There are certain smells that we all hold dear, one of my favorites is the early morning smell of the coffee shop. Oh, that first wave of flavors that envelops me upon entering is downright delectable. And if that morning moment happens to be in Italy, well, that’s my bliss. Now, you would think drinking coffee in Italy is pretty cut and dry, but as I’ve learned over the years, there is an unspoken protocol to the whole experience.
My favorite thing about the Italian café is the glimpses into the daily life of the locals that you can find there. The café is the first place most Italians stop in the morning and often the last place they stop on their way home. Most neighborhoods have a local café where neighbors go for a quick breakfast but it’s also an excuse to get caught up on gossip and say hi to friends as they head to catch a bus, a train or just start their day. Just head into a nearby cafe, most anywhere in Italy, for a glimpse of this life and to have a wonderful coffee experience.
Let's grab a cappuccino
Upon entering a café, you’re often met with glass cases lined with fresh pastries. Decadent delights that instantly attack taste buds. Best of all, it’s the smell of espresso and the busy sound of cups and saucers clinking together that makes me smile.
You have two options normally in most Italian cafés, the first is to order at the bar and the second is to sit down. Be advised however, that there is an extra cost for table service. Especially if you are visiting heavily populated tourist areas, you will often pay up to three times the cost just for sitting at a table. The best option is to make space for yourself at the bar.
Before you can partake of any of it, you need to find the cash register. The first thing you do is pay for your drinks. The cashier will give you a receipt. Then you take your receipt to the bar and hand it to the barista. Once the barista has your receipt, they will often put a saucer on top with a spoon, which means they are working on your drink.
The life of an Italian cafe
The Italian cafe is not a place for visiting and lingering. It is a place to get down to business. Most Italians drink their espresso in about two or three sips followed with a wave of a hand and a ‘grazie’ as they continue about their day. Take a few minutes to appreciate the color and the locals and the experience, but don’t outstay your welcome.
Typical morning coffee drinks for the Italians
In the morning there are two drinks that are most accepted, the cappuccino and the caffé.
A caffè is a shot of espresso served in those awesome tiny cups. They are served with a saucer and spoon and putting one sugar in the drink is acceptable, but two or three, you’ll start to get strange looks.
The second typical morning drink is a cappuccino, a shot of espresso topped with steamed milk and foam. Now, when you order a cappuccino, no one will ask you if you want it wet or dry. That is a concept made up in the States. An Italian cappuccino is a creamy warm cup of coffee perfection. The only question you may get is if you would like some ‘cacoa’. If you want a little hint of chocolate, then by all means agree. It usually ends up being a dusting of cocoa powder or a small design of chocolate syrup on top.
Traditionally, no one drinks a cappuccino after noon. Instead they have a shot of espresso after lunch, or if you do need a little milk, you can order a macchiato. This is not the caramel vanilla concoction we’ve come to know in the States. Macchiare is the Italian word that means to stain. In an espresso cup, a shot of espresso is ‘stained’ with a small amount of steamed milk, thus the macchiato.
A few more notes
Any time after five pm, cafés typically put away their pastries and set up aperitivo bars. Since dinners are eaten late in the evening, bars serve snacks after work. The coffee choice at this time of night is called a corretto, a shot of espresso with a shot of liquor; your choice. It also makes a nice after dinner coffee.
In the summer months, you’ll find many cafés offering a granita, an iced coffee drink. Tea and hot chocolate drinks are available at most bars as well. But if you walk in and order a latte, you will get a glass of steamed milk. In Italian, latte means milk.
Immerse yourself in the coffee culture Italians have to offer and you’ll find it one of the reasons, among so many others, why you’ll be planning your next trip back as soon as you can.
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