The “bar” (a mix between a coffee house, pub, newspaper stand, tobacco shop, and even post office) is an Italian institution, and even the tiniest hamlets tucked deep in the Italian countryside have at least one. It is here where gossip is exchanged, packages are delivered, excursions begun, card games played, and—of course—cups upon cups of espresso coffee in Italy is consumed.
Coffee is a cornerstone of Italian culture and the country is fueled by more than nine million servings of espresso a day. The “rite of traditional Italian espresso coffee” was nominated for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity this year and stopping into a “bar” to toss back a bracing, thimble-sized cup of espresso is a singularly Italian pleasure.
But espresso is not the only drink available at the Italian bar; your average coffee house may not have the endless menu of options you’ll find at Starbucks (don’t expect anything but cow milk, for example), but what you give up in pumps of flavorings you gain in the unbeatable quality and flavor of the coffee itself.
Here’s a pocket guide to Italy’s top coffee drinks to keep on hand for your next trip to Europe’s coffee capital.
Coffee first arrived in Italy in the 16th century, imported to Venice from the Ottoman Empire. In 1901, Italy’s coffee culture was revolutionized when Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera introduced the first “espresso” machine that forced pressurized steam through coffee grinds to produce individual servings of coffee. This process turned out a thicker, more concentrated beverage than traditional “Turkish-style” coffee and took just seconds to make, kicking off the ritual of the “pausa caffè” (coffee break) that still exists today.
Today, pressurized hot water is used instead of steam, producing the creamy top foam that is the sign of a quality espresso, but the “pausa caffè” continues to be an important part of Italian culture. The average Italian consumes about four cups of espresso a day and to survive against what seems like endless competition, a coffee bar must respect the “five M’s”: “miscela” (coffee bean blend), “macinino” (coffee bean grinder), “macchina” (espresso machine), “manutenzione” (machine maintenance), and “mano” (the skill of the barista).
For Italians, the only true coffee is espresso (not expresso), so you don’t need to specify that you want an espresso when you order at a coffee bar. Simply asking for “un caffè, per favore” will get you a steaming toy-sized shot.
There are a number of espresso variations that you will hear (and that you can order yourself):
There are a few coffee drinks are considered strictly breakfast beverages in Italy because milk is the main ingredient. Though always appropriate in the morning, you will also come across Italians who order these creamy concoctions in the mid-afternoon as a “merenda” (snack).
Here is some basic coffee bar etiquette to blend drink your coffee like an Italian:
Breakfast drinks: Cappuccino and other milky coffee drinks are considered breakfast fare in Italy and almost never consumed after midday. Some Italians will have one of these drinks on winter afternoons for a warm snack, but never (never) with or right after lunch or dinner. It would be like having a restaurant meal in the US and then ordering a bowl of cornflakes to finish!
Takeaway: Espresso in Italy is almost always consumed at the bar (either “al banco” or “al tavolo“), and takeaway coffee is very rare (and a sign of a tourist bar). Many cafès—especially old-school bars in small towns—do not stock takeaway cups, so do as the Italians do and pause for a minute or two to drink your coffee standing at the bar.
Bar vs. table service: Most Italian coffee bars offer both “servizio al banco” (bar service) and “servizio al tavolo” (table service).
Most Italians are loyal to their neighborhood coffee bar, no matter how humble. That said, there are a number of historic coffee houses that are worth a visit:
Tazza d’Oro and Sant’Eustachio – Rome: Rome has two landmark coffee houses that are located within a few minutes’ walk of the Pantheon: Tazza d’Oro and Sant’Eustachio.
Caffé Gilli – Florence: This 300-year-old coffee house is set in the bustling Piazza della Repubblica.
Caffè Florian – Venice: Believed to be the oldest coffee house in Europe, this lavish cafè is on St. Mark’s Square.
Zucca in Galleria (Caffè Miani) – Milan: A Milan landmark, this coffee house near La Scala once served Verdi, Toscanini, and Puccini.
Caffé Gambrinus – Naples: Just across the street from Piazza del Plebiscito and the heart of Neapolitan coffee culture.
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