A Coffee Please…the Italian Way

Un cafè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

Un caffè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

God, I love coffee, and Italy is paradise for me in this regard. On one hand, I pass up (most of the time) pizza, bread and pasta, because I am one of those crazy low-carb critters (it really works for me). If I passed up the incredible coffee here also…well, that just wouldn’t be right.

Having just returned from a brief trip to the States, and after having to depend on Starbucks for my daily “fixes”, I’m delighted to be back in coffee-Utopia. I had brunch at a great bakery while visiting South Carolina. The food was exceptional but I found the “American” coffee so foul that I was shocked something so awful would be served and consumed without a mass protest. How people could drink that stuff without wincing was beyond me.

You’re thinking I’m some kind of stuck-up coffee snob now, right? Think what you may, but the Italians have trained me to appreciate REALLY good coffee. And you can find it almost anywhere in Italy. My dear friend Arun, who has also spent ample time in Italy, and I often remark about the exceptional quality of a coffee or cappuccino at the Auto Grill – a chain of auto and truck stops all over Italy. Stop by most truck stops and service stations in the States and you’ll usually get something that will perk you up, but it won’t make your taste buds sing. Stop by an Auto Grill for a coffee and your ire will surge realizing you’ve been cheated with most of the offerings back home.

People often quote “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” For me, this goes for coffee as well.

When I am in more tourist-oriented establishments in Rome and I order “un caffè” I am sometimes asked if I want an American coffee. This is one of those things that gets under my skin. I respond with a raised eyebrow, and a “No, normale, per favore.” – “No, a normal coffee, please.” For Italians, a normal coffee is espresso. You can order it “lungo” (long). Think double the amount of liquid, but no way near an American coffee.

A regular site you see in the States is absent in Italy – people carrying travel mugs or “take away” coffee. It’s part of the Italian culture to stand at the bar to have a coffee and converse with friends or the people there. Sure, there are plenty of places where you can go, sit down, and order a cappuccino, while hunkering down with your computer and wi-fi – like you can at Starbucks. But, the experience isn’t mass produced or marketed.

All of that aside, I’d like to share a few important coffee do’s and don’ts. In the end, you should DO what you want, but I’m here to tell you it will have an impact on how Italians view you.

A cappuccino is fine in the morning, and accompanied by a pastry. Don’t think about having something with meat and cheese while drinking a cappuccino. And, refrain if you can, from ordering a cappuccino after a meal. This insults the Italian sensibilities when it comes to food. The milk in the cappuccino is thought to be at odds with your digestion. On the other hand, a caffè corretto (literally a coffee “corrected” with something like grappa or sambuca) is considered a proper digestive. I love it, even though it’s like taking an upper and a downer simultaneously.

People in many Italian restaurants are not surprised when foreigners order a cappuccino after a meal. However, I can discern faint disdain and amusement for such a unenlightened culinary decision. It’s hard to mask their incredulity.

If you want to tattoo “foreigner” on your forehead, go ahead and order a cappuccino after lunch or dinner. If you insist on having milk in your coffee, order a macchiato caldo or freddo, and you’ll be viewed in more favorable light. This is espresso with a light shot of frothed or cold milk.

In Southern Italy if you’re ordering “un caffè”, often you’ll be given a glass of sparkling water. This is to cleanse the palette so that you truly can appreciate the flavor of the coffee.

In the end, life is about doing what makes you happy, so if a cappuccino makes you happy after lunch, order it. But, you might consider delving into the Italian way and see how it fits. You might find you like it. And, you won’t stand out so blatantly as a foreigner.

One last parting suggestion. When having a coffee at a bar, don’t leave a tip. It isn’t expected, especially for a coffee. People work on a full salary here – meaning they don’t make their living on tips. I’ll write about tipping in another post.