Italian Coffee Culture
By Calli Brazerol
The typical Italian day is defined by the ritual of coffee. The morning may begin with an order of un cappuccino (or two), un caffe macchiato with lunch, and un espresso after dinner. Italians save milky beverages for the morning, and are never ordered after an evening meal. The contemporary habits of Italian coffee culture date back to the origins of coffee itself during the late 15th century Ethiopia. The earliest evidence of the coffee tree and coffee consumption originated in Ethiopia in the Sulfi monasteries of Yemen. Coffee exports began to spread to Mecca, Cairo, and to the regions such as the Middle East, South India, Persia, Turkey, and Northern Africa leading up to the 16th century. Arabs saw the coffee beans being cultivated in Ethiopia as a large trading beneficiary. Arab traders brought coffee beans to Northern Africa for mass cultivation. During the 16th century, “the Wine of Arabia” reached Italy, the Balkans, Southeast Asia, and the Americas despite the bans imposed by the Catholic Church in Mecca and Cairo. Coffee reached through the city of Venice by commercial Medditerranian sea routes starting from the Middle East. Venice became a flourishing trade center for coffee between the Arab and Italian people. In 1683, the first coffee shop opened in Venice and shops like this one became synonymous with social gatherings, intellectual conversations, romance, and the sophistication of the coffee shop experience.
Although coffee did not originate in Italy, coffee culture, very much did. The location, type of drink, and etiquette in an Italian coffee bar is unique along with the price of the order. In Italy, ordering a coffee at the bar versus sitting at a table can cost up to four times as much for the same drink. Location matters too. Like gelato shops, an espresso in a tourist filled piazza will cost more than a neighborhood cafe. Most Italians will drink at the bar in ritual before work or other errands. Many bars will give a receipt after payment and this is given to the baristas to ensure the correct order is made. Italy is proud to have the reputation of being the coffee capital of the world, and Italians despise watery, black American coffee. True Italian coffee most often uses Arabica variety beans for their robust flavor and low caffeine. However, robusta varieties are used for stronger, caffeine rich espressos. The invention of espresso is thanks to Milanese inventor, Luigi Bezzara, who invented a method in which pressurized water is forced through a handful of coffee powder to produce a short, concentrated coffee product. This drink had to be made expressly for the customer and water was espressed through the coffee, hence the espresso was born in 1901. This invention at the turn of the century was regarded as inventive and futuristic and espresso-machines quickly made their way into Italian and American style coffee bars. Barmen would make these drinks, until the reign of Mussolini, in which their name was changed to Baristia. Unlike Italy, American style coffee shops are filled with variety, customizability, and a very different menu that differs from Italian cafes. As a result, more complex coffees take more time to make. In New York, it takes three minutes for the average espresso to be made. In Italy, the customer would have already had their foot out the door and be on the way with their day as the average espresso takes merely thirty seconds to make with a few rehearsed gestures from the barista. American coffee shops will ask customers for multiple add ons and choices. For many Americans, the beloved pumpkin spice latte will not be found in an Italian cafe. Americans must be wary of ordering a latte in Italy as well, because one will simply be served a glass of milk.
Like any typical college student, coffee in America was a part of my daily ritual. Before class and late nights in the library made caffeine a basic need, especially during exams and finals week. Knowing my dependence on the wonderful beverage, cafe culture and the espresso experience were going to be memorable cultural moments coming to Italy. By the end of the program, I was able to dip my toes in Italian coffee culture, and visit cafes in the heart of Rome and Trastevere, from hidden neighborhood gems to famous staples of the eternal city. The most memorable cafe I visited was Bar Baffo, a small cafe just steps away from our apartment building. Jet lag was especially trying that morning, and the espresso was calling my name. In my experience, walking into a cafe makes the start to your day just a little happier. The atmosphere is upbeat from the dancing baristas and machines. The morning sun shone through the windows to illuminate the tiny espresso cups lined along the back of the bar. A barista spun around to take my order after a few quick lifts and locks of the espresso machine and greeted me with a smile. My favorite Italian coffee order, Shakerato, is a shaken espresso made with ice. Italian coffee bars are all about efficiency; my order was quickly taken and made, and before I could blink, I was standing in front of my order at the bar. Drinks taken at the bar are made to be finished quickly and on the go. After taking my last sip, I left the dishes where they were placed and was on my way to class within five minutes. The next cafe I visited was the famous Antico Cafe Grecco, Rome’s oldest coffee bar. Located on one of Rome’s most exclusive streets, this cafe has neighbors like Dior, Giorgio Armani, and Louis Vuitton. The interior is lined with red velvet, gorgeous oil paintings, and gilt mirrors. The baristas are in formal dress complete with bow ties and polished shoes. When I walked in, elegance and romance was in the air. Since this establishment opened in 1760, it has had intellectuals, artists, and celebrities visit since its opening. The coffee is served in cups with Antico Cafe Grecco signed on the inside, and they are as elegant as the space inside. As magical as my experience was in this cafe, it is located in one of the main tourist piazzas in Rome, right near large designer shops and the Spanish Steps. As a result, it was crowded and busy and although I would visit again in a heartbeat, I would make sure it was during a much quieter time of day.
Overall, my interest in coffee and other cultures has turned into a love and appreciation for the process and culture of Italian coffee. The experience I had with cafes during my time in Italy were special because I was able to dive into a deeply rooted and rich culture that many Italians take part in daily, all in the place where coffee began.
About the Author
Calli Brazerol is a junior studying Biological Sciences at Colorado State University. In her free time she enjoys exploring the outdoors, playing guitar, skiing, and spending time with her dog, Nikki. She stays busy being an officer for the CSU IHSA Equestrian Team and assisting with research in the CSU Biology Department. She had an unforgettable time spending her summer in Rome and hopes to return to Europe in the near future to make some more amazing memories!