Coffee Culture

Espresso time!

Before I start, I just want to let my Italian readers know that I am not bringing into discussion the quality of Italian coffee. Caffè Italiano is delicious and potent. What I am talking about here is the culture that surrounds coffee in Italy and how its different from the one in the USA. So, no hate mail or angry comments from the Italians, okay? I love my espresso as much as anybody. 🙂

Let’s begin:

Wanna grab a cup of coffee? This is something that you can easily hear all over the USA. What follows is usually two (or more) friends sitting down for a while to a cup of coffee and a piece of cake or a giant muffin or a frosted cookie or some other unhealthy American sweet thing that I am definitely craving in this exact moment,as I write this phrase (doooonuts…). These people chat about their family, jobs, love life, or “catch up”, all over a nice hot cup of American coffee.

Even if you are by yourself, you can walk into any Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, or any slew of local coffee shops and sit down for hours at end. While you sip on your coffee you can read the newspaper, surf the web with free Wi-Fi, wait for the rainstorm to pass, or simply just people watch. The best part is that even if you only buy one cup of coffee, you can still hang out in your American coffee shop for hours and hours without the staff trying to throw you out the door or other customers looking at you weird.

Now, on the other side of the ocean here in Italy, coffee entails, more often than not, an espresso. With an espresso (which Italians usually throw down the hatch like a boiling hot shot) the whole “wanna grab a cup of coffee” experience lasts exactly 12.7 seconds. Let’s look at the following script to help give you a better idea of what I’m talking about:

The scene opens on two smartly dressed Italian friends who meet on a typical Italian sidewalk, littered with vespas and cars parked at improbable angles, covering most of it

Giuseppe: Hey, wanna grab a cup of coffee?

Carla: Sure! Sounds great

They enter into the nearest coffee bar

Giuseppe: One espresso please.

Carla: Same for me!

Two espressos are served in about 5.3 seconds by a barista with a typical, almost comical, Italian moustache

Giuseppe: (stirring sugar into his espresso) How have you been?

Carla: (adding just a drop of milk to her espresso) Good, you?

Giuseppe: (tossing back his espresso) Can’t complain.

Carla: (doing the same) Well, that nice. Ok, good seeing you. Bye-bye!

Both Italians place their empty espresso cups on the bar and walk out


Did you time it? See, 12.7 seconds flat, just like I said!

You’ll also note that neither of the characters in that artfully written script ever sat down during the scene. This is because Italian coffee is had while standing on your feet. The brevity of an Italian coffee break makes it impractical to sit down. You’ll have finished your espresso before you even get the seat pulled out from under the table. And you’ll look pretty foolish going around Italy pulling seats out from under tables for no good reason.

Another interesting point on why Italians will have their coffee on their feet (and take note of this, dear reader, if you have never been to Italy and plan on coming). Coffee costs more if you are sitting at a table. I know I make a lot of sh!t up, but I swear this one is true! It costs more because of the service of having someone actually bring the coffee over to you, instead of just placing it on the bar, and because after you leave, they need to go collect the cups and wipe off the table.

Well, guys, I don’t know what time it is for you, but it’s early here, so I’m gonna go have a coffee. I prefer mine macchiato. The word “macchiato” in Italian means “stained” and this coffee is called that because basically its an espresso with a dollop of frothy steamed milk “staining it” on the top (but no milk poured into the coffee itself, like with a cappuccino). Now, if I could only get a honey-dipped donut to go with that..

Mmmmm.... buono!

***August 30th, 2011 – UPDATE ***

This weekend I found a place in Milan called Arnold Coffee. It is a-maz-ing!! It’s kind of like a Starbucks …. in Italy!!! This is BIG news guys (those Americans living in Italy would totally understand me!) I had an iced caramel macchiato, and it was wonderful! They also have donuts, cheesecake, giant muffins, and free wi-fi! I seriously felt like I was in America for a minute! This changes everything! 🙂


22 thoughts on “Coffee Culture

  1. I am an American coffee culture whore. The idea of sitting down for a couple of hours talking to someone over an American macchiato is perfect to me. While I know Americans get so many things wrong, I believe this is one thing we got right; because we have created an atmosphere where we actually take time to look at people face-to-face and talk to them. While this is very counter-cultural to every other facet of American life I am happy that the coffee shops are allowing it to happen. But, if I’m ever in Italy I’d be happy to spend 12.7 seconds with you over an espresso.

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  3. and they say americans arent relaxed… ive thought about this, i have a couple theories. they dont have american style cafes cuz the punkabestias would steal all the internet bwidth, stay there aaalll day and not buy anything and scare away good customers.2 its all about the espresso. it only takes 12.7 seconds. likeat 2 times of the day. so the rest of the day would be dead … italuans are always on the go cuz theyre late for their next thing!!… but america has created that coffee culture. cuz espresso is terrible in the states!!! then its all double espresso??forcing you to drink too much of something that isnt supposed to be like that. so wonder we createeld the frappuccino. anyways italians scoff at american coffees. itll nevef happen there fuggedaboutit. i gotta go. gotta go meet some friends for a coffee.

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  5. una nota sul servizio che costa di più:
    dipende dalla città e dal bar. Nei bar di periferia è normale bere un caffè e stare un po’ lì a fare due chiacchere e leggere il giornale (nota 2: un sacco di anziani lo fanno OGNI GIORNO. beati loro che hanno tempo)
    se ci si incontra tra amici al bar, non si prende il caffè (non so se hai notato ma prendere il caffè in 12 secondi è una cosa da “persone da ufficio”, che hanno una pausa di 19 secondi in cui devono anche pisciare e fumare la sigaretta).

    • Ciao Silvia! Grazie x i commenti!

      Sui bar di periferia non sono un gran esperto, ma ora lavoro fuori Milano e a me pare uguale… Tranne quei beati anziani! 😉

      E’ vero che gli amici italiani non si incontranno al bar per un caffè. Secondo me e’ perche sanno gia’ che se bevono un caffè italiano, non avranno neanche il tempo di parlare un’attimo!

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  7. hey garrett! have you ever observed that in milan,
    if you do not have the exact 85 cent of euro for the
    espresso and you pay with a 2€ coin or, god forbid,
    a 5€, the barista looks at you like he is going to
    kill you?!?
    This happens only in milan, i swear! i live near como
    and here the people are a bit more relaxed.. apart from when
    we meet people from switzerland that don’t know how to drive.. 🙂 ciao!

    • Ciao Silvia! Yes, I have definitely noticed that. In fact, I will most certainly have a blog post about that very topic of giving change in Italy, sooner or later.

      Also, I wish that a coffee in Milan cost only 85 cents! The average is 90 cents and some place even charge an entire euro! :-O

  8. Well,
    for one thing, the whole “coffee costs more sitting than standing” is not true everywhere in Italy, namely it only applies
    a) in big cities
    b) as a general rule, more in the South than in the North, but rule a) supersedes rule b.
    c) the better the view, the higher the price for the “sitting coffee”.
    Chances are that in Rome you’d pay two different prices (sitting/standing, or rather “al tavolo/al banco”) but if you go for a hike in the Castelli Romani (some 30 kms away from the city) and stop for an espresso (or rather, a “caffè”, though the annoying habit of calling it espresso is taking hold here as well) you won’t pay a different price.
    As a general rule, the places where you won’t pay two different prices are the same place where no-one will object to you sitting here for an extended period of time. Maybe not two hours but half an hour surely. Just ask the bartender in any case.
    I am from Rome but I presently live in Forlì, and I can assure you that when I pointed out to my local friends (but even to friends from other small cities from Veneto, Abruzzo and so on) the two-prices thing they were as surprised as you must have been the first time you heard about it.

    Secondly, macchiato can have real milk inside it just like cappuccino. It all depends on the bar, actually. If you ask for a “macchiato freddo” they usually either hand you over a very small (espresso cup size) jug of cold (room temperature actually) milk and let you add as much as you want or add it themselves.

    Coffee is probably much more of an individual pleasure than a social one. Take two Italians, and they won’t drink espresso the same way: one takes it LUNGO or ALTO, the other BASSO or CORTO (and we’re talking different amount of espresso in the same little cup… and I can assure you it makes a LOT of difference). One adds 1 teaspoon of sugar, one adds 1 and a half, I take it with “uno e un pochettino” (one and a little)… one takes it stronger, one weaker, one likes it burning hot, another lets it cool down a little (that’s me, and even my father hasn’t yet get used to this…)

    As for our being so picky and often nearly xenophobic about different coffees, well, hate mails are unforgivable but please note that a lot of Italian words are used for different types of coffee in places like starbucks so it’s understandable that the fact that some words are used for completely different things may get on someone’s nerves. I’ve drank and eaten things that would make Rambo puke, but the mere concept of caramel getting into a cup of coffee almost made my stomach churn (and I can assure you, that is no small feat) but I have no qualms in adding cinnamon powder, whipped cream or even a small chunk of fresh ricotta to my espresso (the latter is a century-old Rome specialty, definitely worth trying)

    • Ciao Francesco!

      Wow! Your comment was as long as my blog post! 🙂 Thanks for all of the valuable input!

      I have noticed that when you are “in the middle of nowhere” in Italy, they usually don’t charge you more for sitting down for a coffee. My experience is largely city-based, however.

      “I’ve drank and eaten things that would make Rambo puke…” haha! Man, you gotta understand that for as much as I love caramel in my coffee, the idea of ricotta makes my stomach churn! Although, I must admit that I think I would like to at least try it! I mean, I’d be foolish to not take an Italian’s advice on coffee into consideration!

  9. Love this post. I once had a guy buy me a macchiato. It came in the tiniest cups I ever saw. Even as I was wondering how to keep the conversation going, he gulped his in one shot and was ready to leave!

  10. Dear Garrett, since I met you just few hours ago I can’t help leaving a reply 🙂 Personally I agree with you: I am 100% Italian but could never explain why Italian people have coffee standing up. But mind: this habit is typical in larger towns. I was raised in a very small town and I discovered this way of having coffee only when I moved to Milan. Anyway, Italian coffee is something disgusting to me: I don’t like it, which is considered almost like a disease in Italy («Oddio, perché non lo bevi? Ma non ti piace o non lo puoi bere?», and this is followed by me standing next to my colleagues/friends/etc. and watching them in great embarrassment while having their coffee…).

    • Ciao Andrea! It was very nice meeting you!

      I’ve never lived in a small town in Italy, so I only know the big city “on your feet” way.

      Also, I do love coffee, but I too get weird looks from Italians when I tell them that I don’t like stuff like gorgonzola cheese, rucola, or pancetta…

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