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Italian Coffee Culture & History Explained

Why is Italian espresso culture so rich? And how can you drink coffee like a local? Here’s the full story from industrial revolution to today.

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Asser Christensen

Licensed Q Arabica Grader, M.A. Journalism

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Imagine yourself strolling through the charming streets of Rome, taking in the beautiful architecture, the rich history, and the unmistakable aroma of authentic Italian coffee. You may notice an abundance of establishments referred to as “bars,” but don’t be fooled – these are not your typical watering holes.

In Italy, coffee is king, and these bars are the temples where the magic happens.

In this article, we’ll explore the uniqueness of Italian coffee culture, from the etiquette of ordering and drinking to the characteristics of a traditional Italian coffee bar 🇮🇹

Italian Coffee Rules, Customs & Etiquette

When in Italy, you need to do as the Italians do, especially regarding coffee. Here’s a lowdown on the Italian coffee culture – what to expect, how to order, and customs to follow.

  1. Coffee = Espresso: In Italy, when you say coffee, you mean espresso. That’s the Italian default. A latte is understood as a cup of milk. Therefore it’s prudent to memorize Italian coffee names and drink types.
  2. Coffee Schedule: The average Italian tends to have three coffees a day: one at breakfast, one post-lunch, and the last one following dinner.
  3. Morning Cappuccinos: Cappuccinos are a morning affair in Italy. An order past 10 or 11 a.m. is generally frowned upon, unless you’re a foreigner. Pair it with a brioche or cornetto for a classic Italian breakfast.
  4. Milk-Based Drinks: Italians treat milk-based drinks like a meal – filling and satisfying. Consequently, they advise against consuming them after meals for fear of hampering digestion.
  5. After-Meal Espresso: Espresso-style coffees are the go-to post-lunch or dinner. It’s seen as a quick shot of energy after eating.
  6. Caffè Corretto: Italians might add a touch of alcohol to their espresso post-dinner or sometimes lunch. It’s known as a caffè corretto – a drink for those who don’t want to be too alert late in the day.
  7. One-Size Cappuccino: In Italy, cappuccinos don’t come in small, medium, large, or venti. It’s one size for all – a small, perfectly balanced beverage.
  8. Traditional over Trendy: Don’t expect to find trendy beverages like flat whites or Gibraltar’s on the menu. Italians pride themselves on their traditional coffee repertoire.
  9. Ordering Process: Pay attention to the local norm at each cafĂ©. Some require upfront payment at the register before ordering, while others accept payment after you’ve enjoyed your drink.
  10. Italian Americano: An Italian caffè americano is not your typical americano. You get an espresso shot and a small pitcher of hot water separately so that you can adjust the dilution to your taste.
  11. Pricing: If you sit down and enjoy your coffee, be prepared for a slightly higher bill, especially in larger cities or popular tourist destinations.
  12. Takeaway Coffee: The concept of to-go coffee is relatively new in Italy, becoming more prevalent only post-pandemic.
Espresso next to a cappuccino. Only order milk-based drinks in the morning!

What Makes a True Italian Coffeehouse?

A visit to a traditional Italian coffee bar, or “caffè,” is an experience like no other.

These establishments are more than places to grab a quick coffee; they are social hubs, meeting spots for locals, and integral parts of the community. Here are some features you might find in an authentic Italian coffee bar:

  • Counter service: Italian coffee bars are designed with standing service in mind. While there may be seating available, many locals prefer to stand at the counter, especially for their morning espresso. Due to regulations, it’s also cheaper to get your coffee this way. CafĂ©s can charge more if you sit.
  • Espresso machine: The heart of any Italian coffee bar is the espresso machine. These machines are often large, traditional, and capable of preparing multiple coffees at once.
  • Freshly ground beans: Next to the espresso machine, you’ll likely find one or more coffee grinders. Italian coffee bars pride themselves on grinding beans fresh for each cup.
  • Sociability: The atmosphere in a traditional Italian coffee bar is warm, friendly, and lively. Baristas know their regular customers by name and coffee preference, and conversation flows freely between patrons.
  • Simple decor: Unfussy, clean lines, and neutral colors are typical of Italian coffee bar design. The focus is on the coffee and the connections it fosters.
  • Pastry display: A tempting array of pastries, sandwiches, and other treats can often be found near the counter. Start your day with a cornetto (Italian croissant) alongside your morning cappuccino.

As you embark on your Italian coffee journey, remember that each coffee bar is unique, reflecting the personality of its baristas, patrons, and surrounding community.

Embrace the rich history, vibrant atmosphere, and unparalleled passion of Italian coffee culture.

The Birth of Espresso: Responding to the Demands of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution brought about significant changes in Europe, including a massive wave of urban migration as Italians moved from the countryside to work in factories. With the increasing demand for a quick yet satisfying coffee experience, a new method of coffee preparation was needed.

Enter Luigi Bezzera, who in 1901 invented the first patented espresso machine, capable of producing coffee in a minute or less. Bezzera sold his patent to Desiderio Pavoni, whose name would become synonymous with Italian-built espresso machines. However, Bezzera’s machine did not create the characteristic crema we associate with espresso today.

Some of the first espresso machines were revealed to the rest of the world at the 1906 World Expo in Milan (Source: Wikimedia CC)

The Espresso Revolution: Italian Innovations

The first significant innovation in espresso technology was the introduction of the spring lever by Achille Gaggia in 1946. Gaggia’s machine could produce espresso shots in 30-45 seconds, with pressure spiking up to 14 bars – enough to produce the rich, velvety crema that defines a perfect espresso. This groundbreaking invention paved the way for further advancements in espresso technology and the rise of Italian coffee culture.

From Post-War Italy to Modern-Day Ritual

Following World War II, Italy’s coffee culture began to flourish. The invention of the Gaggia espresso machine and the subsequent innovations transformed the process of coffee consumption into a fast, efficient, and uniquely flavorful experience. With the spread of neighborhood coffee bars, Italian coffee became synonymous with tradition, quality, and ritual.

As industrialization and urbanization increased in the 1950s and 1960s, neighborhood coffee bars became important social hubs for workers and residents alike. The speed of coffee preparation made bars ideal places for grabbing a cappuccino before work and for quick breaks during the day, leading to the widespread practice of drinking coffee standing up.

Today, the Italian coffee culture remains deeply ingrained in the nation’s identity, with neighborhood coffee bars continuing to serve as social hubs and the perfect espresso as a symbol of Italian pride and passion.

From Commodity Beans to the Quintessential Italian Experience

Since espresso is so strong and concentrated, it can pull more interesting flavors out of beans that were previously considered below average.

The rise of espresso in Italy also created a market for inexpensive commodity beans that still delivered an intense taste. Following the war, Italy purchased vast amounts of low-grade Santos from Brazil and started using Robusta beans in the blends due to its effect on crema and body.

From 1955 to 1970, coffee consumption within Italy’s households doubled. Also, the classic Bialetti Moka pot became commonplace in most Italian homes. Even though it brews at a lower pressure and can’t produce crema, it was marketed as a tool for making coffee similar to what was served at bars.

In the decade of 1960, Lavazza, a company originating from Piedmont, emerged as the first nationwide coffee producer in Italy.

How to Drink Espresso in Italy: Standing at the bar

As espresso machines evolved, so did the way Italians enjoyed their coffee. One of the most distinct aspects of Italian coffee culture is the practice of standing at the counter while sipping a coffee. This ritual is not only about saving money (sitting in a coffee bar generally costs more) but also about embracing the social aspect of coffee culture. Italians often engage in lively conversations with their baristas and fellow patrons, visiting the coffee bar a genuinely immersive experience.

To fit in like a local, approach the counter with a friendly “Buongiorno, un caffè per favore!” and prepare to enjoy a quick, intense coffee break. Remember, espresso is the default coffee in Italy. Ordering a “caffè” will get you a delicious, rich shot of espresso.

Lavazza coffee has become one of the symbols of Italian coffee culture.

The Barista: Artisan, Coffee Connoisseur, and Cultural Ambassador

The barista is more than just a coffee maker in Italian coffee culture. They are skilled artisans who understand the nuances of coffee beans, the intricacies of espresso machines, and the delicate balance of flavors in each cup. A great barista is a master of their craft, able to create perfect espresso shots while engaging in friendly conversation with customers.

Espresso Evolution: Key Players

Angelo Moriondo: The First Espresso Machine

  • 1851–1914

Angelo Moriondo is the inventor of the first espresso machine, pioneering the espresso revolution.

Luigi Bezzera: Enhanced Speed and Efficiency

  • 1847–1927

Luigi Bezzera introduced high-pressure water to brewing, setting the stage for modern espresso machines.

Desiderio Pavoni: Refinement and Global Popularization

  • 1851–1908

Desiderio Pavoni bought Bezzera’s patent, improved the machine, and popularized it through his company, La Pavoni.

Achille Gaggia: Crema Revolution

  • 1895–1961

Achille Gaggia invented the modern espresso machine that produces ‘crema’, setting the standard for espresso quality.

Luigi Lavazza: Art of Coffee Blending

  • 1859–1949

Luigi Lavazza was instrumental in revolutionizing coffee consumption through innovative coffee blending techniques.

Howard Schultz: Globalizing Italian Coffee Culture

  • 1953, Alive as of 2023

Howard Schultz, inspired by Italian coffee culture, turned Starbucks into a global coffee empire, spreading espresso to the rest of the world.

The Italian Coffee Bar: A Social Hub

In Italy, coffee bars serve as social centers where individuals can come together to chat and relish the coffee experience. Whether it’s enjoying a morning cappuccino, taking a mid-day espresso break, or savoring a late-night caffe corretto, the coffee bar is an integral part of Italian social culture.

The social aspect of Italian coffee culture is evident in the design and layout of coffee bars. Many establishments have standing-room-only areas, encouraging patrons to converse while enjoying their drinks. This contrasts with the individualized, laptop-focused atmosphere prevalent in many American coffee shops.

gardelli coffee italy
Gardelli Coffee from Italy is known to push the envelope when it comes to specialty coffee

The Evolution of Specialty Coffee in Italy

Italian coffee culture is steeped in tradition, rituals, and unwritten rules that have stood the test of time. But in recent years, there’s been a shift in how some Italians enjoy their beloved espresso.

A rising interest in specialty coffee marks this shift. A new wave of coffee shops and roasters, embracing high-quality beans, state-of-the-art brewing techniques, and a more global approach to coffee, has emerged.

One place that’s leading the way is Ditta Artigianale, a coffee shop in Florence. They’re stepping outside the box with their unique range of coffees from different origins, and brewing methods like Aeropress, V60, and Chemex.

Gardelli Specialty Coffee in Forli is another first-mover. They’re not scared to try new things, experimenting with lighter tastes and new ways to process coffee beans.

These new trends in Italian coffee aren’t just changing how people drink coffee in Italy. They’re also raising the bar for the country’s coffee culture as a whole.

I’m excited to see how Italy’s love for coffee continues to evolve. The blend of old and new trends promises some exciting times ahead for Italian coffee. It shows that coffee isn’t just a drink – it’s an ever-changing art form that’s always in step with the times.

Top Featured Image: Takumi Yoshida | Wikimedia CC 2.0

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Asser Christensen

Hello, and welcome! I'm the editor & founder of this site.
I have been a coffee geek since I started home roasting more than a decade ago. Since then, coffee has taken me on countless adventures: From ancient coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia to the volcanos of Sumatra.
My background is in journalism, and today I'm also a licensed Q Grader under the Coffee Quality Institute.