Italians consume over 14 billion espresso drinks each year (!) making the country’s coffee intake the highest in the world. That’s A LOT of caffeine. Baristas in the boot shaped peninsula take great pride in their ability to extract perfectly flavored espresso every time, so much so that it takes 2-3 years of training before they are even allowed to work in a cafe. The average age of a barista is around 45 years and you can literally taste their 10+ years of experience in the white porcelain cup placed in front of you.
In order to fully appreciate the barista’s skill and their coffee creations, there are a few Italian ‘coffee culture’ aspects that are important to know.
First of all, in Italy what we (North Americans) consider to be a ‘Cafe’ is actually called a Bar. Though these establishments will usually serve pastries, small sandwiches and alcohol, at least 80% of their business comes from espresso sales.
If your expectations of the Italian Bar/Cafe are to be able to sit down and spend an hour people watching as you linger over your cappuccino, think again. Unless you are in a tourist zone, where shop owners are used to this type of behaviour, you will be looked at like you are nuts.
Though Italians drink a lot of coffee, they do so in small, steady doses which involves ordering at the bar while standing, downing their drink after it is put in front of them, and then leaving. The entire process usually takes less than five minutes. Because slamming back your drink and not sipping it slowly is the norm,espresso is usually not heated any higher than lukewarm. Beverages with milk are served lukewarm as well because overheating milk destroys the natural sweetness and silkiness of it. If you want anything hotter, you will have to request it by asking for ben caldo or molto caldo, but expect some eye rolls from your barista.
If you are desperate to rest your feet and decide to sit down at a table, expect to pay a ridiculous price for your drink — what will cost 0.80 Euros standing at the bar can cost you over 6.00 Euros if you sit down!
When ordering your drink, it is important to remember that it is pronounced eSpresso and NOT eXpresso. (One means coffee, the other a fast train). Though, there will be little need to ever actually say that word when ordering because if you want a simple shot of espresso as your beverage, you would order un caffe — don’t worry, we’ll go over types of drinks later.
Most importantly, DO NOT think that you have walked into a Starbucks when you wander into an Italian cafe. Ordering a caramel macchiato or mocha frappuccinoin Italy is the equivalent of ordering a Guinness mixed with coke and topped with a cinnamon stick in Ireland. Not cool.
Italians drink coffee with breakfast and throughout the day, but expect a lot of strange looks if you order anything other than un caffe after dinner. Their reasoning is: How can you put all of that hot milk in a full stomach?
There are a lot of different ways to drink espresso based beverages and it can be overwhealming walking into a local bar, all eyes on you, as you struggle to pick something off the menu (not knowing much about coffee, I didn’t make it past a cappuccino when I was there). Here’s a list of common drinks that should help:
un caffe — a single shot of espresso
caffe doppio — a double shot of espresso
caffe Americano — a single espresso with hot water (the closest thing to a drip coffee)
caffe corretto — espresso with grappa (strong Italian liquor)
macchiato — espresso with a dash of warm milk
latte macchiato — warm milk with a dash of espresso
caffe freddo — a glass of cold, sweetened coffee (ask for it amaro to omit the sugar)
cappuccino (aka liquid deliciousness) — espresso with hot, frothy milk
caffe latte — milkier version of the cappuccino with less froth
cappuccino freddo — milky iced coffee