When you move to a new country, it usually takes a while to adjust to the cultural norms. There may be aspects of your host culture that differ greatly from the customs back home. For example, you might not think something as common and simple as a caffeinated beverage found around the world would be one of these cultural aspects… but in reality, coffee is taken very seriously in Italy!
One of the first things you will notice as soon as you step foot on the streets of Rome is the sheer number of coffee shops throughout the city. Take a walk and you’ll find that on every little side street and every corner, your senses will be stimulated. The strong smell of espresso will waft by, tempting you to stop in for an afternoon jolt. Your ears will ring with the chaotic orchestra of coffee cups clinking against their saucers and hitting the counter; excited shouts of morning conversation between neighbors echoes through the streets, and the cranks and whirls of the coffee machines support this melody. The barista acts as the conductor holding the song all together, letting out an abrupt “Dimmi!” to those waiting to place their order.
In Italian, a coffee shop is called a bar–not to be confused with any form of nightlife–and they are integral to the daily life of an Italian.
Take a walk through Trastevere and you will find both JCU students and locals taking part in their daily coffee rituals in the neighborhood’s most beloved spots. These bars act as a gathering place, a backdrop for mindless chitchat and deep heart-to-heart talks alike. They are where many friendships are formed, where entrepreneurial ideas are born, where professors pass on their wisdom to the newest generation of students, and most of all, they are an essential part of each person’s routine.
If you’re new to Rome, trying to get on board and understand the dos and don’ts of coffee culture in Italy might feel a little overwhelming. Grabbing a tall iced coffee to go may be habitual back home, but in Rome, it most likely will not be on the menu. Here are a few tips to get you started:
First things first. If there’s anything you should know about Italian coffee culture it is this: the most common type of coffee in Italy is espresso. And although the barista will understand “espresso”, locals just ask for un caffè (a coffee) to get that tiny cup with an extremely rich “shot” of coffee.
In Italian, the word for milk is latte. So if you simply order a “latte” at the bar, you will be handed a glass of milk. If you would like coffee with milk, then you should go with un caffè latte.
3. Milk only in the morning
Speaking of milk… according to the “law” of Italian coffee culture, cappuccino, caffè latte, and latte macchiato should only be ordered in the morning. A cappuccino is equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk. A caffè latte is espresso with more steamed milk and less foam. A latte macchiato is steamed milk with a splash of espresso. You might get a strange look or comment from your waiter if you order these after about 11am; locals would never drink coffee with milk in the afternoon, especially after a meal.
4. Small doses
Italian coffee is quite strong. This explains why in Italy, you will only drink coffee in small doses. Do not be fooled by the tiny espresso cup: you will most definitely feel the richness and the caffeine. While you can order a doppio, or a “double espresso,” this is not too common. Italians will usually frequent their local bar multiple times throughout the day whenever they need a jolt instead.
5. Standing at the bar vs. sitting at a table
Most often you will see locals “taking” their coffee quickly and matter-of-factly while standing at the bar. In Italy, you would never grab a coffee to go. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a hurry: it will only take 10 seconds to throw back that espresso. You can expect the barista to quickly take your order from behind the bar while he or she is serving about ten other people simultaneously. Italy may be known for its slow pace of life, but when it comes to your neighborhood coffee shop, you can expect a fast-paced environment.
However, there is another side to the coin. If you are meeting a friend, or have some free time throughout your day, you can definitely sit down and enjoy your coffee at a table. Locals will sit and chat, perhaps enjoy the sunshine of a beautiful day at an outside table, and slowly sip their coffee. In this case, be prepared to pay a small “service fee” at many bars if you sit at a table rather than stand at the bar.
6. No Iced Coffee
Iced coffee is not common in Italy. You will never see locals ordering iced coffee. If it’s hot out and you want something cold and refreshing, try a caffè shakerato – an espresso shaken with ice cubes and sugar and strained into a cocktail glass.
Even if you don’t drink coffee, you can find a way to explore Italian coffee culture. Grab a spremuta (fresh squeezed orange juice) and a cornetto (croissant) next time you pass by your local bar.
Alexa Vujaklija (Shearer)
Class of 2015
Grew up in the United States, Germany, the Republic of Georgia, Russia, and Bulgaria