David Lynch once said that even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all. Would you agree? Most probably if you happen to be a very annoying Italian – just like me – who knows no other coffee than espresso, the answer is no. I am a firm believer that coffee should be your daily guilty pleasure and as such it should be bitter and rich in taste, served in a proper tazzina (literally ‘small cup’) and with a thick layer of cream on top.
Coffee is a trademark of the Italian life style and of our culture. It is such an institution (like football) that it can make us very fussy when we are abroad. As an Italian who grew up in Italy most of my life, I have always been surrounded by the intense smell of morning coffee and I started having my first espresso – is there any other type of coffee out there? – in my early teens and I haven’t stopped ever since. It’s a common belief that Italians drink coffee at every time. True! And we also eat pasta every single day, we are notoriously loud and we have the best ice cream in the world! Jokes aside, coffee is much more than a hot drink: it’s a way to mingle, it’s a 5 minutes’ break from work or from any other duties, it’s the perfect way to finish a meal or to spend a quick catch up with friends. If someone invites you over for a coffee or offers you one, it will be simply rude to say no. You should never say no to coffee!
In Italy coffee is usually brewed in two ways, either with an espresso machine or with a moka pot. Traditionally you’ll have an espresso at the bar-counter, chatting with your friend or colleague – 2 sips, a fresh croissant and a glass of sparkling water to intensify the coffee aftertaste. That’s the equivalent of the stylish Italian mornings, which every one can experience in any of the thousands bars around the country. The second method is synonymous with home, family gatherings and Sunday lunches – that is coffee brewed in a moka pot.
And if there is one thing that every Italian family will have in their kitchen is a moka pot, which was invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933 and became a sort of status quo during the economic boom of the 50s. The coffee won’t be as thick as the one from the espresso machine and it also won’t have the thin layer of cream. Some say that the taste of that kind of coffee is the purest one and most authentic (I could argue with that, because to me the real coffee taste is the one brewed with an espresso machine, but, as they say, de gustibus). Another difference between the two is the type of coffee used: the coffee beans are finely ground for an espresso machine, whilst for a moka pot, they will have a medium roast.
A lot of foreigners seem to be extremely confused when they enter an Italian bar. First of all because we don’t really have a coffee menu, like the ones that you will usually find hanging on the wall in coffee shops or in Cafè Nero, Starbucks, etc. and secondly because of the wide variety of coffees that you can ask for. There are so many variations, that also Italians tend to get confused from time to time. So you are in good company 🙂 Below I gathered a list of the most common ones.
The Coffee Guide
- caffè – the typical espresso coffee that you have at the bar, served in a tazzina.
- ristretto – a shot of espresso, same amount of ground coffee, less water.
- lungo – a full tazzina of espresso.
- caffè macchiato caldo – espresso with a drop of steamed milk.
- caffè macchiato freddo – espresso with cold milk on the side.
- corretto – espresso with alcohol, usually it is grappa or sambuca. Very popular in Northern Italy.
- caffè latte – espresso with steamed milk, served in a large cup.
- cappuccino a.k.a. cappuccio – espresso with a lot of steamed milk and foamed milk on top, served in a large cup.
- latte macchiato – hot milk with a splash of espresso, served in a long glass.
- caffè d’orzo – made with ground barley, totally caffeine-free, served in a large cup.
- caffè al ginseng – 25% instant coffee, coffee essence and jinseng extract.
- marocchino – cocoa powder, shot of espresso, foamed milk and a sprinkle of cocoa powder on top, served in a small glass.
- bicerin – home made hot chocolate, espresso, cold cream, served in a glass. Originally from Turin (my city!).
- caffè viennese – espresso with whipped cream on top.
- caffè shakerato – espresso shaken with ice and sugar, served in a cocktail glass.
- crema di caffè – ideal for Italian summer days, creamy coffee made with eyes.
- decaffeinato a.k.a. deca – espresso with no caffeine.
- Irish coffee – espresso with whiskey, sugar and cream on top.
- americano – drip coffee.
- affogato al caffè – more of a dessert, espresso with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Cappuccino is only acceptable in the morning until latest 11am. If you want to avoid weird Italian looks, please never never ask for a cappuccino after that time and certainly not when ordering a main meal.
- There is no such thing as coffee on the go. We like to enjoy our coffee at the bar.
- If you ask for a latte, you will get a) weird Italian looks and b) a glass of cold milk.
- Skinny / flat / double / single / mocha / frappuccino – sorry, we have no idea what you are talking about.
- It is absolutely acceptable to have coffee after dinner, usually we will have a corretto (see above).
- We don’t do sizes, a.k.a. small, medium, large. Coffee is served either in a tazzina or in a tazza, according to the type of coffee that you choose. And yes, each coffee comes with its own cup, demitasse or glass.
- No matter what, you will always have time for coffee.