Understanding Italian Coffee Culture

Italian Coffee Culture
Italian coffee bar
Photo credit: Markheybo

Italian coffee is iconic. It set the tone of global coffee culture. Whether it is a cappuccino or a caffe latte, Italian coffee drinks are ubiquitous worldwide.

Coffee is also a ritual in Italy. Therefore, it comes with a unique set of rules and customs. These are what hold up its legacy. Let’s dive into the history and culture of Italian coffee!

Coffee is not grown in Italy
coffee grounds
Photo credit: Edoardo Marino

Unlike grapes for wine, coffee beans are not grown in Italy. Access to coffee beans stems from Italy’s immense trade history. Most likely brought by Arab tradesmen, coffee beans and brewing methods permeated first through the region of Venice. Venice was Italy’s premiere trading post. The first known coffee shop opened in Venice in 1683

However, the espresso machine did not appear until the 19th century. Before then, coffee took some time to make. Angelo Moriondo changed the coffee game when he introduced the first espresso machine in 1884. Over the 20th century, a higher pressure espresso machine developed. This gave birth to the intense espresso we know today.

The quintessential Italian coffee roast is dark, robust, and chocolatey. It typically consists of arabica beans. Yet, in Southern Italy, robusta beans are part of the blend as well. These beans lend a more bitter flavor and caffeine.

Al bar, not at the cafe

Cafe is a French word. It may be a universal term for a coffee shop. But, Italians have their own word for it.

Al bar.’ Yes, ‘at the bar’ is where coffee is found in Italy. A coffee bar is an essential part of Italian life. Coffee is a form of social engagement for Italians. They drink coffee outside the house more often than any of their neighboring countries. Around 90% of coffee is consumed at independent coffee bars. Milan is the only city with a Starbucks, opening only recently in 2018.

Usually, Italians drink coffee standing up at the bar whether for breakfast or a quick afternoon pick me up. This helps make the bar is very efficient. Baristas can place and take away cups at a rapid speed, satisfying more customers at once.

Since it is a bar, there is alcohol too. You can order a macchiato while your friend drinks a spritz at almost any time of day. There isn’t a standing requirement if you have a coffee, spritz, or both. There are often seats, whether inside or out in the piazza.

Get to know your espresso. 

The espresso is the cornerstone of Italian coffee culture. It is the base of each drink. Espresso’s brewing method is what gives it its famous name. It is the result of a high-pressure system that pushes hot water through finely-ground coffee. This creates a shot of caffeine that is straight to the point. This brewing method provides a hot beverage very quickly.

In Italy, you do not order an ‘espresso.’ You order a caffe, or coffee. As we know, Italians are not traditionally connoisseurs of drip coffee. Therefore, a caffe always means a shot of espresso.

fresh espresso
Photo credit: Salomé Chaussure

There is more than just one way to enjoy espresso. There are a few variations:

Normale – The traditional 30ml (1 ounce) espresso shot.

Ristretto – A more potent version of the normale, this is smaller and more dense.

Lungo – Meaning ‘long,’ this espresso is roughly 2 ounces. It is less intense, but not to be confused with an americano.

Indeed, these varieties of espresso are all outcomes of adjusting the amount of water. This affects the overall potency of the shot. In addition, a caffe is just one shot of espresso. In many American coffee shops, an espresso order is a double shot. This is a doppio, or double in Italian.

Types of Italian Coffees to Know
Marocchino coffee
A marocchino (Photo Credit: Francesco Pappalardo)

There are some delicious milky Italian espresso drinks. Many we know and probably drink often. It is important to know their proper preparation.

MacchiatoAn espresso shot with a quick pour of hot milk foam.

MarocchinoSimilar to a macchiato, but with a little bit of hot milk and tons of cocoa powder on top!

CappuccinoThe classic. This drink is equal parts espresso, milk, and foam. Traditionally speaking, there is only one size of a cappuccino. It ranges from 5-6 ounces, which is less than a standard cup.

Caffe LatteOtherwise known as a latte, this is espresso with roughly 8-10 ounces of milk and foam. In Italy, latte only means milk, so you must clarify.

AmericanoA single or double shot of espresso with additional hot water to fill up the cup completely.

ShakeratoThis is espresso, sugar, and ice shaken like a martini. It is often poured into a stemmed glass, without ice. A cocktail of the espresso drinks!

In addition, there are popular noncoffee options found at Italian coffee bars. Caffe d’orzo is caffeine-free and possesses toasty aromas. There is also caffe di ginseng. This comes from ginseng extract, which has caffeine.

Coffee and time of day matters

Italians clearly love food. This means they care a lot about digestion. How does this affect coffee culture? Over time, Italians developed unofficial rules for coffee consumption mostly based on digestion.

Firstly, any milky espresso drink is solely consumed in the morning. Having a cappuccino after lunch or dinner is borderline unacceptable. While espresso is a common way to end a meal, a milky beverage is seen as adverse to digestion. This makes sense, as lunch and dinner tend to be the heavier meals of the day in Italy. Thus, voluminous drinks on a full stomach might be counterproductive. A macchiato is an exception to all of this, as it does not technically contain much milk at all.

Also, to-go coffee is not popular in Italy. Just like the coffee bar, grabbing a coffee should be brief. Also, Italian coffee is not piping hot. This makes for likely a cold cappuccino if taken to go!

With life comes exceptions; you can definitely order your favorite coffee beverage outside these parameters. But, there may be a few odd looks if you do.

Yes, liquor in coffee is absolutely acceptable.

Italians know how to jazz up a coffee break. A caffe corretto is an espresso spiked with liquor. Whether it’s sambuca, grappa, or a mystery local alcohol, this is a fun pick-me-up. Bitters and alcohol are a marriage of flavor and history. Italians are known for making bitters for centuries. The caffe corretto was a more recent invention. Higher coffee prices during WWII ignited creativity amongst Italians. Compensating for smaller espresso shots, they chose to add liquor to their coffee.

Today, a caffe corretto is available at all coffee bars. You choose your spirit. This drink is best-enjoyed midday or after dinner.

Italians do drink coffee at home

Italians consume a lot of coffee at home. The home is a social space too, with coffee a permanent guest. While many families continue to adapt to new more automatic coffee options like Nespresso, the moka pot remains the hallmark of Italian coffee culture at home.

Moka coffee
Photo credit: Mayaster Lavi

This stovetop coffee is less intense than espresso. And, it requires no fancy machinery. A moka pot brews multiple servings at once. The volume varies on the size of the pot. This makes it a great accessory for entertaining any time of the day! It is also pretty fashionable and adorable looking on your stove. Making the perfect moka pot coffee is simple; learn how to brew the perfect moka coffee here.

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