Everything You Need To Know About Coffee In Italy
In honor of Valentine’s Day that just passed, I felt like writing about one of the great loves of my life: Coffee in Italy.
I’ve loved coffee ever since I first discovered it my freshman year at Berkeley. I have fond memories of studying late at night in noisy cafes, sipping latte after latte, then finding my way home to lay in bed and listen to my heart beat with caffeine-induced intensity. Ah, the sweet, milky memories. It’s not that I particularly needed the coffee. I was young and had no problem staying awake, or getting up in the morning. I just loved the flavor of the drink and the vibe of the coffee house.
Soon enough, the craziness of jobs, kids and life set in, and I wasn’t quite as young as I used to be, and coffee became a necessity. For a few blurry years when the kids were very little and my job very big, the flavor of coffee took a back seat to the effect. It didn’t matter, I just needed the buzz.
By now, things have shifted for me again. OK, yes, I’m still addicted to caffeine. However, the kids are older and more self sufficient. I’m no longer climbing the corporate ladder, and instead sitting down to write an article about coffee in Italy. Also, I’ve spent some time in recent years in a country that places caffeine enjoyment high on the priority list. My love has been reignited.
If you’ve ever visited Italy, you may have noticed that the coffee drinks, as well as the rituals around consuming them, are different from what we’re used to at home. My goal here is to help demystify the experience for you a little. It won’t be difficult, because in fact things are much more straight-forward there. There’s none of the low fat, half-caf, no whip, extra hot, chai caramel spiced frappuccino. (I’m not sure that’s a real drink, but you know what I mean).
First of all, in the morning you drink a cappuccino. Period. And why wouldn’t you? It’s a beautiful, frothy drink in a small mug that winks “good morning” to you. The baristas in Italy are so, so good at making the cappuccino right– the perfect balance of high quality espresso and a touch of milk, topped with exactly the right amount of rich foam. I have no idea if they are using whole milk, lowfat, or maybe even cream. I have never asked because don’t want to know.
In the afternoon, from the moment lunch is over and anytime thereafter, you order an espresso, called simply caffe (coffee in Italian). To order a cappuccino would be strange. It would be like ordering a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice after lunch. That is breakfast food. And your caffe will arrive in an impossibly small mug and will be impossibly dark and so rich that it creates its own foam, with no milk anywhere in sight. Many people, including many Italians, prefer to drink it with a cube of sugar dropped in. Personally, I love the heat and bitterness of espresso and usually polish it off within 2 seconds of its arrival. Those of you that enjoy the creaminess of an Italian cappuccino might be wondering– why the noon cut off? Well, apparently having milk in your stomach later in the day, especially after a big pasta-filled lunch, is not ideal for one’s health. At least, this is what I was told by an Italian friend as she enjoyed a bite of her afternoon gelato. Go figure! I just nodded. I think the best explanation is really the one I already gave above. (See cereal and OJ example). A cappuccino is simply meant for breakfast.
Now you may be wondering about the many other varieties of coffee drinks we treasure here in the States. Most of them do not exist in Italy. One that does exist, however, is the macchiato. The word macchiato in Italian means stained or spotted, and refers to a drink that is mostly espresso but has a dash of milk, plus foam. It’s somewhere between an espresso and a cappuccino. And I’ve heard… get ready for this… it might be acceptable to order in the afternoon! This is a good option for those that find straight espresso a bit too strong. But don’t go too crazy you milk lovers. If you try to order a latte, whatever the time of day, you will be presented with a glass of milk (latte is the Italian word for milk).
Anyone that has ever spent any time in an Italian coffee shop, which are known simply as bars, has probably noticed the strange ritual around how the drinks are consumed. People seem to crowd around the counter to order, and then remain standing while they drink their coffee. This applies even in the morning, when most people are juggling a cappuccino, spoon and pastry. And this is true even if the standing area is packed and empty tables abound. I was told many years ago that the reason for this is that bars charge more for coffee consumed sitting down. I suppose this helps prevent people from hanging around too long and creating a mess to clean at the table. However, I personally sit down quite often in bars, and have not noticed a lot of price gouging going on. Part of this may be the fact that Italians don’t over-charge for coffee in the first place. A cappuccino is typically one euro. You order your drink, drink it, place a small coin worth roughly one dollar on the bar and leave. After paying Starbucks prices back home, a slight mark-up for a seat in an Italian bar has never caught my attention.
All of this talk makes me very thirsty and has me eyeing my espresso machine in the corner. It was a huge splurge to buy and is top of the line. Also, I buy Illy beans online, which are the real deal. However, nothing I can make at home compares to that first cappuccino on that first jet-lagged morning upon arriving in Italy. The baristas are just that much better at making coffee, or maybe coffee just tastes that much better in Italy. It doesn’t really matter which bar you stumble upon for your morning coffee– I haven’t met an Italian cappuccino I didn’t like.
But one of my favorite bars is the small one attached to I Ghibellini, a pizzeria in Piazza di San Pier Maggiore. I’m not sure why, but I love this little bar and the piazza in which it sits, which I walked by every time I went to Florence from my house in the outskirts. It’s about half way between my favorite parking lot and the center of town. I also love the main morning bar in the center of the tiny town I lived in, Antella, which is about 15 minutes south of Florence. I can’t even find the name of the bar online, but if you’re ever in Antella in the morning, just follow the crowd. Even if it takes you a few minutes to muscle through the crowd and get your coffee, don’t worry, there will be an open place to sit!