Like food, coffee is sacred in Italy, with a coffee culture like no other in the world. The day begins and ends with coffee, but there is an order, ritual and rules to be followed.
Coffee first arrived in Venice from the Middle East around the 16th century with exclusive cafés opening up in the city, and the trend eventually spread to the rest of Italy. Cafés were opening up in every city and some of the original ones are still around today, like the famous Caffè al Bicerin in Turin or Gambrinus in Naples or Florian in Venice. But you don’t have to go to the elegant establishments to enjoy this daily Italian ritual; wherever you are in Italy, you will find a friendly neighbourhood café where you can enjoy good, traditional Italian coffee and watch the locals do what they enjoy best!
Coffee in Italy is usually espresso, ristretto, corretto, macchiato or cappuccino. An espresso, simply known as un caffè (a coffee) is acceptable at any time of day, but not with a meal unless it’s breakfast, which could be accompanied by a croissant or sweet pastry. Some prefer macchiato, a shot of espresso with a dash of frothy milk. It is rare for Italians to ask for a double espresso; we like our coffee, but steadily throughout the day and not in a large cupful! Order a cappuccino after 11am or with a meal and don’t be surprised if your waiter gives you odd looks or even refuses to serve you! A milky coffee or cappuccino is only served at breakfast or as a mid-morning pick-me-up.
Even children are introduced to coffee at an early age. My typical breakfast as a child was a shot of weak coffee with the addition of lots of warm milk. It was served in a bowl and I would dip in biscuits or pieces of bread. It is still popular for children today and is called caffè latte. If you ask for a latte in Italy, you will be given a glass of milk.
A ristretto is a stronger espresso made with less water, and a corretto is an espresso with a shot of grappa or other local strong liqueur, often enjoyed as an after-dinner digestion aid or drunk by labourers and market traders first thing in the morning for warmth and energy!
You can get a caffè lungo or Americano, which is an espresso served with hot water, if you prefer a weaker coffee. You can also ask for a decaffeinato which is decaf. There is also caffè freddo, served cold, or granita di caffè, iced coffee popular during the summer.
Espresso is normally always drunk after lunch or dinner in restaurants and at home. In my house, the espresso pot is always to hand. Because I’m the only one who normally drinks coffee, I make a large pot in the morning and this usually lasts me the day.
The coffee pots themselves are important and something I had to bring with me when I left Italy many years ago. Over the years, as coffee culture has hit England, the traditional aluminium stove-top coffee pots originally made by Bialetti are now easily obtainable. I like my Neapolitan coffee pot, a strange but simple contraption which baffles everyone – basically when the water starts to bubble, you turn the pot upside down and wait 5 minutes before pouring a perfect cup of espresso.
Just like in England, where you meet friends for a drink, in Italy you meet for un caffè. Often coffee is drunk standing al banco, at the bar, especially during the morning rush hour as office workers pile in for a quick shot before heading off to work. It’s rare for coffee in Italy to be taken away, as it should be drunk immediately, quickly, and should be hot and in a ceramic cup.
Most cafés throughout Italy serve good quality coffee. My favourite brand is Kimbo. Making good coffee is an art – the barista is well trained, the machines well looked after, the coffee a good quality, and the result a rich, creamy, perfectly balanced espresso. When I go to Italy, the first thing I do is head to the bar at the airport arrivals and enjoy a shot of good Italian espresso. Even though we have excellent coffee and cafés in England now, there is something about an espresso at a bar in Italy – perhaps it’s the water, the chat with the barista, the buzz of the café or perhaps I’m just sentimental!