The very first time I was in Italy I made a critical error, one that repulsed the shop keeper for reasons I didn’t understand.
I ordered a latte at 3pm in the afternoon.
I could tell by the furrowed brow and constant muttering after my request I’d made an error. After repeating it back to me many times over, in varying pitches and intonations, I eventually was given a small cup. I took a sip and understood: I wasn’t drinking a latte how it would be in North America. I was drinking warm milk. I would later learn I had to ask for a Caffè Latte, but couldn’t understand the shop keepers disgust. After a few trips to Italy and my introduction to many wonderful Italian people, I finally learned that in Italy there are some unspoken rules about drinking coffee.
To drink coffee like an Italian, especially when in Italy, one must follow the unwritten rules of Italian coffee consumption.
1. Milk and coffee in combination is a morning drink.
This means ordering a cappuccino at 4pm is met with some confusion and occasionally distain. Italians keep their milk and coffee beverages (including the cappuccino, caffè latte, caffè macchiato)for consumption before 11am. Most major cities in Italy come to expect that visitors may request a latte and not mean a glass of milk. If you choose this drink, make sure to add the “Caffè” portion to the Caffè Latte, and if you order it after 11am, perhaps a big smile would help too.
2. Drink it standing.
Italians consider it puzzling behaviour when people sit to drink coffee. This is why most Cafes (coffee shops) have a long, tall bar by the coffee machines. Walk up to the bar with confidence and order, and enjoy your coffee drink standing.
3. Drink first, pay later.
After you walk up to the Cafe bar confidently and give your order, expect the bar keep to make the drink immediately and pass it to you over the counter. You stand, drink, and pay at the end. You can simply say, “il conto per favore” (the bill, please). You probably don’t even have to do this, an empty coffee cup and a walk to the cash register mean you’re ready to go.
4. Espresso, what? Try un caffè.
A little language goes a long way for the Italians. It’s not ‘expresso’ or ‘espresso’, it’s simply ‘un caffè’. This will give you a single, delicious shot of espresso, often accompanied with a small packet of sugar on the side.
5. Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot.
You could call this, “slow and steady wins the race”. Unlike North Americans, who drink their coffee in 12 oz, 16 oz and 20 oz cups, Italians tend to drink it one shot (or un caffè) at a time. It’s not uncommon for Italian to have between five and ten shots in a day, but they tend to have only one at a time. For a real punch, try a caffè corretto, an espresso shot with a splash of liquor.
After all, when in Rome…