Coffee in Italy


For all that Italy is seen as being synonymous with good coffee, it is a surprise to learn that Italians actually don't drink very much of it. Many may have a cup of milky coffee at breakfast and another later in the day and often that's it. Among the world's top coffee drinking nations, they rank 18th, consuming 5.9 kilograms per capita (twice that of Australia) but quite low compared to Finland in No 1 spot with 12 kilograms.

However, Italians are passionate about what they do consume. It must be served at the right temperature, tiepido, please, making it drinkable immediately, and have an excellent golden silky crema on top to give the colour and flavour - and aroma - they want, and which the all know and believe to be the best in the world. 

tazza_doroThis unassuming cafe is said to serve the best coffee in Rome.

In Italy, you won't see the locals sitting around nattering over a big cup of coffee with a magazine, though. The tourists do that, and pay up to four times as much, or more, for the privilege of doing so. Italians like to front the bar, have their coffee delivered in a flurry of movement, then toss it down, often in a couple of gulps if it is a tiny espresso, and be on their way again.


Coffee arrived in Venice from Constantinople in l560, around six centuries after it is thought to have been discovered in Ethiopia by a young Abyssinian goatherd. But Europe was still wary of it. Initially the Roman Catholic church banned it, dubbing it 'the wine of Islam'. This might have slowed its progress except it instantly became more accepted after 1600 when Pope Clement VIII is said to have declared: "This devil's drink is so good... we should cheat him by baptizing it!"


In 1640, the Italian peninsula's first coffee shop opened in Venice, serving thick Turkish coffee - at that time the only known way of preparing it. Soon there were many more canal-side cafes, and from there the trend spread to other major cities. Caffe Florian, still operating today on Piazza San Marco, began in 1720. Antico Caffé Greco, still creating fragrant coffees near Rome's Spanish Steps opened in 1760 and soon became an elegant meeting sport for many notable artists, musicians and writers.

Coffee shops in Turin and Milan followed the example of grand salons in Vienna and other European cities and soon became the meeting spots for visionaries and radicals, and later, by some, the suspected hotbeds of political unrest. 

Not far from that first coffee house, one of Italy's finest coffees, exported to many countries, has its headquarters in Trieste. Illy caffé was founded by Francesco Illy, and his family in 1933 and two years later he invented the first automatic coffee machine.

Lavazza coffee began even earlier, in the 1900's, on the other side of the country, in Turin, when Luigi Lavazza first invented the concept of blending coffee beans from different origins. This company too has grown into one which exports widely. Surprisingly the first roasting company in Italy opened almost at the same time, in 1905, when Alfredo Danesi began his grocery and a coffee tasting cafe in downtown Rome.


Italian cafes have their own code of service. Coffee is always served in thick china cups to keep the heat and flavour just right. It may be served pre-sugared by the barista, so those who don't want this should say so when ordering. Milky coffees such as cappuccini are fine at breakfast, even until mid-morning, but after that you will not be taken seriously as a coffee drinker if you order one.


Even the simple act of ordering in an Italian café can cause confusion. The usual practice is to join the queue at the cash register to pay for the coffee (and whatever else you are having) then move to the other queue at the coffee machine, with the ticket or receipt you have been given, to order the coffee itself. While it seems a counter-productive system, it does means the barista can concentrate on making that perfect cup of coffee for you, without having to make change and lose that all-important rhythm.

The range of options available may seem confusing at first to newcomers. The ones everybody recognises are caffé espresso - short, black, one shot, in a tiny cup, served at any time of day, caffé decaffeinato, decaffeinated, and caffé latte and cappuccino, milk coffees only meant to be consumed at breakfast. Caffé macchiato, a coffee just 'marked' with milk, and its counterpart latte macchiato, milk stained with coffee, are usually on offer, as is caffé americano caffé lungo and caffé doppio, all basically long black coffees, and not usually favoured by the locals.

Macchiatone is not so common. It is a hybrid style with more milk than a macchiato, less than a cappuccino. Some say that a caffé ristretto separates the truly serious coffee-drinkers from the rest. This super tiny, very concentrated coffee is the very first intense burst of liquid from the machine with an amazing flavour. 

After meals, it is customary to offer caffé corretto, coffee with a dash of some sort of liqueur in it, or an affogato (literally 'drowned') in which a scoop of ice cream is topped with an espresso shot, almost turning it into a dessert. 

It is little surprise that the best espresso machines used worldwide often have Made in Italy stamped on them. Yet, while almost without exception these are used in cafes in Italy, in the home, many people use a stovetop caffettiera, a small and quite effective device which forces boiling water through coffee grounds into the jug on top.

In the hotter southern regions of Italy, iced coffee (caffé freddo) and granita di caffé, coffee-flavoured shaved ice is a popular cooler at any time of day but particularly at breakfast, and of course coffee is used to flavour desserts (think, tiramisu) cakes and liqueurs throughout the country. 

Coffee has had such a major impact on Italy, and been so good for its economy, doesn't it seem perfectly right that the good Pope so many years ago gave it his blessing?

 - Sally Hammond


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