What is it that makes Italian coffee culture so special?
What is it that makes Italian coffee culture so special?
Well, for starters, Italians revere coffee. I’d go as far as to say that there would be no modern coffee culture to speak of without the Italians. From making espresso to the proper coffee etiquette, Italians have a culture that promotes excellent coffee.
This article is your passport to coffee culture in Italy. I’ll explore the traditions and nuances that make Italy a true haven for coffee connoisseurs.
So, as the Italians would say, andiamo a prendere un caffè!
Table of Contents
- OverviewHow Coffee First Came to Bel Paese20th Century Italian Coffee Culture
- What Makes Italian Coffee Culture Unique?How to Order Coffee in ItalyWhere to Drink Coffee in Italy
- Main Italian Coffee Drinks VarietiesCaffèCaffè macchiatoCaffè lungoCaffè americanoCappuccioCaffè latteCaffè MarocchinoCaffè correttoCaffè shakeratoFrappéCrema al caffè
- Italian Coffee EtiquetteHow to Drink Coffee in Italy
- Regional Differences
- Final Thoughts
Overview: Why Is Coffee Important to Italian Culture?
To the Italians, coffee is a source of immense national pride. Nobody prepares and drinks coffee like these beautiful people!
In short, Italians took this nectar of the gods and made it their own. In fact, if coffee beans were native, I’m sure they’d have Parmigiano Reggiano-style protected status!
Beyond ensuring pleasant caffeinated mornings, in most Italian households, coffee rules. It flavors hot and cold drinks as well as classic desserts, such as tiramisu and affogato. Surprisingly, coffee is also an ingredient in some semi-savory dishes. Case in point: the Veronese risotto al cappuccino!
The brew has even had a starring role in film. As a coffee diehard, I love the 1956 Camillo Mastrocinque classic, La Banda Degli Onesti. In one scene, characters Totò and Peppino de Filippo discuss the demerits of capitalism. Totò, who’s about to lose his job, explains to Peppino how capitalism, much like coffee without sugar, ruins lives.
Over time, coffee became a daily ritual. The typical Italian breakfast features a milky coffee like a cappuccino, latte or latte macchiato. In contrast, an Italian espresso is the preferred mid-morning and evening pick-me-up.
So, you can see that coffee is woven into the very fabric of Italian life. It isn’t a drink to trifle with. A deftly brewed coffee will earn you oodles of praise. Oh, and a bad coffee? Only ridicule, shame and, dare I say, anger!
How Coffee First Came to Bel Paese (The Beautiful Country)
Before we delve deeper into Italian coffee culture, let’s look at how the brew made its way to the “boot of Europe.” According to many, coffee first entered Italy via the trade routes of the Mediterranean. In particular, they credit Prospero Alpini, who shipped coffee beans to Venice from Ottoman Egypt in 1580.
But some argue that coffee came to Italy well before that. Napolitanos will tell you, Tony Soprano-style, that coffee came to Italia from the Holy Land via Naples in the 14th century. Similarly, Sicilians will swear that Italy first experienced coffee as qahwa during the 9th century Arab conquest.
Whichever way coffee beans first arrived, many agree that Venice popularized coffee in Italy. The Italian bar (coffee shop) sprung up all over the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. It then spread to other parts of the country. As proof, Venice has the oldest café in Italy. Located at the beautiful Piazza San Marco, Caffè Florian has served patrons since 1720.
As its popularity grew, coffee became the drink of intellectuals and lovers, a must-have at social gatherings, restaurants and cafés. But there was a problem. Because coffee came from the Islamic world, many in the Catholic Church didn’t approve.
Church leaders dubbed it the “Devil’s drink.” It took the intervention of Pope Clement VIII to make coffee safe. Legend has it that the Pope blessed the brew, terming it “better for people’s health than alcohol.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
20th Century Italian Coffee Culture
A couple of centuries later, Italians really put their stamp on coffee. They invented the espresso, a potent, flavorful coffee with foamy crema.
Before this, Italians (like other cultures) used immersion methods like the French press or Turkish ibrik to prepare coffee. The first espresso machines, which forced hot water through coffee grounds, heralded the gilded age of espresso.
Thus, we got pioneers like Angelo Moriondo, credited with inventing the first true espresso machine in 1884. Later, Luigi Bezzera improved on this concept by developing the first portafilter espresso machine. Simply put, they revolutionized Italian coffee culture.
Still, developments didn’t stop there.
In 1905, Pavoni invented the first bar espresso machine, which could brew a fantastic 150 cups per hour! Then, Dr Ernesto Illy engineered the Illeto in 1935. It was the first automatic machine to use steam instead of pressurized water. Away from espresso machines, I must mention Alfonso Bialetti, who created the moka pot in 1933.
I could go on. So many iconic Italian companies, such as La Marzocco and Gaggia, elevated Italian coffee culture. Similarly, brands like Lavazza and Illy put their stamp on special coffee beans for espresso machines.
What Makes Italian Coffee Culture Unique?
Much like its cuisine and wines, Italy is famous for bold, flavorful coffees.
Italian roasters mostly use dark roast coffee blends, with distinctive, rich qualities. Traditionally, the beans were almost always Arabica.
However, during World War II, importing Arabica from coffee-producing countries was almost impossible. Italy turned to Latin America to meet its increasing demand for coffee beans. This meant substituting Arabica for Robusta beans. To this day, many Italian blends, especially in the south, still use Robusta coffee blends.
This dedication to the quality of coffee Italians drink doesn’t stop at sourcing, blending and roasting. Once coffee hits the cafés, its preparation also matters.
Take espresso, for instance. Italians insist on the 4M rule when brewing espresso:
These principles yield the perfect espresso with the right aroma, taste and crema.
Thus, the barista is the guardian of coffee culture in Italy.
Much like the French chef or Spanish matador, they are well-respected and often revered. In fact, many go to school for years to master the art of coffee.
Consequently, Italian baristas serve very quickly and skilfully, whipping up great coffee in just a few minutes.
Passionate baristas are a huge part of why Italian coffee culture has no equal!
How to Order Coffee in Italy
In Italy, the process of ordering and paying for coffee differs; it depends on where you’re drinking it. In a standing bar, you’ll likely pay for your coffee first, then take the receipt to the barista’s counter. In contrast, at a café, you’ll pay after service.
Ordering coffee is a simplistic affair. No surplus coffee lingo required!
If you want a regular espresso, ask your barista for un caffè. It will come in a small glass or espresso cup. If you prefer a stronger double espresso shot, order it as a un caffè doppio.
You may also ask for a richer, sweeter and less caffeinated espresso shot, caffè ristretto. If you prefer more volume, go for the caffè lungo, a longer-extracted espresso shot.
Other espresso variations include caffè macchiato, espresso “stained” with steamed milk or milk foam. Another is caffè con panna, espresso with a dollop of whipped cream. Caffè ginseng, an espresso with ginseng root extract, is also very popular.
If the potency of espresso is too much for you, ask your barista for a caffè americano, a dilution of espresso with hot water. This variation is what passes for drip coffee at an Italian bar.
Mix it up by ordering cappuccinos and lattes, too. Ask for a cappuccio when ordering a cappuccino and a caffè latte when ordering a latte. If you prefer an even milkier coffee, the latte macchiato, milk topped with a double shot of espresso, is the way to go. But, not after 11 am. I’ll tell you why later!
Is it hot out? I encourage you to try the curious Greek cold coffee, cappuccino freddo. It consists of espresso, ice and non-fat foamed milk. Other cold coffee favorites include the frappé, affogato, caffè shakerato and crema con caffè.
Where to Drink Coffee in Italy
Coffee is available practically everywhere in Italy. You’ll find it in mobile kiosks and street cafés, hotels and high-end restaurants. Chances are, if you visit a friend they’ll serve you a coffee drink!
The neighborhood bar is what we call a coffee shop. It almost always sells good coffee along with pastries, snacks, cold drinks and alcohol. To avoid tourist traps, ask the locals where they have their coffee.
Still, don’t overlook the main-square Italian coffee shops for fear of bad coffee. Some are genuinely good! If you’re in Rome, Antico Caffè Greco near the Spanish Steps is notable. In Naples, Gran Caffè Gambrinus and Diego Maradona’s Bar Nilo rule the roost.
Venice boasts Italy’s oldest coffee shop, Caffè Florian, open since 1720. While in Turin, Caffè al Bicerin, operating since 1763, is a must-visit.
Main Italian Coffee Drinks Varieties
The types of coffee variations available in Italy are endless, I can’t possibly list them all! Even so, here are some main coffee drinks you’ll likely find in Italian bars:
This is an Italian espresso. Order it as un caffè in Italy. A double shot is an un caffè doppio or simply, doppio. Don’t confuse un caffè for filter coffee. Known as caffè filtrato, it isn’t very popular in Italian coffee culture.
This is the Italian version of what we call espresso macchiato. It’s an espresso topped with a tiny amount of steamed or foamed milk. An interesting variation is the macchiatone, something between a macchiato and a cappuccino.
Literally meaning “long” in Italian, the lungo contains more water than a regular shot. The barista pulls a 35- to 40-second shot. This results in a stronger, more caffeinated and rather bitter coffee.
Popularized during World War II, an americano is simply espresso with added hot water. It is different from caffè filtrato (drip or filter coffee). Ask for it decaffeinato if you want a decaf americano.
The Italian cappuccino comes in a 6-ounce (177-milliliter) cup – no short, tall or grande sizes here! This milky drink consists of equal parts espresso, steamed milk and milk foam.
A shot of espresso with lots of steamed milk and a little foam. It usually comes in a latte cup or tall glass with awesome latte art. Don’t shorten your order, and ask for a latte as you would in the US; you’ll only get steamed milk!
Similar to a mocha, this coffee drink has layers of cacao powder, espresso and hot milk foam in a glass. Delicious!
An Italian after-dinner alcoholic coffee drink, consisting of an espresso with a shot of liqueur, typically grappa. Some regions favor sambuca or cognac as an addition. Similar to Spain’s carajillo. Interestingly, Ethiopia and Eritrea have their own version using a local alcohol, areki, due to the huge Italian influence there.
A shot of espresso or other concentrated coffee with sugar, ice and sometimes vanilla liqueur, shaken in a cocktail shaker. This shaken coffee is sweet, velvety and creamy! Served James Bond-style in a martini glass.
This frozen coffee is Italy’s version of the frappuccino. Basically a coffee slushie, it consists of espresso, sweetener, frothed milk and sometimes ice, blended and served with a straw. The perfect summer refresher!
Crema al caffè
An Italian coffee cream dessert. Also known as caffè del nonno or crema fredda di caffè. This calorie-rich coffee consists of cooled, sugary espresso drizzled onto a cupful of whipped cream. Eat with a spoon. Yum!
Italian Coffee Etiquette: Unwritten Rules
Coffee, like wine, is at the center of Italian cuisine. Because of this, there are strict rules (il galateo del caffè) on how to enjoy it.
The main rule is to take your time! This ensures you appreciate your coffee’s true taste and quality. Italians, unlike many other coffee drinkers, value rather than mask the pleasant bitterness of coffee. They often drink it sans milk or sugar.
The Italian espresso is an all-day coffee drink, the perfect pick-me-up. Still, few Italians drink it before 11 am. Then again, in Italy there’s no such thing as too much espresso!
Conversely, no self-respecting Italian would drink a cappuccino after 11 am. Any milky coffee is strictly for the morning. Ask for a milky coffee after 11 am or with hot dishes and you risk the ensuing wrath of your maître di sala (head waiter) or barista. It’s no joke; they may refuse to serve you!
Likewise, drinking a cappuccino in a to-go cup like in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s opening scene is a major faux pas. Instead, Italians enjoy cappuccinos, al banco (at a standing bar), or alla tavola (at a café table).
And you can forget about ordering a cappuccino after dinner! Italians believe a milky drink this late in the day is bad for digestion. The proper thing to do here is to get a caffè corretto or “corrected coffee.” Italians swear that this espresso with a shot of liqueur is the best digestif.
How to Drink Coffee in Italy
Drinking coffee in Italy has rules, too! Like in the Bangles classic “Walk Like an Egyptian,” you’ll need to “walk like an Italian” to avoid a serious breach of coffee etiquette.
One of the most basic is how to drink an espresso after ordering it. In The Godfather II, Don Fanucci waits a while as he talks to Vito Corleone before stirring and drinking his coffee. Do likewise!
This is because espresso is at its best at an approximate temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). It also declines two minutes after it’s pulled. So, let it sit for a minute, then take a sip.
After adding sugar to your coffee, mix by moving the spoon from top to bottom, never clockwise or anticlockwise. Do so silently, too. You risk cries of che palle! (how annoying!) from other patrons if you don’t. Incidentally, you’re still expected to stir espresso without sugar to release its aromas and flavors.
Whatever you do, don’t lick your spoon! It’s a big big no-no in Italian coffee culture. After stirring, simply put your spoon back on the saucer and drink.
Lastly, If your wait staff brought water with your coffee, sip on it first to cleanse your palate. Sipping, rather than gulping down your espresso, is normale. It helps you appreciate the coffee’s distinctive crema and flavor. It will only take three or four sips anyways!
Regional Differences in Italian Coffee Culture
Italy truly has some of the best coffee in the world. And like anywhere else, each Italian region boasts a specialty.
Take caffè anisette, for example. You’ll find this espresso with anise specialty in the northeastern Le Marche region.
Equally, the Veneto region boasts caffè d’orzo. This caffeine-free drink uses local and organic roasted barley as a base. Veneto also boasts caffè patavino or pedrocchi, which originates from Padua. It combines espresso with whipped cream, mint syrup and a dusting of bitter cocoa.
In the north, Italian bars take a more delicate approach to espresso. Because they use 100% Arabica beans, they favor medium roasts and coffee with a sweet aftertaste. Caffè bicerin from the Piedmont region is an excellent example, featuring layers of coffee, hot chocolate and cream.
It’s very different in the south. Italians here like their coffee strong. Most will have a glass of cold water first to cleanse their palate.
In Italy’s Campania region, baristas will often flavor an espresso with oil from the lemon peel. It makes sense, as Naples, Capri and the entire Amalfi Coast have some of the best lemons in the world! Caffè napolitano, a black, less sweet coffee, is also popular in Naples.
Further south, in Sicily, they celebrate their long-gone but influential Arabic period with caffè d’un parrinu. This cocoa-rich espresso, like Arabic qahwa, has distinct clove and cinnamon notes.
Final Thoughts: Italian Coffee Culture Continues to Inspire the World
It’s now time to say arrivederci to this Italian coffee adventure. Thank you for joining me! I hope my insights have enlightened you on what makes coffee in Italy so unique.
Beyond the caffeine boost, coffee culture in Italy embodies tradition. Apart from wine, it is THE drink to offer guests and the simple joy of shared moments. Basically, coffee is integral to the Italian way of life.
Let’s cin cin to Italian coffee culture! Oh and try to make a point of experiencing it if you haven’t already!
Have you been to Italy before? Or are you lucky to live near an Italian café? I’d love to hear your experiences with authentic Italian coffee. I’m waiting for your comments!