The spread of Starbucks outlets from Seattle to Saudi Arabia implies that coffee is now the same all over the world. But in the land that invented espresso, coffee culture is as idiosyncratic as ever. Here’s how to get your fix the way millions of Italians do.
What you want is a bar. In Italy, a bar isn’t where you drink cocktails at night, but the place to go for a hit of caffeine. Every town has at least one, and major cities will have hundreds of them. A few signs that you’ve found a good bar: a marble counter, piles of crescent-shaped pastries called cornetti, and – most importantly – a crowd of locals waiting for their morning cup.
Step right up.
Italian culture is not known for its love of queues. If you stand at the back of the mob and politely wait your turn, you will never get your coffee. The best approach is to be assertive. Move into the crowd and try to make eye contact with the baristo as much as possible. Gradually you’ll find yourself surging forward towards the counter. The baristo will eventually acknowledge you; this is when you should call out your order.
Know what you want.
There are plenty of guides to Italian coffee drinks out there, so I’ll keep this bit short. If you ask for a caffe, you’ll be served espresso. If you want something resembling drip or press coffee, ask for an americano (espresso combined with hot water; tastes a lot better than it sounds). If you’re after a latte, ask for a caffe latte – you probably weren’t looking for a plain glass of milk. My favorite is a macchiato: a shot of espresso with a teaspoon of steamed milk, a happy medium between bitter espresso and bland caffe latte.
There’s a complicated business about cappuccino being a breakfast drink and “truly authentic” travelers not ordering it after noon, but honestly, who cares? If you’ve always wanted to order a cappuccino in Italy, do it! Even if it’s three o’clock.
Stand at the bar to drink your coffee.
While some Italian coffee bars have seating areas, you’ll see most people having breakfast right at the bar. At a table you may be charged a fee, called coperto, for the privilege. This can be worthwhile if you want to savor a caffe latte over the newspaper, but if you intend to move on quickly it’s better to stand.
Note: in most bars you pay after you’re finished, though there are a few where you have to order and pay a cashier before making your way through the mob at the bar to get the coffee. Watch out for this!