A while back I was sat in a bar at 9am destroying a chocolate croissant (In case you’re worried about why I was in a bar at that time of the morning don’t worry that’s the Italian word for café). While contemplating my addiction to sweet, Italian pastries I became aware of an American tourist who had come in and was standing at the bar. In her best guide book Italian she requested “un latte” and smiled smugly at how well she was doing with this whole language barrier thing. The smile turned to dismay a few moments later when in front of her was placed a big glass of milk. You see despite the world taking on Italianisms we all seem to get it wrong. To avoid such disappointment here is my guide to Italian coffee and the caffè culture that comes with it.
Where my American friend (and yes to me this perfect stranger was a friend; anyone who tries so gallantly in Italy and yet fails is always a friend of mine! Been there, done that, got the whole T-Shirt factory) had gone wrong was by assuming that Starbucks had been based around real Italian coffee. Alas, it’s nowhere near, as any Italian or expat will tell you after trying a commercial, franchised “coffee” which is so lauded outside of Italy but in fact just tastes like dirty water. Like in any culture, there is a certain etiquette that Italian coffee demands and the sooner you get to grips with this the more caffeine-fueled and happier your life will become. Incidentally, I knew the American lady was a tourist before she even opened her mouth as she looked around the tables for a coffee menu. In the majority of coffee shops, particularly in the South, this does not exist. Caffè culture is something that is so ingrained it doesn’t need an explanation. Besides, if you want to veer from the classics you will be expected to specifically dictate precisely how you want your coffee as this obviously proves you’re a particular person!
The Rules of Italian Coffee Consumption
Your go to coffee in any situation is an espresso, with an S not an X by the way. Not that it’s ever called that of course, in fact if you order an espresso you might even get an eyebrow raise, because it is universally understood as a “caffè.” It needs no explanation as it is simply what a coffee should be, according to Italian tradition.
This short, strong Italian coffee is normally drunk with one sugar as standard and is perfect for re-fuelling. This is designed to be drunk on your feet, standing at the bar (especially in tourist hotspots so you don’t get ripped off with tourist charges) and will give a kick to your day, whether that be waking you up or finishing off a meal. It is deliberately small and powerful, don’t scorn at the tiny cup or glass it’s presented in and be tempted to order a double. You just don’t do that. Do however feel free to return even within the hour for another. Little and often is the way to go but be warned though they be small they are fierce.
If a caffè is simply too strong for you, an acceptable substitute is a caffè macchiato, literally a marked coffee, because a dash of foamy milk will be poured in the top of it and this takes the edge of it slightly. As an English tea-lover I have grown up on milk and so for me I always go with a macchiato because it’s just that little bit creamier. It looks like a teeny tiny cappuccino but like it’s bigger, more traditional brother can be consumed throughout the day as much as your heart can take. This cannot be said for the cappuccino which is one of the most misunderstood coffees in the world.
I’ve said before, when it comes to the Cappuccino, the rest of the world just simply doesn’t understand it. In England I remember regularly ordering one after dinner as a way to wind up the meal. When I told my husband this he looked aghast. “But why would you want milk after dinner???” And that I think is the big difference, and why tea (in the English, Builder’s sense) will never catch on in Italy. The cappuccino is viewed as a breakfast item as it is a way to get your daily milk fix, something which in Italy is definitely a morning thing. This is why you’re not supposed to order one after 11am because it would be like ordering cornflakes after dinner. While baristas may turn their nose up slightly, you can of course order whatever you like as long as you are paying for it. To truly integrate however, order one at breakfast with a big, flaky cornetto and enjoy it in the way it’s intended. Again, however, do not be disappointed by the size. To the average American/English used to the XXXL servings from high street International franchises, the original Italian cappuccino might seem a little on the small side. Don’t worry, this is how it’s intended to be. So, when in Rome….
The other Italian coffee variations which are particularly interesting are caffè corretto (a corrected coffee). What could possibly correct a coffee I hear you ask? Alcohol of course! This is the hair-of-the-dog coffee reserved for the strong and mighty. Either consumed at the start of the night, at the end of a hearty meal or the morning after, this is rocket fuel at its finest, a short, strong coffee shot with a shot of alcohol added for good measure. Usually this is grappa but it can also be brandy or sambuca, depending on what tipple makes you happy. If you love a bit of chocolate then why not order a caffè marrochino, a coffee where the cup is dusted with cocoa powder (or smeared in nutella as I’ve seen in some bars) cream is added and then topped off with yet more cocoa powder. Yum
Which one of these Italian coffees would you order? Let me know in the comments below