Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Detour: How To Order An Italian Coffee In Italy

Every once in awhile we detour from Italian cycling to another subject area, this time it's a very, very slight detour as the subject is coffee which at least in the Veneto is an integral part of cycling.

My friend Sara Rosso has written an e-book about Italian coffee culture, entitled "How To Order An Italian Coffee In Italy". It is a comprehensive and concise guide to all of the major variations of coffee, or caffè espresso in Italian, as they can be found in Italy. The book can be ordered from Amazon for $2.99 here.

I asked Sara some specific questions about Italian coffee culture which I thought I thought ICJ readers might have asked. The answers:

ICJ: What are the biggest differences in the coffee culture between Italy and other countries?
Sara: It's hard to compare Italy to every country's coffee culture, but I can compare it to a Starbucks-like coffee culture which is becoming prevalent in many countries which had no coffee culture of their own. In Starbucks, they want you to treat it as a "second home" - a place to get coffee + other things and visit with friends, work, and linger over a big cup of coffee. In Italy, coffee is still a very social thing, but it's also quite fast, and it's not about these enormous coffees to keep with you for a few hours. Getting a coffee with friends or coworkers can sometimes take just a few minutes vs an hour or longer in a Starbucks-type environment.

ICJ: Why does an espresso taste better in Italy than anywhere else?
Sara: I'm definitely biased as I never drank coffee regularly before living in Italy, and I always want Italian espresso in the morning, but I also think the people preparing the coffee in Italy have often been doing it for years, and they may even be the owner of the place. They're invested in people liking their coffee and their bars, and if they're concentrating on espresso, they have to worry about and control fewer things than big stores with tons of variations and syrups: coffee bean quality, their coffee grinder, their espresso machine, and the quality and freshness of their milk. You wouldn't expect your best coffee to come from a coffee chain store, and I think this is true in Italy as well as outside of it. The more the people care about the coffee who are working there, the better it will be. I think the type of coffee being served, too, and in Italy a dark (espresso) roast is pretty common.

ICJ: How many different types of espresso are there and the differences?
Sara: I wouldn't say there are types of espresso, but just common variations on the same basic concept: a densely filtered shot of espresso combined with variations of foamed/unfoamed (cappuccino, latte macchiato) or heated/unheated milk (macchiato caldo, macchiato freddo), and/or various amounts of water (lungo, corto, americano), etc.

ICJ: What are the biggest mistakes visitors make when ordering coffee?
Sara: I think this goes for every visitor in any country: don't assume it's like it is at home. In Italy there are specific ways and varieties of coffee, but in another country, they will have their own types and varieties - the caffè cortado is popular in Spain, for example. Take some time to study the menu and ask questions, even of other patrons, so you know what to order.

ICJ: Why do Italians stand to have their coffee?
Sara: This gets back to my point above - it's best to drink the coffee when it's hot. Drinking cold coffee (unless it's summer) is unthinkable. Not everyone stands to drink their coffee, but they do drink it rather quick. They may linger afterwards to have a chat, but the coffee is consumed at its peak time and heat.

ICJ: Things you don't want to ever do when ordering coffee?
Sara: With all the talk of traditions and the right way to do things, I don't think there are any "nevers" with coffee. It's a personal experience and you have to enjoy drinking it the way you like it.

ICJ: Even buying coffee is different isn't it (lo scontrino)?
Sara: Yes, in Italy, depending on the bar, you may be able to consume it first and pay after, or first get lo scontrino (the receipt) and present it to the barista after.

ICJ: Which coffee(s) would you recommend bringing back home after a visit?
Sara: As globalization continues, a lot of the more popular Italian brands (Lavazza, Illy) are becoming accessible and available to people outside of Italy. I like to pop into a local torrefazione, coffee roaster, and have the beans ground and bagged right then and take it to a friend. It's definitely something they won't be able to get anywhere else.

Sara lives in Milano, and writes about food, recipes and travel at Ms. Adventures in Italy, is creator and co-host of World Nutella Day, a grassroots fan celebration of the chocolate hazelnut spread, and also founded an all-Italy news, culture and travel podcast called Eye on Italy.

You can visit Sara's website at www.sararosso.com to learn more about her other projects.

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Stories for the Italian Cycling Journal about rides, granfondos, touring, having a good time cycling in Italy, Italian cycling history, etc. are always welcome. Contact me at veronaman@gmail.com. There are more than 2,300 stories in this blog. The search feature to the right works best for finding subjects in the blog. There is also a translate button at the bottom so you can translate each page.


  1. Larry's like Sara, never bothered with caffe until he came to Italy all those years ago. It was one of those "ahh, now I see why people drink this stuff" moments and he's been hooked ever since. He would say the biggest difference between places like "Fourbucks" is the price of course and that most of what these folks sell isn't really caffe but milkshakes and other concoctions flavored with a shot or two of over extracted and over roasted espresso. With whipped cream, caramel and who knows what else, these things are much more desert than caffe, perfect for fat and sugar-loving America!

  2. Interesting reading!
    I´m biker (from Slovakia) for ages and coffee drinker certainly too. Met a friend originally from Italy place near to Venice and he offered me a coffee supply from factory in close neighbourhood which I´m happy today for. Completely different stuff I can get around. I´m using Mokka pot and love to bring my cup o coffee to my workshop.

  3. Angelo, it's been a while since we last spoke! I pray all is well in your world. Sara is so correct with caffe. Britt and I spent a few months in Italy years ago and caffe has never been the same since. It's still hard to change the way people look at caffe here. It makes me crazy when some barista that dosen't drink espresso pulls a shot into a COLD demitasse. Then they look at you like your crazy when you ask for them to warm the cup before pulling the shot. It's changing but very slow. Thanks Sara.

  4. Angelo, thanks for posting more from Sara. I started following her on facebook as well as her blog since your last posting and she really great reading. Thank you and thank you Sara!

    Ciao David