California Girl Goes to Italy: Italian Coffee Culture

  • Melissa Vogt

  • 25 Jan 2017 | Travel

My love for coffee began when I was just a little girl, watching my Italian grandfather drink several cups a day, and continued as I became an adolescent and spent time writing in coffee shops. I’ve never looked back and to this day, I am a self-avowed coffee addict. I always knew my love for coffee and connection to this sacred beverage felt tied to my Italian heritage, but until I visited Italy, I didn’t fully understand why. In Italy, coffee is not a beverage, but a way of life. It is just about what’s inside the cup as much as it is about the experience of drinking it.

I was shocked by the vast amount of differences between coffee culture in Italy versus here in the US. In Italy, coffee is not coffee—it is pure espresso and/or espresso beverages like a cappuccino or macchiato. And if you’ve ever tasted a cappuccino or macchiato from Italy, then you know their authenticity is hard to replicate here in the US. The espresso, too, is better than what we have here. It’s not bitter at all, but instead subtly sweet with just the right amount of roasted flavor. Not a single espresso, cappuccino nor macchiato that I had on my trip tasted like it was made from over-roasted coffee beans—and trust me, I had more than my fair share. Every beverage tasted like the best espresso I ever had.
Macchiato al banco.

When you order your cappuccino or espresso, there are two ways to do it in Italy: al banco or al tavolo, which translates to “at the bar” and “at the table” respectively. When you order al banco, beverages are priced at the ridiculously affordable cost of 1 Euro ($1.06 USD)—even for cappuccinos, which typically cost $4+ in the US!—and it means you will enjoy your beverage standing at the coffee bar. Generally speaking, al tavolo prices are doubled at the still affordable price tag of 2 Euros. In that scenario, you sit at the table and wait for the barista to come take your order (although not all cafés have tables to sit at). In both instances, you don’t pay until after you have enjoyed your beverage. Yes, that’s right. Italians prefer for you to enjoy your coffee, take your time and then pay when you are ready to leave. It changes the whole experience for the better.
Cappuccino | Espresso | Macchiato

Another major difference that I noticed in cafés is that people in Italy do not go to there to work, but rather to visit with friends, family or loved ones, or simply just to enjoy a beverage and relax. But seriously, no one works. I did not see one person sitting in a café writing, on their phone or on their laptop. Cafés are a sacred place where people are required to enjoy their beverages and spend time with the person they are with, to take in the experience rather than to turn it into a moment of work productivity. This was eye-opening for me. I feel like I will never look at a coffee shops in the US the same way again. Far too often Americans are caught working in coffee shops, and I am definitely guilty of this, treating them like a second office. It seems to me that Italians have it right: cafés should be a place of respite and pleasure, a place for conversation and experience. Dually noted.
A few snapshots of the many times I indulged in espresso in Italy.

The thing I loved the most about Italian coffee culture is how frequently they visit cafés and just how much espresso they really drink. The stereotype is true! Italians love their coffee. There is almost never a time when a café is empty—someone is undoubtedly enjoying espresso at every moment. While there, I was happy to partake in the multiple times a day ritual of fueling up with espresso. And each time, I savored the flavor and enjoyed the experience of chatting with my husband (and not working!).

One final note about Italian coffee culture that I feel is important to make is the fact that Italian cafés do not do to-go coffee. There is no such thing as ordering a drink to take with you. They do not have the mounds of paper cups, plastic lids and cardboard sleeves that you see stacked a mile high in US coffee shops. To me, this felt like a very distinct difference between the Italian and US coffee cultures. In the US, we almost always order our coffee to go and enjoy it as an afterthought while we are en route to somewhere else to inevitably do something more important. But in Italy, there is no such thing as taking your espresso or cappuccino to go; the only way you can enjoy it is by staying in the café. This really embodies the entire Italian way of life: no one is in a hurry and everyone takes the time to experience each moment for what it is.

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