In Italy “Let’s have a coffee!” can signify many things: “let’s take a break”, “I need a kick of caffeine”, “I need to speak to you” (this may refer both to important matters of gossip, but always something to deal with in private). Whatever is the meaning intended by the utterer, the customs and traditions around the apparently simple gesture of drinking the dark beverage brewed by hot water through finely ground roasted coffee beans are invariably the same.
Upon entering any Italian bar customers are expected to walk directly to the bar and order their coffee to the bartender, who, at busy times, may acknowledge the request with a simple nod of the head or a brisk eye contact. This is not considered rude, it is the accepted bartenders’ way to keep in mind several orders at the same time, without the need to stop to write them down. Also, generally customers pay their drinks after they enjoyed them and right before walking out the premises, but in some places, e.g. airport bars, the bartender may reply to the order with “Lo scontrino”, meaning that customers are required to pay upfront and show him/her the receipt before having their coffee. Once the coffee is placed on the bar in front of them, most Italians down it in one, maximum tow, goes standing where they are and picking up only the cup while leaving the saucer where the bartender put it. However, in the case of I-need-to-speak-to-you kind of coffee they may sit down at a table; there the actual drinking technique is the same, but they remain seated to talk in front of the empty cups.
Since the single black espresso is the default coffee served in any bar, Italians never, ever, call it espresso; if that is what they want, they simply ask for ‘un caffè’ (a coffee). Moreover, as opposed to what happens in many other countries, the variations on the theme considered acceptable by Italians are very few. First of all ‘cappuccino’ (a ‘caffè’ with the same amount of frothy hot milk), ‘caffè latte’ (same as cappuccino but with no milk foam), ‘latte macchiato’ (hot milk served in a tumbler glass with a dash of coffee) are only ordered during the morning, never after lunchtime. The only variation containing milk that can be ordered throughout the day is the ‘caffé macchiato’, a ‘caffè’ with a dash of hot, or cold, milk.
Other variations are: ‘caffè corretto’ – ‘caffè’ with a dash of grappa (or other liqueur) -, ‘caffè freddo’ – sweetened ‘caffè’ shaked with ice -, and ‘marocchino’ – ‘caffè’ with cocoa powder and milk froth.
Ilona Catani Scarlett