Coffee is undeniably synonymous with Italia, so much so that much of the language we use when talking about coffee is, in fact, Italian. However, whilst for many of us coffee plays a central role in most of our days - drawing us out of bed in the morning and fuelling the relentless grind - a lot of us have been doing it all wrong. Sometimes we are so focused on getting that sweet caffeine hit that we lose all of the nuance of the ritual of coffee drinking that lies at the heart of Italian culture. We’ve put together this short guide to outline some of the rules that should be followed if you want to emulate la raffinatezza (the sophistication) that comes so effortlessly to most Italians. Not only will these changes revolutionise the way that you drink coffee, but they will help you to slow down and savour every sip, bringing a little Italianità into your everyday life.
When to drink coffee
We all have those moments where we want to ooze sophistication, and ordering a cappuccino makes you feel like you’ve got your life together, but you’ve got to be careful here. A cappuccino in the morning, with your breakfast, is perfetto, but a cappuccino after 11am is not the done thing in Italy, and will make you the laughing-stock of the locals (trust us, we've been there). Whilst you may be thinking that this seems dramatic, and possibly a little snobbish, there is in fact good reason for this cultural coffee quirk. Cappuccinos are very milky, the ideal accompaniment for a breakfast pasticcino, but if you drink this much milk at a later point in the day then it will sit very heavy in your stomach. The frothy milk of a cappuccino is filling and so it would not be sensible to consume this beverage before or after a main meal; spoiling your appetite is, of course, hugely frowned upon in Italy.
Whilst cappuccinos are strictly confined to the breakfast table, this is not to say that you should not enjoy other sorts of coffee at later intervals. In fact, Italy is one of the few places where caffè - when drunk correctly - is deemed to be appropriate at all hours of the day. For an afternoon pick-me-up you can never go wrong with an espresso and drinking multiple espressos throughout the course of your day would be considered very normal. If you prefer your coffee a little less strong then a caffè macchiato - a shot of espresso with a splash of frothed milk (not to be confused with a latte macchiato, which is mostly milk with just a splash of coffee) - is also a popular daytime drink in Italia.
We understand that these tiny mugs of caffè are not to everyone’s taste and for those who prefer a larger, and slightly less intense, coffee fix there are a couple of options which get the Italian seal of approval. First of all we have the caffè lungo, this type of coffee is an espresso topped up with a generous dash of hot water, diluting the coffee shot just a little. Similar to this, but even more diluted is the caffè americano, which sees an espresso shot considerably watered down. Despite their varying levels of strength, the addition of only water, or occasionally a tiny splash of milk, means that in all of these types of coffee the unadulterated flavour of the caffè can be properly appreciated.
Enjoying coffee after a meal is the ultimate Italian restaurant ritual, though again there are certain choices that would be frowned upon in this scenario. If you truly want to emit an air of sophistication, then chasing your evening meal with an espresso is a safe bet, or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous then a caffè corretto - coffee with a splash of alcohol, often grappa - is another popular choice.
A taste of Italia
In Italy often the best espresso is made from a blend of different varieties of coffee beans, combining different notes of flavour which are then roasted and ground together, to create a divine sensory experience. The quality of the coffee can often be gauged by the crema on the espresso; this is the golden-brown foam that rests atop a perfectly pulled shot of caffè. The freshness of the beans is also paramount and many of the finest baristas will grind fresh coffee beans for each drink they serve, so bear this in mind when making your own coffee at home. Whilst not everyone will have access to a fancy espresso machine, using freshly ground beans rather than instant coffee and preparing it in a cafetiere or percolator can make a whole world of difference.
We know that life is busy, but dedicating a few precious moments to making a proper cup of coffee is time well spent as far as we’re concerned, and Italian coffee rituals stand testament to this. In fact, whilst in the UK we epitomise a culture of takeaway, on-the-go living, in Italia this is far less common. Whether you find yourself in your favourite bar or restaurant for a breakfast cappuccino or a midday caffeine boost, in Italy you would be expected to stand at the bar whilst you finish your drink, savouring the coffee and the moment. As with other Italian traditions which appear, at first, to be centred around food and drink, Italian dedication to good coffee, enjoyed correctly, in fact revolves more around savouring small moments in life. Living in an unhurried manner and making time to share a mid-afternoon espresso with a friend is central to the Italianità.
Whether you are keen to blend in on a trip to Italia or you simply wish to pay homage to the rituals which are so important in Italian culinary culture, following the rules outlined above will be sure to serve you well. And if you do find yourself wandering the beautiful streets of any Italian town, then keep an open mind when it comes to coffee - every region has its own specialties and sampling them can be a lovely way to embrace and immerse yourself in the culture of a place.