Tommaso Santostasi, manager and guide for the Secret Food Tour of Rome, has some tips on how to have a complete Italian coffee experience.
It’s all about time
Italians like it quick. Coffee culture is not about sitting in a cafe for hours, having a relaxing chat with a friend and sipping lukewarm coffee. It’s about energy and speed. The coffee you are served is likely to be warm but not hot – it should never be so hot that it will burn your tongue, therefore, you should not wait too long to drink it. In this case, baristas will tell you that you’re chatting too much and ask if you want another one. Coffee over, it’s time to head back onto the streets with that caffeine-induced buzz.
Coffee is not a purist thing
Yes, coffee, like life, can be bitter – so you should not hesitate to add sugar to your coffee. Coffee is not a purist thing, it’s about pleasure. In Naples, the birthplace of the Italian espresso, they traditionally serve espresso with sugar already added. When I’m doing a tour, most of the visitors I meet are reluctant to add sugar to their coffee, as though they are breaking some kind of rule. Let me tell you this: if you want to drink coffee Italian style, you should not let anyone tell you how you should consume your favourite drink. Create your own rules!
Variety, variety, variety
There are many different ways Italians enjoy their daily ritual of drinking coffee. We go from the very mild and milky cappuccino, which Italians usually enjoy at breakfast, possibly with a hot, freshly-baked cornetto, an Italian version of the French croissant. At the other end of the scale is the very deep, dark espresso, for those looking for the maximum caffeine effect. Many Italians savour an espresso at the end of dinner or lunch. In the middle we have the caffe macchiato, an espresso with a small amount of frothy milk, that we drink in the mid-morning or the afternoon.
The size and the cup
Once you’ve chosen your coffee, you have to decide what size you’d like. For example, when ordering an espresso you can have caffe lungo (lungo is Italian for long and this is essentially an espresso with double the usual amount of water), or a caffe ristretto (shorter and more condensed than a regular espresso). As for the cup, you might choose a tazza grande (big cup) or a vetro (a cup made of glass). Choose your own style, or if you don’t have a favourite just ask the barista to prepare their “speciale” – you might be pleasantly surprised.
Most Italians favour a specific blend of coffee. For example, we love arabica, coffee from the highlands of Ethiopia, and a popular Italian coffee brand is Illy, whose blend is comprised of nine varieties of arabica. But we have a hundred different blends that are just as good, including some artisanal brands. Bars and cafes usually have a sign outside letting you know which kinds of blends they serve.
In Rome, we have at least two places that are worth trying: Cafe Sant’ Eustachio (Piazza di S. Eustachio, 82) and Caffe Tazza D’ Oro , both near the Pantheon. You can have an espresso at the bar, and they will serve you their special blend, just toasted. You can buy a packet of coffee to take home as a souvenir, too.
Order at the bar
To enjoy your coffee like an Italian, don’t take a seat at a table, but find a spot at the bar. We Italians prefer to do this because often you get served quicker and also it can be cheaper. Some cafe menus have two prices – one for the table (al tavolo) and one for the bar (al banco). The price of a coffee at the bar won’t usually exceed €1 even in the most touristy places. It also means you can have a quick chat with your favourite barista, who usually knows you by name and your coffee preference and will serve you without even asking what you’d like.
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.