Coffee and the Italians
It’s no secret that Italians love their coffee. A recent survey showed that 97% of Italians drink coffee (or caffè) at least once a day. It is so synonymous with Italy that even American coffee chains, whose coffee has little resemblance to the Italian variety, use Italian sounding words even for the size of their cups (cups which are much larger than anything you find in Italy).
A little history
Coffee first appeared in Italy in 1570 in Venice. It was brought there from the East by Prospero Alpino, a doctor from Padua. At first, it was only available to the rich and was sold through pharmacies. In 1716, the first café opened and the drink became available to the public at large. The number of shops grew so that by the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 there were more than 200 cafés in Venice, including the famous Florian (1720), Lavena (1750), and I Quadri (1775), all of which are all still open for business.
In the rest of Italy, coffee met some resistance from the Catholic Church. Some priests felt that it shouldn’t be allowed since it came from the Muslim East and others that it should be banned because of its qualities as a stimulant. Pressed to do something, Pope Clement VIII agreed to try it. The story goes that he took one sip and then said, ‘something this delicious shouldn’t only be available to the infidels.’ The rest is history.
When and where?
Those who have visited any Italian town know that it’s a place where you literally wake up and smell the coffee. At breakfast time the plentiful bars are full of people popping in for their morning shot, a quick read of the paper, and a brief hello to friends. But it doesn’t stop there. People will pop back to the bar, or a different bar, several times a day. It’s estimated that almost a quarter of Italians drink more than three cups a day. And they don’t have qualms about drinking it in the evening. A restaurant meal is usually finished with coffee.
People also drink coffee at home, 87% of households using a moka, the metal stovetop coffee maker, again for breakfast, or when friends call, or after dinner.
Italy has a strong, and sometimes ritualistic, culture surrounding coffee. Everyone has their own, slightly different way of taking it which is as personal as their signatures. There are unwritten rules about when you can drink what kind of coffee (milky coffee strictly before 11am, for instance). Coffee is part of your social life. Running into a friend in the street, often results in you taking them to a nearby bar to continue your conversation over a coffee. It’s also part of your working life. When arriving for a business, or hair appointment, it’s very usual to be offered a coffee (with the assistant often running out to the bar next door to get it).
Demand for coffee has kept prices low. Currently, you’d expect to pay between €1 and €1.10 for an espresso and €1.20–€1.30 for a coffee with milk. At the beginning of 2018, the average price for an espresso in Rome was €1.03.
If you are drinking your coffee for breakfast, it’s usual to eat something with it. This will depend where you are in Italy, but a brioche (a kind of sweet croissant), a cornetto (an alternative name for the same thing), or a bombolone (doughnut) are found everywhere. If you are in Naples, you might choose a sfogliatella which is a local delicacy, or in Sicily, a cannolo.
In a bar, coffee is often served with a small glass of water. In the north of Italy you will often get a choice of still or sparkling. Somewhere on the bar will also be the sugar. Italians have a very sweet tooth and many think people like me, who drink their coffee without sugar, are a bit weird.
Types of coffee
The Italian word for coffee is caffè. The ‘e’ on the end is pronounced open like the ‘e’ in ‘get’ and not closed like the ‘ay’ in ‘play’. If you ask for a caffè you will get an espresso. However there are many different types of coffee you could go for, if you know the names.
Caffè – espresso
Caffè corretto – an espresso with the addition of a shot of alcohol, usually grappa or sambuca.
Caffè ristretto – an espresso made with less water so that it really packs a caffeine punch.
Americano – an espresso which has been diluted with hot water. This is not an American drip coffee but was developed to resemble it.
Caffè macchiato – an espresso with a small amount of milk foam on top (macchiato means marked or stained).
Latte macchiato – a glass of steamed milk with an espresso poured on top. This is usually served in a glass and you can see the layer of coffee on top of the milk
Caffè latte – an espresso with warm milk added. Similar to an American ‘latte’ but not the same. If you ask for a latte, beware, as you will get what you asked for: a glass of milk.
Macchiatone – a large caffè macchiato
Cappuccino – an espresso with the addition of foamed milk.
Drink like an Italian
If you want to drink your coffee like an Italian in Italy, follow these basic rules:
- Drink your coffee standing at the bar, not sitting down, and don’t linger over it. In some bars, there are no tables to sit at. In others, you may be charged extra for sitting down. Beware, if you sit in one of the cafes in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, you will be charged a hefty fee for the privilege. But you can still go inside and have a normal priced coffee standing at the bar.
- Don’t ask for your coffee ‘to go’. The fact that Italians drink their coffee in bars means that plastic or paper ‘to go’ cups are virtually non-existent—which makes the Italian way of drinking coffee more eco-friendly.
- Do not order a coffee with milk after 11am. Certainly do not order a coffee with milk after a meal. Italians find this amusing at best and disgusting at worst, so if you do, prepare to be met with surprise or even sarcasm. An Italian-speaking, but non-Italian friend of mine once ordered a cappuccino after an evening meal. The waiter said, ‘and would you like a brioche with that?’
This morning, 7 September 2018, the first Starbucks in Italy opened its doors in Milan, finally bringing US style coffee to the peninsula. Whether it works or not and whether it will be followed by other openings, remains to be seen. The development has been hailed by some as a welcome addition and slated by others as an attack on Italian culture. I can’t imagine any Italian paying Starbucks prices for coffee, but let’s wait and see.
What are your experiences of drinking coffee in Italy? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.