The world loves coffee. It’s the second most valuable traded commodity – second only to oil – with 8.5 billion kilos of ground coffee consumed every year. This equates to 2.25 billion cups of hot brew consumed worldwide every day.
Whilst the global population is becoming more and more addicted to their morning brew, they all turn to one country for inspiration. From homemade espressos to global mega-chains churning out millions of milky macchiatos, they all look to the original café culture.Italy is trumpeted as the home of hot coffee and its products have long crossed cultural boundaries. American soldiers in roadside cafes found the espresso to be too strong for their tastes, asking it to be watered down in what became known as the ‘Americano.’
Later of course, the Italian café inspired Howard Schultz, who was sipping espresso in Milan when he decided to package the café experience and sell it in Seattle under the brand name Starbucks.
Whilst all the chains include Italian sounding names on their menus, there is a big difference between the sweetened products they offer and the ‘al banco’ experience of sipping rich coffee with friends.
Coffee consumption around the world may have risen by 42% since 2000, but Italians are fiercely defending their café culture and traditions against the tide of global pretenders.
Anyone thinking of moving to Italy needs understand how integral the cafe culture is to the national identity of their destination country. New York might consume the most coffee of any city in the world, but the drink is a daily ritual and a communal bonding experience for Italians.
We’ve compiled a quick breakdown of the rules for drinking coffee like a native Italian. Even without a grasp of the language a lot can be forgiven if you can order coffee well and drink as they do in Rome.
Don’t order a latte
While our high street coffee chains like to advertise an Italian pedigree, they sell products that would raise eyebrows in Milan and tempers in Turin.
If ordering a ‘latte’ in Rome, expect to receive nothing more than a glass of chilled milk. The most popular coffee for paper cup carrying commuters is an insipid, weak mixture drowned in fatty milk in comparison to the rich, powerful brews native to Italy.
The relationship between milk and coffee is one that seems to involve the most experimentation for baristas. The Flat White is an Australian invention that fuses the milky latte with the hot frothy of a macchiato. But this fusion of coffee styles won’t impress any Italian baristas who shun these innovations as the work of multinational pretenders.
Instead, order up a caffè macchiato, an espresso topped with frothy milk to create a weaker brew that can be enjoyed all day.
Cappuccino is for breakfast
In many countries around the world we enjoy a hearty three course meal and then top it off with a hot frothy cappuccino.
This is exactly the wrong time of day according to Italians. It’s a crazy idea to pour hot milk onto a full stomach, giving the drinker a lethargic, sleepy bloated feeling after a pleasant meal.
Instead cappuccino is to be enjoyed as a breakfast drink. A hot, strong coffee is sipped through the foam whilst reading the paper or looking out over the valley below your villa and nibbling a fresh pastry.
The idea of going to a coffee shop in the middle of the day to drink this coffee is as ridiculous to many Italians as wearing your pyjamas out in public whilst eating a bowl of cornflakes.
Don’t ask for syrupy flavourings
This it the fastest way to upset a barista. In Italy chefs and baristas are respected for their skills. Asking for extra sauces or condiments is an insult to the chef’s work, and even cutting your spaghetti is a slight. So why would you condemn the barista’s creation by drowning it in caramel syrup?
In any case, there’s a good health reason to avoid these sickeningly sweet concoctions. Some syrupy blends have been found to carry up to 25 teaspoons of sugar in each serving, which works out to more than three times the daily limit for sugar intake.
Coffee is a grown up drink, it has a strong flavour and is intended to be enjoyed for its simplicity and nuanced taste. Drinkers who can’t appreciate this simple pleasure should restrict themselves to sodas and other drinks for children.
Don’t ask for an espresso
This is a technicality. Ordering a coffee in most bars will get you an espresso, it’s the default option. Asking specifically for an espresso is to assume the barista is an idiot, it would be like asking an American diner chef for “a slice of beef between two halves of a bun”. It doesn’t need explaining.
Just march up to the country and bravely order a ‘caffé’, and don’t be upset by the tiny cup that you receive. Italian espresso packs a mighty punch so only a small serving is needed. If you do feel the need for a heart-pumping hit of extra caffeine, order up ‘caffè doppio’.
Doppio isn’t the normal way of ordering coffee, which is intended to be enjoyed in small servings. The double dose of strong stimulants are more than most people can handle without losing their cool.
Abandon the americano
The americano is widely served across Italy and it may have been a mainstay of menus for almost 70 years, but it still isn’t the authentic article.
If an espresso is just too much coffee in your cup, try a ‘caffé lungo’. This brew starts as cup of hot water, into which espresso is poured. Rather than diluting an entire espresso into one mixture as with an americano, this allows the drinker to mix a drink that is just as strong as they enjoy.
The budding Australian café scene has adopted this method and rebranded it the ‘long black’. Ordering an americano is a sure way to be marked out as a tourist.
Be ready for coffee at any time
Italians start the day with coffee and will punctuate it with little sips to keep them buzzing throughout. But this routine can be interrupted at any time with the addition of a meetup with friends.
Running into a friend is likely to elicit cries of “prendiamo un caffe”. ‘Let’s get’s get a coffee’ is as much greeting as it is suggestion or social requirement. In the same way that is rude not to invite a Frenchman out for dinner, failure to accept an invitation to coffee is a social slight that can prove terminal to friendships.
Lifestyles in Italy tend to be relaxed enough that being a little late to your next appointment can be forgiven if the excuse entails meeting an old friend for coffee.
Don’t order decaf
Decaf is an insult to coffee. You wouldn’t ask for pizza without a topping or lasagne without the sauce, so don’t ask for coffee without the caffeine.
It’s unusual to find an Italian who doesn’t drink coffee, but those who abstain from the national drink sip on “cioccolata calda” or hot chocolate with their stimulant-quaffing friends.
Expect a few awkward questions in about your drinking habits. Italians are proud of their café culture and are surprised when anyone opts out of it.
Just as many Brits who abstain from alcohol are seen as odd for resigning from the proud pub culture, so the caffeine-free are seen in Italy.
Enjoy regional variations
Italian coffee is a national institution, but that’s not to say there isn’t variation. Different parts of the country enjoy slightly changed versions of the classic brew.
To the north caffè anisette is an anise-flavoured espresso and in Sicily caffè d’un parrinu, is a coffee flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa, inspired by ancient trading relations with Arab nations. If craving a stronger kick than just caffeine, try a ‘caffe correcto’, the standard espresso enlivened with a splash of grappa.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of the national drink, branch out and get to know the versions that are peculiar to your local neighbourhood. Being able to walk into the local café and order ‘the usual’, which is the same as all the other regulars is a sure sign that you are making Italy your home.
Stand and sip your espresso
Brits meet their friends in the pub, Italians meet theirs ‘al banco’. Confusingly this means ‘at the bar’, but in this case the bar is a place to stand with a coffee in hand, chatting to friends.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant so it seems odd to be sat in a comfy chair as the heart rate rises and the veins throb with excitement. Italians let the drug course through their bodies and talk in their famously animated way.
Sitting down is not the polite way to enjoy a powerful espresso, it is not conducive to lively discussion or vigorous arm waving and gesticulation. A coffee is something to enliven the drinker, a quick hit of eye-opening energy to speed them through the day, not a relaxed pit stop to sip hot milk. Stand with your espresso in hand, ready to speed away to your next important appointment.
This is also a great method to save a few Euros over time. Most cafes will charge extra for the hassle of having to wipe down tables and chairs. Ordering a coffee to be sipped whilst stood at the bar often makes for a cheaper drink.
Make your own in a Moka Pot
The stovetop coffee pot is the must-have accessory for anyone attempting to enjoy a strong brew in the Italian style.
A shiny, hexagonal jug that balances precariously over a raging gas flame, the simple design sees boiling water bubble up through the coffee grounds and settling in an upper chamber as a strong brew. The ritual associated with the making of the infusion is almost as important as the drink itself.
An Italian institution since its creation in 1933 by inventor Alfonso Bialetti, the gadget is often known as ‘macchinetta’ or ‘small machine’. The iconic design is still produced by Bialetti’s company and is celebrated as a triumph, with examples being showcased in London’s Science Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The ‘bubble up’ method produces a recognisable gurgling sound as the steaming liquid reaches the upper chamber. The process also allows aficionados to tweak their brew to taste as changes to grind, bean, roast and heat can all affect the flavour in subtle ways.
Eelisabetta Loccioni, an Italian living in London, enjoys this variety. “Everyone has a different rules on how to make coffee with Moka,” she says. “Mine is: water in the main chamber to the screw vale, pile up the coffee in the filter, do not press but gently tap, screw the top and low fire for nicer brewing. Wait for the characteristic whistle, drink hot.”
No Italian home is complete without a Moka pot in the kitchen. “The moka is the centre of every home,” says Loccioni. “It’s the first thing I drink in the morning. It’s like a well loved duvet, cozy and easy.”
In addition to the cozy familiarity of a morning brew, the Moka pot method infuses the coffee with higher concentrations of caffeine than the usual ‘drip method’.
True coffee experts will never allow the Moka method to be confused with the other Italian icon, the espresso. The Moka pot generates steam at a relatively low pressure of just one bar. A true espresso only comes when blasted with steam at a bar.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer