10 Secrets of Italian Coffee Culture

Coffee in Italy is a sacred art form.
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It’s early morning in autumn and the northern Italian city of Udine is beginning to wake up. A handful of locals tread their way to the market, which is starting to hum with quiet chatter. Around the square, baristas are setting up their street-side café tables. And the whirs of coffee machines and the tinkle of espresso cups hang suspended in the crisp air. This convivial, familiar cacophony is the soundtrack to life in Italy.

It’s 10 am and I’m sitting in one of the city’s beloved Viennese-style coffee houses, Caffè Contarena. Tables are strewn beneath ornate ceilings with heavy Art Deco chandeliers. Some customers are enjoying their coffee break solo, flicking languidly through today’s headlines. Others have come in pairs: mothers and daughters, old friends, partners, and colleagues. An elderly lady sits at the window with a macchiato, watching people pass by.

No one is looking at their phone or laptop.

Coffee in Italy is sacred. But it’s not just the drink itself which is so eagerly worshipped here. There’s an art to Italian coffee — one that can be understood exclusively through experience.

1. Savor your Coffee (in just a few sips)

In many other cultures–think the UK, US, or even Scandinavia–you can spend entire mornings in one coffee house. They are used almost as office spaces. But you are unlikely to find any laptops in Italian cafés. In fact, you’re unlikely to find Wi-Fi at all–disconnection is encouraged.

There’s a delicate balance when it comes to your coffee break. While coffee is meant to be savored, you shouldn’t spend more than a few minutes at the long, marble-topped bar of your local café. Because in Italy, most coffee is enjoyed standing up while exchanging a few words with your barista. That’s why “shorter” coffees, such as espressos and macchiatos, are the most popular orders — because they can caffeinate you and be finished in just two sips.

2. Unless you’re Enjoying a Slow Morning

The rules of Italian coffee culture change during the weekends when locals linger over their coffee seated inside a café, rather than standing at the bar. Most historic cafés in Italy still have an old-fashioned, gold-plated newspaper stand laden with that morning’s headlines. Customers can leaf through the daily news while enjoying a leisurely breakfast — a cappuccino and cornetto is a classic pairing. Note: there’s a surcharge to order coffee at a table, so expect to pay double for water and the privilege of occupying a seat.

3. Learn the Local Coffee Lingo

The regions of Italy are markedly diverse, each proudly upholding its own, unique culture and traditions. This is no different when it comes to coffee. Every dialect assigns a different name to the various types of coffee. In the north, ordering a caffè liscio will get you an espresso, while in southern Italy you can simply ask for “un caffè.”

The city of Trieste is the most extreme example of this phenomenon. Known widely as the capital of Italian coffee culture, Trieste has its own language when it comes to ordering coffee. Ask for a capo in b and you’ll be served a large caffè macchiato in a glass, while a gocciato is a simple espresso with a dash of steamed milk.

4. Skip the Syrups

Bid goodbye to salted caramel frappés and coconut milk cappuccinos. In Italy, the idea of adding syrup to your coffee is sacrilegious as it will mask the true flavor of the coffee. Takeaway coffee is still a foreign concept, and Italy’s first Starbucks only opened in 2018.

5. Please don’t ask for a “Latte”

Speaking from experience, if you ask for a “latte” in an Italian coffee house, you’ll receive a glass of milk and a judgmental stare. That’s because latte = plain, white milk… not a caffeinated beverage (it’s lit. Italian for “milk”). If you like a milkier coffee, try ordering a cappuccino or a “macchiato caldo.” There is also no such thing here as a “flat white” except at trendy, new wave cafés.

6. No Cappuccinos after 11 am

A steadfast rule in Italian coffee culture? A cappuccino is exclusively a breakfast drink. Ordering one after 11 am will instantly brand you as a tourist in the eyes of the customers and baristas in the café. That’s because Italians believe that drinking a large, milky cappuccino too close to lunchtime will spoil your appetite — which makes sense when you consider how much food is served during lunch in Italy.

© Abi Prowse

7. It’s Normal to Drink 3 Coffees a Day

Three coffees per day may seem excessive, but this is a normal practice in Italy. In fact, many Italians drink three coffees in a single morning. In Italy, it’s normal to drink a coffee with breakfast, around 10 am when you arrive at the office, after lunch, around 5 pm (in lieu of the classic aperitivo), and after dinner. Black coffee is commonly believed to aid digestion, so it’s not unusual for Italians to drink a cup after each meal.

8. Cafés haven’t changed much over the years

Outside of cities like Rome, Milan, and Florence, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a contemporary coffee house in Italy. This is because Italian cafés have stayed true to their roots, and are often housed within grand buildings with high ceilings, marble bars and dark wood tables scattered artfully through the room. Caffè Tommaseo in Trieste, Caffè Florian in Venice and Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples are some of the most celebrated elegant coffee houses in Italy.

9. Order a Caffè Corretto for an Extra Hit

When you visit any café in northeastern Italy, you’re likely to find an elderly local sipping contentedly on a caffè corretto — even at eight o’clock in the morning. This punchy coffee type consists of a simple espresso embellished with a splash of liqueur (usually grappa) to take the edge off whatever the day ahead may have in store. This coffee type is not for the faint of heart — or for anyone heading straight into the office — but it’s delicious.

10. In Naples, a Caffè Sospeso is an Act of Kindness

Coffee in Italy is a gesture of kindness, whether towards yourself or your loved ones. Testament to this is the Neapolitan tradition is the caffè sospeso — which literally translates to “suspended coffee.” Popularized during World War II, the caffè sospeso was an act of solidarity among the city’s working-class cafés. Customers would order two espresso coffees at the bar and drink only one, leaving the second coffee “suspended” for any future customers who couldn’t afford to pay for the luxury. This tradition was revitalized during the pandemic when visitors would leave coffees “suspended” for nurses, doctors, and other key workers.

For many, coffee may simply be a caffeine hit — a way to wake yourself up in the morning before commuting into the office. But the beauty of Italian coffee culture lies precisely in the slowness and simplicity of the tradition. Because no matter how frantic life may be, it gives everyone the chance to take a well-earned break from the chaos of daily life.

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