Italy and coffee are synonymous—so much so that Italy is often mistakenly credited with the discovery of this now-ubiquitous delight.
Coffee was first cultivated and consumed in the Middle East, not reaching Europe until the 17th century, but Italians were quick to embrace this elevating new beverage. With the invention of the espresso machine in the late 1800s and its eventual perfection, they became leaders in coffee culture.
The Italians were swift to democratize the enjoyment of coffee—a value still held dearly—and believe it should be available to all, which means you can still find an espresso for less than a euro in Italy to this day. Whether or not you’ll actually enjoy that espresso probably depends on where you come from.
History of Italian coffee culture
When coffee first arrived in Venice in the 1700s it was considered a luxury item. Coffee houses quickly sprung up along the canals, and shortly thereafter in Verona, Milan, and Turin, but this tantalizing new elixir remained only in the grasp of the elite. Once coffee plantations took hold in the European colonies of Asia and South America, however, imports increased and the price of coffee beans dropped dramatically, making it more accessible to all.
Coffeehouses spread throughout Italy and became hotbeds of social and cultural debate. Coffee literally fueled revolution. Italy was quicker than most other countries to open the caffè doors to the masses. Venice’s Caffè Florian, the first to allow women, was known as a place for all to gather and share the ideas of the day, regardless of their social or political status. The Florian, still open today, is now the oldest operating caffè in the world.
The invention and eventual perfection of the espresso machine would position Italy at the forefront of coffee culture. As coffee’s popularity increased, so did the demand for a quicker brewing process. Until then coffeehouses had been brewing coffee in the Turkish style (for a least five minutes in a pot, with spices), which became cumbersome and inefficient as demand rose.
Enter Angelo Moriondo, a Turin-based inventor who created the first espresso or “pressed out” coffee machine. It used steam pressure to brew large vats of coffee to satisfy the masses, but the machine was large and bulky, and the product of questionable quality. His machine never made it to market, but the idea was adopted and scaled down by Luigi Bezzera in 1901.
Bezzera’s machine was easier to use but the product was wildly inconsistent. Luckily, his friend Desiderio Pavoni helped him perfect his design, adding a pressure-release valve and steam wand for foaming milk. Their machine finally hit the market in 1906 and was the first official “espresso” machine. It has evolved today into models such as the Bezzera Unica.
Although this new brewing style was efficient, the consensus was that the coffee had a burnt taste. It wasn’t until Francesco Illy introduced a machine that utilized pressurized water instead of steam in the 1930s that this new style was truly perfected, giving us the espresso we know today.
Engineer Alfonso Bialetti took this popular new coffee style and combined it with the Italian ideal of coffee for all to create the moka pot in 1933, the first stovetop espresso machine for home use. His simple yet effective design allowed anyone to make a rich, espresso-style coffee from the comfort of their kitchen. The moka pot became so popular that you’ll hardly find an Italian household without one today. It has been replicated and adopted throughout the world. The design hasn’t changed in almost a century, and although there are many knockoffs available, Bialetti is still the most well known and trusted brand.
Current Italian coffee culture
Italian coffee culture remains mired in tradition, and unflinchingly set in its ways. The ideal that coffee is a staple in Italian life and should remain affordable means little has changed. They favour cheap beans, often roasted extremely dark in an attempt to mask their harsher qualities. It is customary to add sugar to espresso in Italy, which further hides imperfections.
You can find a coffee bar to get a decent and extremely affordable espresso pretty much anywhere in Italy. Coffee is part of their cultural fabric, but their reluctance to experiment or break tradition means that artisanal shops hoping to break into the market with higher quality beverages and beans from smaller growers have difficulty getting a foothold. To many Italians, a three- or four-euro cappuccino is sacrilegious and has no place in their culture. Even the larger chain brands have found it difficult to put down roots in Italy, with the first Starbucks not opening until 2018 in Milan.
Italy gave the world espresso, which has driven the explosion of caffè culture around the world. You can’t have a latte, cappuccino, or even a Starbucks caramel macchiato—which is barely a coffee anymore—without espresso. Italy was also first to bring “espresso” into the home market with the moka pot. That device has been surpassed by superior home espresso machines, but it still embodies the Italian virtue of coffee for all. A decent home espresso machine can run anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to upward of several thousand. You can find a classic Bialetti moka pot for around $40.
Italians relish the opportunity to take a break and connect with their community, but unlike in France where they prefer to lounge for hours, Italians favor several quick espressos throughout the day. It is customary to drink your shot of espresso standing at the bar, having a quick chat and then getting on with your day. You will never see an Italian taking coffee to go—in fact, that won’t even be an option at most caffès. Your espresso will typically be served with a small glass of water on the side, with which to cleanse your palate (something I find rather ironic given the harshness of their coffee).
Milky coffees are for the morning—perhaps a cappuccino with breakfast—but rarely ordered after 11 a.m. Beyond breakfast, coffee is almost never taken with food, but many Italians enjoy a coffee after dinner.
If you like a pastry in the morning, you’ll want to seek out a pasticceria rather than a coffee bar. Most bars serve only coffee, and perhaps alcohol later in the day. If you’re a vegan, or someone who requires a dairy alternative, you’ll have to seek out one of the larger chains, which are much harder to come by in Italy than in other European countries.
What to order
You’ll rarely find menus in an Italian coffee bar, but most will offer the usual coffee drinks. A quick shot of espresso remains the most popular option, but you’ll also find some fun regional and seasonal variations. Remember that latte is milk in Italian, so if you order a latte without the addition of caffè before it, you’ll end up with just a glass of milk.
- Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, steamed milk and foam.
- Caffè latte: Espresso with mostly steamed milk, topped with some foam.
- Macchiato: Espresso “marked” (how it gets its name) with a dollop of foam.
- Caffè americano: Espresso with hot water.
- Caffè lungo: An espresso pulled long. Rather than the typical 20-30 second shot, they let it run about twice as long. The result is stronger than an americano, but beware—over-extracting espresso results in a bitter finish, and with Italian coffee already being on the harsh and bitter side I would avoid this one unless that’s what you’re after.
- Caffè corretto: Watch out for this bad boy. It is what the Italians call a “corrected coffee,” and has the addition of a shot of liquor such as Sambuca or grappa.
- Caffè anisette: An anise-flavored espresso found in the northern region around Le Marche.
- Caffè d’un parrinu: If you find yourself in Sicily, try this Arabic-inspired coffee of cinnamon, clove, and a dusting of cocoa.
- Shakerato: Espresso shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker until it’s frosty and frothy.
- Granita di caffè: A blended, sugary beverage usually topped with whip cream. (Quite likely the precursor to the Starbucks Frappuccino).
Italians take their coffee seriously. Whether or not you enjoy their bitter style of espresso, you have to respect their steadfast belief that coffee should be readily available to everyone, regardless of income or social status. You won’t likely find many artisanal shops popping up anytime soon, but you’ll always be able to find an authentic Italian espresso almost anywhere, and it will never break the bank.