I am an English-speaking, freelance food writer based in Rome. I love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.
Italian Coffee Culture
Nobody in Italy has Cafe Americano the filter style watered down coffee served in a larger cup. The only known kind of coffee ordered in bars or restaurants is Espresso. It comes from two different kinds of beans Arabica and Robusta, finely ground, passing through a special coffee making machine with hot water under pressure first invented in Turin in 1884
Espresso is a much "shorter" version of coffee and is rich in flavours.
To drink European coffee one is immediately part of a rich culinary tradition.
In Rome it is generally agreed that Pope Clement VIII got the ball rolling back in 1600 by saying "This Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it." In 1905 Alfredo Danesi helped popularise the coffee we know today by mixing blends and spreading the culture of connoisseur coffee. In 1948, Achille Gaggia created a high-pressure extraction system that made Coffee with a more aromatic flavour topped with a characteristic Crema.
The common Cappuccino is in an entirely different category because it is made mainly with steamed milk and is consumed only for breakfast in Italy, never after lunch because it is believed to interrupt the post midday meal digestive process.
Why doesn't Italy have Starbucks?
A third space
Today it is still a treat taken as part of the working day a chance to meet up with friends. The coffee itself is consumed quickly standing at the bar or seated at a table if one pays a little extra. For city dwellers and in smaller towns and villages a local bar is a third space ready all seasons for locals in the neighbourhood to visit when away from home and away from work, an essential part of the morning routine.
Perhaps the best way to understand cafe culture is the concept of Caffè Sospeso or suspended coffee in English. It is a unique part of Neapolitan culture, an altruistic act, a system still found only in Naples. A customer visits his local bar to drink a coffee on his own and leaves enough change for a client afterwards to have a free coffee, the idea being that drinking a coffee is an activity for two and that customers who can’t afford a coffee get to drink a free coffee as well. Users of coffee franchise chain loyalty schemes will probably find this idea familiar.
Expect to pay Euro 0.90 cents. you will need to order your coffee from a separate till or Cassa, then take your till receipt to the long counter and order your coffee via the barista.
Barista at work
Types of coffee
There have been listed up to 50 different ways of ordering a coffee in a bar. You can have all these different kinds of coffee in a small glass or in a ceramic cup.
To keep it simple, just the most common are listed here. It is important at the start to understand what short and long mean In an Italian coffee context. Long or short the same amount of coffee is placed in the coffee puck. Short means less water passes through the filter puck and long means more water passes through the coffee filter puck.
It is important to treat the barista politely, it is a high-pressure role.
Keep your request simple and precise asking to add your own elements into the mix will cause problems.
Choose your bar with care, if you don't like it move on and try another.
In order not to confuse everyone never order: doppio ristretto as nobody knows what that is, or a slightly long, un Po' Lungo or a slightly short un Po' Corto. Be prepared to shuffle along the long bar sideways to allow other customers to access their coffee on the limited counter space it's not the place to linger, find a table and chair if you want to stay longer.
Un caffè, served in a warm ceramic cup with thick base placed on a saucer served quickly on the bar counter.
A longer version of Espresso because a larger quantity of water comes through the machine. It is often served in a small but slightly longer glass or Vetro Lungo.
A restricted amount of water flows through the same amount of coffee making a "shorter" and concentrated liquid in the cup with less water than the previous Lungo.
Two coffee in one for the real caffeine addict.
Caffè Macchiato Freddo or Caldo
Macchiato Freddo is when a small quantity of cold milk is added. Macchiato Caldo is when a small amount of hot but not foamy milk is added to an ordinary espresso. In the summer months some bars do a coffee frappe, cold pre prepared coffee that is stored in the fridge, served with ice and milk, it is often pre sugared.
Espresso coffee and ice cubes shaken up in a cocktail shaker with either pre sugared coffee or sugar syrup. It is often served in a martini style cocktail glass.
A coffee where the foam of milk created with the hot foaming milk wand is added with a spoon to the top of a standard espresso.
Every bar has its version but essentially it is a Caffe' Schiumato where cocoa powder is added, some people refer to this as a mini Cappuccino or very rarely a Cafe Genovese. In Naples you can find Caffè alla nocciola a frothy coffee with hazelnut cream. Some versions in Milan add a spoon of chocolate Nutella paste into the coffee.
A coffee where a small amount of Grappa or other spirit alcohol is added. It is popular in the winter months where Sambuca is added as an alternative for its body warming and digestion properties. Often the alcohol spirit is served separately in a small shot glass.
A coffee made of roasted barley grains with a bigger grind size compared to coffee, an alternative to decaffeinated coffee even though is not made from coffee. It is often served to children as a coffee substitute.
Caffè al Ginseng
A coffee with milk cream, sugar and extract of ginseng root. You can tell it this style of coffee as it is lighter in colour.
A coffee without caffeine. The most famous brand in Italy is Caffe Hag. For non sugar versions ask fo artificial sweetener, called "dolcificante".
Not really a coffee drink as such but a chocolate covered praline with an espresso center, first sold in 1968, they are hugely popular in Italy and are released in batches throughout the winter months.
The Genoa-based Company illy deserves a special mention as they have recently started to create their own espresso menu using their own brand coffee, it can be found only in illy branded bars. This brand has researched the culture of tasting coffee in some depth.
They claim the act of tasting coffee is a two stage process:
- one the crema the coffee flavour and body that one first tastes.
- two the second stage the mental analysis and comparison of the coffee with known remembered flavours, the aromas of freshly baked bread or chocolate, the processing of the flavours within the coffee.
They also discourage adding sugar as it affects the coffee flavour profile.
Perhaps if you are still feeling hungry why not try a late afternoon treat, ask for a hot chocolate with fresh cream or Panna Fresca a sweet cup made with quality chocolate that is especially nice in the winter months. Besides the major well known Swiss chocolate brands look out for Italian brands Venchi, Domori, Caffarel.