10 Secrets of Italian Coffee Culture

Coffee in Italy is a sacred art form.

It’s an 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 just starting to hum with quiet chatter. Around the square, baristas are setting up their street-side café tables — the whir of coffee machines and the tinkle of espresso cups hanging suspended in the crisp air. This convivial, familiar cacophony is the soundtrack to life in Italy.

It’s 10am 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, 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)

While in many other cultures – think the UK, US, or even Scandinavia – you can spend entire mornings in one coffee house, using it almost as an office space, you are unlikely to find any laptops in Italian cafés. In fact, you’re unlikely to find Wi-Fi; 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 a water and the privilege of occupying a seat.

3. Learn the local coffee lingo

The regions of Italy are markedly diverse, each proudly upholding their 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 caffe “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 sacrilege as it will mask the true flavor of the coffee. Take away 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. 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 11am

A steadfast rule in Italian coffee culture? A cappuccino is exclusively a breakfast drink. To order one after 11am will instantly brand you 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 number is 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 10am when you arrive in the office, after lunch, around 5pm (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 contemporary coffee house in Italy. That’s 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 most celebrated elegant coffee houses in Italy.

9. Order a caffe corretto for an extra hit

When you visit any café in north-eastern of 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 caffe sospeso is an act of kindness

Coffee in Italy is a gesture of kindness, whether towards yourself or with 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 in 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 frenetic life may be, it gives everyone the change to take a well-earned break from the chaos of daily life.

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