A cup of coffee in Italy (revisited)

If you live for your morning cup of coffee (like I do), you definitely want to read and memorize this post about coffee in Italy. In a previous post, I described the cultural divergence between Italy and the United States when it comes to coffee. Starbucks coffee culture doesn’t really exist in Italy. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find Italians with their paper/foam cups milling around the streets for a coffee. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but I think in Rome you’re more likely to see Italians having a quick cup at the counter and then rushing off to their jobs or other morning business.

So here are some coffee pointers to remember:

  1. In Italy, you pay for your coffee first and then you relay your order to the barman behind the counter. Don’t rely on the cashier to tell the barman what you want — it will too busy for him/her to do that and plus, it just isn’t done in Italy — the cashier’s job is to collect the money and that’s it! Also, in larger places, you’ll find that the cashier and the barman are not within speaking distance.

    Make sure you watch and see how the coffee is ordered. If the place is slow, and you can’t figure out what to do, simply do your best to ask. Again, don’t be worried about the language barrier — when it comes to money, the barrier doesn’t exist.

    This is the most common way it is done. When you enter the bar, you’ll see the person sitting at the cash register (la cassa). This is where you order what you want — caffe (in Italy, a caffe is simply a shot of espresso), cappuccino (not after 11am), caffe americano, etc.

  2. If there are tables, you can either sit down and wait for a waiter or waitress to come by. If you do this method, you’ll pay more, sometimes twice what you would pay if you ordered from the bar yourself. I’ve been to places in Rome with friends who have ordered from the bar and then sat at a table, thus avoiding the markup.

    If the cafe has tables but no waitstaff, you’ll have no choice but to pay, order from the bar, and collect your coffee and croissant (or whatever other pastry you may have ordered) and take it to the table.

  3. After you’ve paid, TAKE YOUR RECEIPT. You’ll need to do this because 1) it’s the law 2) you need to show the barman that you paid. Once you reach the counter, place a coin (not a euro but a 10, 20 or 50 cent) on top of the receipt to get his attention (see, money does make the world go ’round). I’ve seen people get cups of coffee without the coin, but you’ll get faster service if you do, especially if it is busy. You’ll probably even faster service if you put down 1 euro by mistake – you may annoy your fellow patrons, but when it comes to your morning caffeine, don’t be passive! ;)

    The barman will ask you what you want, probably in Italian. He’s not going to be making small talk so you don’t have to wonder what he is saying — he’ll probably be saying hello and what do you want. He’ll be too busy to engaged in idle small talk. Just tell him in a few words what you want. Don’t spend hours trying to form a proper sentence. That will probably just annoy him/her making the coffee. A simple ‘Un caffe, per favore‘. If you want two, say ‘Due caffe, per favore‘. Simply ask for what you want as best you can and then tack on a ‘per favore‘ (please)

  4. In the morning, it’s going to be busy. Everyone will be pushing up to the bar to get the barman’s attention. If there’s a large number of you, I suggest that you elect someone (preferably the tallest and the person with the loudest voice — hopefully they are the same person) to get the barman’s attention. Once you get to the counter, hold your ground. Don’t be rude. If someone preempts you, simply wait for the barman to get to you. He/she will get to you eventually — they’re pretty dutiful. Again, having the coin helps a lot too.
  5. If you take your coffee at the bar, it’s not going to be take-away unless you specifically ask for it. It’ll come in a small demitasse cup – like you normally would expect espresso to be served in. Add your sugar or a little milk if you’d like, and then drink it. If you’re gotten something more than an espresso, just stand by the counter and sip your coffee. If there are table and chairs to sit down at, you might want to pull yourself away from the commotion of the bar. If not, don’t rush. No one is going to tell you to drink your coffee faster. Try to make your way to the side of the bar counter opposite where the barman is after you’ve been served. This will take you away from the onslaught of patrons looking to get their coffee.

    When you’re finished, leave the cup and saucer there. Don’t go looking for a place to put it. The barman will take it off the counter quickly to make room for the dozens of other cups and saucers that will find their way to the counter.

  6. I get asked a lot about the different kinds of coffee one can order in Italy. I was going to do this immense post, but a few weeks ago I ran into this post. This wonderful post with photos and thorough explanations will give you a good idea of the various kinds of coffee that one can order in Italy. I figured that this person did such a great job (and they also have photos that I don’t) that why repeat their work.

If you’re not a coffee drinker, it’s still a sight to see the barmen working hard to serve all the patrons as well as observe what seems to be an intense chaos as patrons push and shove for their morning jolt of caffeine. Strangely enough, the chaos works.

I know that I used the word barmen a lot — there are female barristas/barwomen too. Please don’t think that I intended to be sexist. For brevity, I just simply typed the word barmen. Both men and women are both adept at making coffee and working the counters in Rome and in Italy.