Italian Coffee Redux – Part 3

posted in: musings, Travel | 0

If you’re looking for Part 1 of this story, follow this link! Part 1 mainly covers moka pot coffee as it’s made at home, which is how you’d probably do it if you were living in Italy and not going to the bar for a quick espresso. But, at €1 (about $1.29 as of this writing 9/2014) give or take 10 Euro cents, there’s little motivation to not simply do a little neighborhood socializing by getting your caffé or whatever at your local bar, which are everywhere and serve it up fast if you’re on the go. Part 2 can be found here, and I discuss some of the oddities of the Italian coffee experience.

So let’s talk about how to order coffee in an Italian coffee bar as well as how the drinks themselves were. The drinks are traditional and, like I’ve said over and over again, extremely consistent. Beans tend to be roasted on the dark side and most bars and restaurants get their beans from a couple of suppliers, so there is a great chance that in a neighborhood of, say, 20 bars and restaurants that have espresso machines, all of them are using the same beans and probably the same equipment to brew from. I like traditional Italian espresso (called caffé) with sugar. I never add sugar at home, but on vacation it was my norm. One packet, stirred for 30 seconds or so, then down the hatch and out the door! Macchiati and cappuccini get some inherent sweetness from the milk, but it never hurts to toss in a packet of sugar with those, either. From Rome to Venice, whether I was in a high-traffic tourist area, a small, empty side street, packed into a place with 100 other people or all alone, morning, afternoon or night, and even at the airport, every single caffé, macchiato and cappuccino I had was identical. Not much bean character, nothing to ponder over, just good, solid coffee. Now onto the ordering process, which can REALLY be a process…

In “the old days” when I lived in Italy 1987-1993 there was a definite protocol that is still upheld at the larger establishments, but in smaller places it makes a little more intuitive sense about how to actually get your coffee. I hit at least 15 bars in Italy while I was there and I’d say I had to do this “old school” method about 40% of the time.

Intuition says you just walk into the bar, approach the counter and order your coffee, but it often doesn’t work that way. Before you even enter the bar, you have to determine if you are planning on standing or sitting. This is an extremely important decision to make because the price of the products is going to vary based on this. If you stand at the counter, you’ll pay around €1 for espresso and probably not more than €1.50 for macchiato (which is usually the same price as espresso, I found) or cappuccino. And it’s a BIG no-no to order at the counter price and then take an “open” table. All sorts of chaos will ensue and everyone will be very unhappy. In normal places there is a small upcharge for sitting, but in a place like St. Mark’s Square in Venice, your drink may 20x in price by the time all is said and done if you take a table. The assumption is that you are going to stand, and I recommend this as it’s part of the experience. But if you are planning on sitting, make sure you specify this. As it’s always tourists who make the mistake of paying counter prices and expecting a table (how would you know if no one tells you or you don’t make the mistake of doing it once?) you will sometimes be asked if you plan on sitting or standing . Just make sure you do what you say you’ll do.

The first thing when you enter the bar is to scan the place and see if there is a little cash register with a person sitting behind it. If there is, this is the first person to see. In this type of place, which like I said tends to be the bigger or busier places these days, you order at the cash register, pay, then get a little receipt. Oh, and also don’t expect to see a list of options, prices, etc. As I said in Parts 1 and 2, the Italian coffee industry is tightly regulated and, unless you are being ripped off at a place like Caffé Florian in Venice (time for another post), you can expect to pay about €1 for an espresso at the counter. I paid anywhere from €0.90 to €1.20.

Once you have your receipt, then it’s time to approach the bar. As is true of pretty much everything that requires a line in Italy, don’t expect to find one. No one is being rude, no one is treating you poorly because you are a visitor, it just simply isn’t done that way whether you’re ordering coffee, driving, waiting in line at a government office or to mail a letter, or whatever. Lines do not exist in the Italian mindset and I think it’s charming, although it can get old when you need to get things done, too! So, don’t expect an orderly line, but also don’t be pushy. Muscle up to the bar, have your receipt in hand, make eye contact with the person behind the bar and you’ll get set up. If you are too timid you’ll be waiting until the next week before anybody notices you are there.

For bonus points, keep in mind espresso = “un caffé” in Italy, although I did notice the one place I saw people actually getting to-go cups was the Illy bar at Fiumicino airport, and when I ordered “un caffé” I was specifically asked, “espresso o Americano?” But otherwise, this “confusion” didn’t exist anyplace else.

In the smaller bars or at off times where the register person may not need to be there, you can simply approach the bar, ask for your drink and they’ll serve it. I usually put my €1 on the bar, too, and they’ll take it, produce change and a receipt or they’ll ask for the correct amount if that’s what’s needed (or, if you’re at Caffé Florian in Venice, they’ll sweep all your money up and give you a snotty “you’re welcome” but more on that in another story). If you don’t pay right away, they may produce a receipt and hand it to you at some point, but often times they won’t even do that and when you’re ready to leave you’ll need to ask how much you owe and pay then. Unless you’re in a dreadful tourist trap, once you have a table or a little counter space occupied it’s basically yours for life until you tell them you’re ready to leave, so if you just stand there waiting you will probably die standing up. So, if you’ve had your coffee and you haven’t paid yet, don’t be surprised if you have to ask to pay! Again, it’s one of the nice things about the culture, if you ask me.

Bar culture in Italy is pretty cool, if you ask me, and while it’s a little chaotic and you aren’t going to have your life changed by anything you are served, it’s an important part of Italian life and it’s something to be experienced multiple times per day if you can handle the caffeine. Not surprisingly, when you’re on the go all day and walking 6-10 miles per day touring, you’ll probably sleep like a baby even if you have 3-5 coffees per day like I was! Arrivederci!