Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
In my house, we’ve always been coffee lovers: My Milan born-and-bred grandparents were never without it. When I was still a little girl, they used to add coffee to my milk at snack time to keep me “lively.” I still clearly remember what they used to say while pouring coffee from the pot into the cups: “insèma, sedént e bulént” (together, sitting down, and boiling). It’s a simple refrain to remember how to enjoy Italian coffee properly: Sitting together, sipping it slowly while it’s still very hot. Nothing more, nothing less.
Yesterday The Coffeeshop, Today The Bar
Coffee culture is well-rooted all over Italy. If you’re thinking Starbucks, think again. From as far back as the 18th century — when coffee was imported from the Middle East to Europe by Arab merchants — writers and intellectuals used to meet around the tables of Italian cafés to read, discuss politics and reflect on society.
The story goes that the first espresso was served in Turin in 1884. This was thanks to Angelo Moriondo, who we owe an eternal debt of gratitude to for the invention of a prototype coffee machine. “Moriondo’s patent” would then be perfected in Milan in the early 1900s.
- Facciamo una pausa-caffè? (Shall we take a coffee break?)
- Ci prendiamo un caffè? (Shall we grab a coffee?)
- Ti offro un caffè. (Let me buy you a coffee.)
- Vediamoci al bar. (I’ll see you at the bar.)
These are common phrases that express a desire for relaxation and shared moments. We’re not talking about a pub, brasserie, café or coffee shop here: Bars are resting and meeting places that are part of daily life, with very distinctive features, that unequivocally express a uniquely Italian character.
Often there’s no time for breakfast at home. So instead, you stop at a bar on your way to work and order a caffè al volo (a quick coffee) to knock back while standing at the counter — there’s a reason it’s called espresso. Many different varieties exist, of course, depending on the type of bean, blend and aroma. Connoisseurs can choose to taste different varieties at coffee shops that roast their own beans.
If you want to try real Neapolitan coffee, you have no choice but to go to Naples. It’s also nice to think that the Neapolitan tradition of the caffè sospeso (pending coffee) is spreading elsewhere: This is when you pay for your own coffee and an extra one to be gifted to someone who comes in and cannot pay. This daily act of kindness clearly highlights the generosity of Neapolitans.
What To Order At The Bar
If you’re looking for espresso, you don’t need to specify it at the bar — an Italian coffee is always an espresso. A caffè corto (short coffee) is the most common type of espresso. It’s thick, aromatic and served in a small ceramic cup. You can also ask for a doppio (double). A caffè ristretto, on the other hand, is an even more concentrated espresso, and where the dose of caffeine is generally lower. If you already feel jittery, it would be best to opt for a deca (decaffeinated coffee) or a caffè d’orzo, which is coffee made from barley. This is known as “farmer’s coffee” (Bauernkaffee in Tyrol) and was a common coffee substitute during World War II, when “real coffee” was scarce and too expensive.
A caffè lungo (long coffee), by contrast, is made with one measure of espresso and two measures of hot water — the flavor is less sharp, but the invigorating effects of the caffeine are generally stronger. But this is not synonymous with a caffè americano: In this case, boiling water is added to taste with one or two shots of espresso. Don’t confuse either of these with common filter coffee, which is prepared very differently. (We Italians commonly call this “dirty water,” and we believe that it should be consumed at home, not at the bar.)
Requests for variants are also very common: A caffè macchiato is espresso topped with milk foam. The milk can be hot or cold, but in the latter case, customers help themselves from a small jug provided on the counter, next to the sugar. A marocchino or marocco (in Milan, they call it Montebianco in the fashion district) is an espresso enriched with cocoa powder and diluted with one measure of milk and milk foam. It’s often confused with the mocaccino, which has visible layers of coffee, chocolate (or slightly alcoholic chocolate liqueur) and whipped milk. In Puglia, this is also known as espressino.
Delicious Alternatives To Simple Coffee
A cappuccino is the best alternative to breakfast in the morning: Espresso, full-fat milk and milk foam, served together in a large cup. A thin layer of cocoa powder or fine cinnamon can be sprinkled over the foam. Of course, you can also ask for a cappuccino without the foam — it can be served white, with proportionally more milk, or dark, meaning more coffee. In some bars, customers can even ask for plant-based dairy substitutes (soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, oat milk, etc.). This is quite common abroad, but in Italy? Well, we’re working on it.
The ideal accompaniment? A pastry or a bun: Not a brioche, but something more like a French croissant in the traditional horn shape, served with honey, filled with fruit jelly, custard or chocolate cream, or simply enjoyed plain.
In summer, there’s nothing better than a caffè freddo (iced coffee), which is a simple Americano with ice, while a caffè shakerato (shaken coffee) is a delicious and refreshing alternative. It’s made by pouring a short espresso into a shaker filled with ice, sugar syrup, a dash of vanilla, and Irish cream or Grand Marnier (if desired). After a few good shakes, the creamy drink is ready to be poured into a Martini glass.
Cold coffee cream is a refreshing alternative, prepared by mixing coffee from a moka pot, sugar and fresh cream together. Along the same lines, we have affogato al caffè, which is a scoop of artisanal vanilla or nougat-flavored ice cream, floating like an island in a cup of espresso. In winter, it’s hard to resist a caffè con panna — an espresso in a large cup topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream. In any case, Italian grandparents’ favorite type of Italian coffee is a caffè corretto, coffee served with a splash of liqueur — usually brandy, grappa, anise-flavored liqueur or sambuca. It’s great for your digestion and also as a pick-me-up.