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How to Navigate the Ritual of Drinking Coffee in Italy

Drinking coffee in Italy is an integral part of Italian culture. When you visit Italy, you will notice there is no shortage of bars and cafes, which serve coffee all day and well into the night. Italians consume a lot of coffee and their day is typically organized around coffee breaks. Coffee is consumed for breakfast, again around 10 am for the “pausa caffe,” after lunch, in the afternoon, and often after dinner (it is believed to aid digestion).

You will likely find yourself overwhelmed the first time you enter a densely populated bar with Italians scrambling towards the counter waving their receipts in the air. I’ve witnessed many foreigners in the corner of the bar paralyzed by fear, confusion, and indecision. Ordering coffee in Italy is like a ritual dance and if you don’t know the moves, you will be lost (with no coffee might I add)! So today and I am going to share with you a step-by-step tutorial on how to navigate and participate in this important ritual. 

Step One: Forget lines
Remember you are in Italy, there will likely be no orderly line of patiently waiting customers. In fact, if you doddle you will probably be elbowed by an elderly woman pushing her way to the bar… when in Rome!

Step Two: Know what you want
A crowded and bustling Italian coffee bar is no place for indecision. Italians are on a mission, they need their coffee quickly and they know exactly what they want. If you are looking to try something new, it’s best to visit during off-peak hours. When it is busy, decide what you want before proceeding to step three. Here is a list of the basic ways coffee is served.

Step Three: STOP! Do not proceed to the bar!
It may seem natural to walk up to the bar or sit down at a table. But, nope and nope. Most Italians do not drink their coffee sitting (unless they are there specifically to socialize) and your coffee will cost twice as much if you sit. You also do not want to proceed directly to the bar. You must pay first and then present your receipt to the barista. 

Now you might be wondering why some of the other patrons don’t seem to be paying first. That is because they are locals and you are not. They know it, you know it, and the barista knows it. So head to the cash register (remember there will probably not be a line and if you hesitate someone will jump in front of you) and pay first. But be sure you take your receipt, don’t automatically toss it or leave it on the counter like you might back home.

Step Four: Make yourself known
Ok, so you have finally ordered and it is time to approach the bar. Again, there will be no orderly line in sight. It will be up to you to get as close to the bar as possible and make your presence known to the barista. My advice, catch the barista’s eye, smile, and say “buongiorno” (bon-gee-orn-no)! 

The more Italian you try to speak, the better service you will receive. The barista will take your ticket and mark it in some way (with a pen or a slight tear) to signify he has taken your order. But wait! You are not done. Once they have taken your order, you still have to be ready to receive your beverage. If they call out “cafe” and you don’t respond, it will go to someone else.

Step Five: Sip the deliciousness 
The good news is that when you take that first sip of your espresso or cappuccino all of this will be completely worth it! And you will feel victorious for successfully participating in this important cultural ritual.

Not sure what kind of Italian coffee to try? Here is a brief breakdown of the four most common ways to drink coffee in Italy:

  1. an espresso, called “caffe” (a shot of espresso, think really strong coffee)
  2. a “macchiatto” (a shot of espresso with a dollop of frothy milk)
  3. a “cappuccino” (a shot of espresso with a lot of frothy milk)
  4. and a “latte macchiato” (a tall glass of hot milk with a shot of espresso)

I think the “coffee dance” is one of my favorite Italian experiences and I look forward to my coffee break everyday. The Italian bar is a great place to people watch, chat or try out your Italian, and take in Italian culture.

Does any one have any funny stories from when you first tried to order coffee in Italy?

PS – you can find some of my favorite coffee spots in Florence here.