. (Italians frankly don’t understand why we would consume such a diluted thing as brewed coffee.) If you want the equivalent of American coffee, you’ll need to ask for a caffè Americano, a shot of espresso served in a cup with a little pitcher of hot water alongside.
Latte lovers, beware! If you order a latte in Italy, you will get a glass of milk (because latte is the Italian word for milk). To get a coffee with hot milk in it, you have to ask for a caffè latte. A caffè latte is frequently served in a tall, clear glass.
Italian Coffee Culture Curiosity Three: No Giant Coffees, No Giant Coffeehouse Chains
Perhaps it’s not fair to say that there are no giant coffeehouse chains in Italy. Starbucks has 18 locations. When you figure that there are 842 Starbucks in the UK, 205 in France, and 589 in Turkey, the picture of how Italians view their coffee experience becomes very clear. The idea of a pricey, giant coffee in a takeout cup that you schlep around with you is lost on Italians.
In Italy, a coffee is a small, quick affair. It literally takes two seconds to drink an espresso. Why would you need a takeout cup for that? Italian coffee “takeout” is someone from a nearby business walking out of the bar with their coffees in real cups on a tray, to be returned later. In tourist places, you can get coffee to go, but these coffeehouses do not reflect Italian coffee culture.
An Italian cappuccino comes in one size, which amounts to about four ounces of liquid, half the size of the smallest coffee at Starbucks. It’s curious that Starbucks chose to call their biggest size the “Venti” — an Italian word meaning “twenty” — because an Italian would never dream of drinking a twenty-ounce coffee.
Italian Coffee Culture Curiosity Four: The Strict Rules Surrounding Coffee Consumption
One of the marvelous things about Italy is its rich culinary culture. Each region has its own traditions and specialties, which vary vastly as you make your way from the Africa-heat of Sicily in the south to the alpine regions in the north.
A thing that doesn’t vary, however, is the way Italians approach a meal. There is an untouchable order in which things are eaten and strict rules about what can be served with what. (This is why you invariably find the same sections on an Italian menu.)
This way of segmenting the elements of a meal is practically sacred in Italy and applies to beverages as well. Perhaps the thing that evidences the cultural culinary divide more than anything else is coffee. Italians do not drink coffee with a meal. Ever. It’s absolutely unthinkable. Coffee is something you drink to finish a meal. Italians don’t even drink coffee with dessert.
The belief behind this behaviour is that coffee aids digestion. At the end of a meal, you’ll sometimes see Italians ordering a digestivo or amaro instead of coffee to achieve the same effect. Besides the credence that coffee aids digestion, Italians are very aware of the tastes of things and how they go together. That’s why they drink wine with a meal. The wine serves to refresh the mouth and exalt the flavour of the food. To an Italian, to pair the flavour of coffee with anything but a breakfast pastry is just bizarre. And pretty much disgusting.
The ultimate example of coffee culture curiosities is that Italians never drink a cappuccino after a meal. This is an unwavering habit that exists nationwide. A cappuccino is something heavy that you drink for breakfast or as a sort of liquid snack at other times of the day. A cappuccino will never make an appearance on the dinner table of an Italian.
To avoid looking like a coffee bumpkin when you visit Italy, order a caffè macchiato after a meal. A macchiato (which means “stained” in Italian) is an espresso topped with a bit of foamy milk. It’s the perfect way to get some creamy java satisfaction in a way that is acceptable in the cultural context of an Italian lunch or dinner.
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