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A Guide to Ordering Coffee in Italy

I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.

Follow hidden alleys to find the perfect coffee (c) A. Harrison

Follow hidden alleys to find the perfect coffee (c) A. Harrison

It Began in the Tuscan Town of Vinci…

It may seem the simplest of things, but in Italy ordering coffee is beyond an art form. I realised this one morning in Vinci, a small town perched high above the Tuscan countryside.

Everyone, it seemed, was out enjoying the sunshine. The café was crowded and people thronged the main square. Having just finished our brew, we left our spot at the bar and strolled outside. In 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born in a small farmhouse a short walk from where we stood, and the town retains its medieval air.

As we looked over a classic vista of stonewalls and olive groves, farmhouses and cypress trees, we noticed a couple heading towards the café. They hesitated amongst the milling throng—an obvious sign of a tourist—as if searching for the end of the queue. This is no way to survive in Italy: We had to show them. After all, we’d been the same only a few weeks ago.

Bernini's sunken fountain, Rome (c) A. Harrison

Bernini's sunken fountain, Rome (c) A. Harrison

Italian Coffee Culture

Our first taste of Italian coffee came at Rome airport. Flying anywhere from Australia takes forever; we’d spent a lifetime crammed in that plane. Dawn had yet to touch the sky as we landed. Customs seemed asleep; Immigration waved us through after a lazy stamp somewhere near our passports. The carousel took a while to wake up and, after a few fitful starts, finally brought us our luggage.

Searching for the exit, we passed a café: a long dark bench decorated with the prerequisite mirror and a myriad of bottles of colored liqueurs. The barista sported a pristine waistcoat and a perfect three-day growth. Our coffees were dark and strong; suddenly finding the right bus was easy. We drove through a city just rising from slumber, as the light of dawn fell on the ancient monuments and made the stone buildings glisten.

Ah, Venice (c) A. Harrison

Ah, Venice (c) A. Harrison

The cafes of the Piazza San Marco © A Harrison

The cafes of the Piazza San Marco © A Harrison

Coffee Arrives in Venice

Coffee arrived in Venice via Egypt in the late 16th century, brought by Arab traders. Initially deemed sinful, this ‘wine of Arabia’ was all too readily adopted by the city’s merchants. Concerned about the clandestine nature by which the wealthy met to drink the bitter brew, the Doge appealed to the Pope; after tasting one cup, Pope Clement VII deemed coffee ‘Christian’. The first cafés open in Venice around 1645. They quickly became popular, and, now touched with an air of wealth and sophistication, the taste for this new drink rapidly spread. The famous Café Florian in the Piazza San Marco opened in 1720, and remains open today.

Ordering a Coffee in Italy

caffè

a simple espresso

café della casa

the house speciality

macchiato

an espresso with a dash of hot milk

caffè con zucchero

an espresso with sugar

doppio

a double espresso

caffè ristretto

half the size of an espresso

A cafe in Assisi (c) A. Harrison

A cafe in Assisi (c) A. Harrison

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Essential of Drinking Coffee When in Italy

Morning coffee in Italy is a serious affair. In Venice, as the sun is rising, stand in any alley and watch as both overall-clad workers and impeccably dressed businessmen stride through the door and, with little more than a nod to the barista, wait for their brew to be set before them. This is usually a simple caffè, an espresso complete with the characteristic crema to add flavor and a touch of sweetness. Most stand at the bar and down their shot in two gulps at the most, then are gone. Even in the depths of winter, the ritual continues.

Some had the time to stay longer, paying extra for the luxury of sitting at a table and reading Il Figaro while washing down a panini of tomato, salami and cheese with a milky coffee. Few talked. (A word of caution on ordering a latté—you may be served a glass of steamed milk, even if you ask for a caffè latté.)

The perfect view for a cup of coffee © A Harrison

The perfect view for a cup of coffee © A Harrison

The Gourmet Treveller

How to Survive an Italian Cafe

To the uninitiated, ordering may seem little more than a jostling of elbows and waving of arms while pushing your way to the front of the bar (for queues are more a thought than reality.) Yet it is not so. After a ciao or buon giorno, place an order with the cashier and pay; then, with another greeting, elbow your way to the other end of the bar and hand your receipt to the barista. In a few places, however, you order first and pay as you leave. Simply watch what the other patrons do. Once served, down the scalding brew as quickly as possible. No sips; most locals down an espresso in two or three gulps.

Olives and cyprus - a classic Italian view (c) A. Harrison

Olives and cyprus - a classic Italian view (c) A. Harrison

The Etiquette of Ordering Coffee in Italy

Only tourists drink milky coffees such as a cappuccino or a latté after midday, for milk is considered a breakfast food. A café filled with people drinking such travesties of an afternoon is obviously one for tourists. Instead, opt to drink where the locals go. Aside from an espresso, try a caffè ristretto, usually half the size of an espresso, intense in flavor but never bitter.

Others to try include a caffè con zucchero—an espresso with sugar—or a caffè macchiato, where the espresso is literally ‘corrupted’ with a spoonful of milky foam. For a caffè lungo, or caffè Americano, the water runs through the machine to make a long coffee in which the brew is both weak and bitter. Italians call such servings acqua sporca, or dirty water.

The world of Renaissance Florence continues (c) A. Harrison

The world of Renaissance Florence continues (c) A. Harrison

Inside The Pantheon, near the Cafe Eustachio © A Harrison

Inside The Pantheon, near the Cafe Eustachio © A Harrison

Where to Drink Your Coffee

Unlike the seriousness of the morning brew, I think of the afternoon beverage as the one to sip while recuperating my strength for more sightseeing. This is the time of day where it can be well worth the while of paying extra for the luxury of simply sitting, and so watching the world go by: whether in an art gallery, or atop the Uffizi under the shadow of the giant clock of the Palace Vecchio; a piazza in a small town, watching the locals and the occasional priest hurry by; on a portico in Assisi, overlooking the hills.

Many places offer a café della casa, or house coffee. In the small Piazza di Sant’ Eustachio (lying between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona), is a café not to be missed. Perfect for coffee at any time of day, as midnight approaches crowds spill from the Bar Sant’ Eustachio and into the tiny piazza. All of Rome, it seems, has come for the famed aniseed laced brew; many claim this is the best coffee in Rome. Its making remains a secret, but everyone scoops the last specks from their cup.

Besides, there is always tomorrow to discover somewhere even more delightful for a cup of magical brew.

© 2013 Anne Harrison

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