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Coffee In Italy: A Guide To The Best Italian Coffee Experience

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Coffee In Italy: A Guide To The Best Italian Coffee Experience

It’s true that in very few countries in the world is there such a passion for coffee as there is in Italy. The traditions, the rituals, and the customs surrounding the drinking of coffee are engrained in every Italian and are part of their daily lives. For visitors, learning about the intricacies surrounding coffee in Italy will enable you to enjoy the best coffee experience.   

Coffee in Italy is a cultural institution, with ingrained rituals and customs in Italian daily life. A strict coffee etiquette applies, like standing at the bar and never ordering milk-based drinks after 11 am. The market is dominated by popular brands like Lavazza, Segafredo, and Illy.

In this article, I aim to transport you to Italy and take you on a tour of some of the cafes, bars, and coffee houses so that at the end of our adventure, you will be familiar with the Italian coffee culture. Do as the Romans do when in Rome and enjoy the very best of the experience. Let’s begin!

A Brief History Of Coffee In Italy

coffee in Italy

Coffee first made its appearance in the 16th century, brought by traders to Venice from the Middle East and Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Yemen. Because of its association with the Islamic Ottoman Empire, it was regarded as being sinful.

In 1600, Pope Clement VIII was asked to publicly denounce coffee, but after tasting it, the Pope decreed that it was “so  delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

Initially, it was a novelty consumed only by the wealthy, but it gained in popularity, and coffee houses emerged, becoming social gathering places for intellectuals, artists, and merchants to discuss important matters of the day.

By the 18th century, coffee had spread to other major Italian cities, where coffee houses again played a crucial role as centers of intellectual and cultural exchanges.

Caffè Florian, located in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, was founded in 1720 and became a meeting place for people from every level of society, not only wealthy intellectuals.

As the first coffeehouse that served women (attracting the legendary Casanova through its doors), Caffe Florian illustrated what role a coffee house could play in society. Today, it has the great distinction of being the world’s oldest operating coffee house.

The most significant event in coffee’s Italian history was the invention, in 1901, of the single-shot espresso by Luigi Bezzera, making Italy the global leader in the coffee industry. Bezzera’s first espresso machine sat on top of an open flame and was half-filled with water. As the temperature rose, steam would build, resulting in a hot batch of espresso in just under a minute.

Innovation and improvements to Bezerra’s invention resulted in espressos being readied in 15 seconds by the 1930s and a staple beverage in Italy. In 1933 the Moka Express was introduced by Alfonso Biaretti (of which more later in this article).

However, coffee lovers faced years of deprivation during and after World War 2, when it was extremely scarce, and they were forced to make do with chicory and hibiscus tea.

Biaretta’s son, Renato, returning from internment during the war, began aggressively marketing his father’s invention. In the early 1950s, coffee was again widely available in Italy, and the country saw massive growth in the use of the Moka pot.

This allowed the easy, quick, and convenient brewing of fresh coffee on the stovetop, bringing the art of espresso coffee-making into the family kitchen. Today, it’s still widely used in Italian homes.

Types Of Coffee In Italy

coffee in Italy

If you order “caffe” in Italy, you’ll get an espresso, the default definition of coffee. However, many other types of coffee are available.

Espresso

The cornerstone of Italian coffee culture, espresso is a concentrated coffee shot brewed under high pressure. It is characterized by its rich flavor, full body, and a layer of golden-brown crema on top.

Cappuccino

Mainly considered a morning beverage, a cappuccino consists of equal parts steamed milk and espresso with milk foam. In Italy, it is never ordered after a meal.

Latte Macchiato

Literally translated as “stained milk,” it is made by pouring steamed milk over an espresso shot, resulting in a layered drink. It is milder and milkier than a cappuccino.

Americano

Scorned by Italian coffee lovers as weak and tasteless, an Americano is made by diluting a shot of espresso with hot water.

Mocha: Combining the flavors of chocolate and coffee, a mocha is made by adding chocolate syrup or powder to a shot of espresso before adding steamed milk and milk foam.

How To Order Coffee In Italy

There’s an accepted ritual in Italy when buying a coffee in a coffee bar, and tourists and other visitors to those bars will meet with friendly service if they follow the same procedure as the locals.

Greeting the barista: As you walk into the bar (what Italians call a café), greet the barista with either “Buongiorno” (good morning or afternoon) or “Buona sera” (good evening), depending on the time of day. They will reply with “Prego, desidera?” (what would you like?)

Choosing your coffee: After the greeting, you need to specify precisely what you would like, so you would reply:

“Un cappuccino, per favore”

“Un caffè, per favore”

“Un caffè americano, per favore”

“Un latte macchiato, per favore”

Paying for your coffee: In most Italian coffee bars, it is accepted practice to pay for your coffee first at the cashier and then give the receipt to the barista. However, in some, you won’t need to pay until after you are done drinking your coffee – not when you order it from the barista.

Drinking your coffee: Head over to the standing bar area once you have your coffee. Sitting at a table typically incurs an additional charge, and you could end up paying 50% more for your coffee. Because Italians typically drink several cups of coffee during the day, they prefer standing to the time-consuming inconvenience of waiting to be seated at a table.

Italian coffee etiquette:

  • It’s customary to drink your coffee quickly while standing at the bar, especially with espresso.
  • As mentioned, it is customary to drink milk-based coffees, such as cappuccinos and lattes, only in the morning. It is considered inappropriate to order a cappuccino after a meal.
  • It’s also common to avoid adding sugar to your coffee, as Italians generally prefer the natural flavors of the espresso.

Italian Coffee Customs And Traditions

coffee in Italy

For most Italians drinking coffee is much more than that – it’s a ritual with its own life-long traditions, learned from previous generations and engrained in their daily lives. These customs include:

Standing at the bar not only because it’s cheaper than sitting at a table, but the preferred way to drink a coffee, allowing interaction with others, either friends or strangers, giving one a chance to meet people while having a quick drink.

Drinking coffee throughout the day is an Italian tradition. In the morning, a cappuccino or latte macchiato is popular, while later in the day, espresso might be preferred. After a meal, a digestif espresso, known as “caffè corretto,” may be enjoyed with a small amount of liquor.

Coffee and food pairing is something Italians are masters of.

  • In the morning, breakfast at the bar may consist of a cappuccino with a cornetto filled with jam or cream.
  • A midmorning coffee break with an espresso and an almond biscotti
  • At lunch, a typical Italian pairing of coffee from the moka pot with cheese focaccia or rich espresso and a flaky croissant.
  • A mid-afternoon pick-me-up, a pairing of hazelnut espresso paired with a creamy gelato

These are just a few hints of coffee and food pairings that are typical of what Italians enjoy. Still, the possibilities are endless, limited only by your imagination!

Three Italian Coffee Brands

Three Italian brands of coffee which are widely known worldwide are:

Lavazza

This brand has been producing quality coffee since 1895. It is known for its 100% Arabica as well as its blend of Arabica and high-quality Indonesian Robusta beans. Lavazza Black is the Arabica dark roast, available in ground coffee, beans, pods, and capsules, while Lavazza Gold is the blend, medium roasted and with a milder flavor.

Lavazza Blue is a system of one-cup capsules and machines specifically designed for office use.

Illy

Illy is known for its high-quality coffees, noted for their sweet, velvety flavors, which make Illy a favorite blend, particularly in Northern Italy, where these properties are preferred. Illy coffees come from 100% Arabica beans bought in most cases not from a distributor but directly from coffee growers across four continents, producing nine different varieties.

Uniquely, Illy markets its coffee globally in silver and red pressurized, oxygen-free cans and operates a network of cafes on shopping streets, museums, and airports.

Segafredo

Founded in 1973, the youngest of the three leading brands, Segafredo is a popular Italian coffee brand known for its traditional Italian espresso. They offer a selection of blends, coffee machines, and coffee-related products. Outside of Italy, this brand ranks among the top three global coffee brands. 

While Segafredo coffees are targeted mainly at the supermarket coffee buyer, they produce an excellent range of consistently high quality and offer coffee lovers exceptional value.

Making Italian Coffee At Home

We’ve been discussing Italian coffee traditions and customs as they are found in coffee shops and bars throughout the country. But many Italians continue their passionate devotion to coffee within their homes. 

Traditional Italian Coffee Makers

The Moka Pot is found in nine out of ten Italian homes, a remarkable statistic. Created by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, the Moka pot became a world-renowned icon thanks to Renato, son of the founder and the “Mr. Coffee” of Italy. A revolutionary replacement for the early espresso makers, over 200 million have sold worldwide at a rate of around five million every year.    

Made of aluminum, the eight-sided Moka pot is a simple stovetop device. Still, it is able to produce an exceptional espresso in only a few minutes. It is available in 2-,4- or 6-cup sizes. Using a similar brewing method, one could also produce coffee at home using an Aeropress or traditional French press. Still, if you want to stick with traditional Italian equipment, the Moka pot is the best.

Espresso Machines producing single-shot espresso have been around for over a hundred years, so they could be considered traditional. However, today’s electronic semi-automatic espresso machines are a far cry from even those of the 1960s. Many Italian homes now have espresso machines, producing exceptionally rich, well-rounded cups of coffee.

Tips For Making Authentic Italian Coffee At Home

There’s the machine, the right coffee grounds, and then there’s the human element – all of these are elements of success in brewing a great cup of coffee at home. Making authentic Italian coffee needs that additional Italian passion.

  • Choose your beans carefully. Taste is purely subjective, with no rights or wrongs, so your choice of flavors is a personal one. However, make sure the beans are freshly roasted (check the packaging or ask the roaster), ideally not more than three weeks before being used.
  • Grinding the beans should be done immediately before use as they will begin to lose aroma and taste as soon as they are ground. For espresso using the Moka pot, it’s recommended that you use a medium-to-fine grind and a slightly finer grind for an espresso machine.
  • Because the brewing time is so short with an espresso machine or a Moka, learn how much to tamp down the grounds so that the water flows through at the correct rate to give a flavorful coffee without any bitterness.

Conclusion

Like the coffee itself, Italian coffee culture is a rich blend of tradition and modern lifestyle patterns. From the early coffee houses of Venice to today’s coffee bars, coffee has played a role in the daily lives of Italians. By understanding and sharing the customs, and the daily rituals of Italian coffee lovers, you can be part of the fascinating Italian coffee experience.

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