Coffee machine in a bar, Piazzale Flaminio, Rome. Foto by Massimo Predieri for

The habit of taking a coffee at the bar is one of the strongholds of the Italian life style

Coffee at the bar
by Massimo Predieri

Leggi in italiano

Let me remove at once a misunderstanding: in Italy coffee is not a drink, it is a drug, a pleasure, a social ritual. You do not drink coffee to quench your thirst, but to give yourself an energetic stimulus, enjoy its aroma and cultivate friendships.

In Italy coffee is taken at the bar, standing at the counter. A small cup is served - the tazzina - in quantities that, moving from north to south, become smaller and smaller. It is a short and intense experience, the dispensing of a small dose of a fragrant and exciting drink. The foreigner, used to sitting down and being served in the cafés in other countries, remains bewildered. He must learn the habits.

First you go to the cashier and pay for the drinks, then you take the receipt to the counter and order. The bartender checks the receipt and arranges on the counter the saucers with the small spoons: small saucer for coffee, large saucer for cappuccino. Then he makes the espresso coffee under the eyes of the customer, operating a big coffee machine, a chromium-plated colossus equipped with levers, knobs, taps. As soon as the dispensing is finished, the cup is placed on the saucer, so that only a few seconds pass between preparation and delivery.

The coffee must be hot as hell, black as the devil, pure as an angel (Talleyrand). To make sure it stays warm, the coffee cups in the bar are made of thick ceramic. They are kept warm over the coffee machine, so to preserve the coffee’s heat when served.

One of the most amusing and instructive experiences for the foreign visitor is to observe in the morning the coming and going of guests in a central café in an Italian city, but also in a small province town. It is a unique representation of the local life. People who go to work stop for a coffee, exchange a few words with the bartender, who obviously knows them all by name, commenting on the latest events. Then, with happy greetings, they rush to their businesses, being already late.

In a small town you can meet the mayor, the head of the guards, the police officer, the doctor, the street sweeper, the bus driver, all at the bar in a moment of suspension of their institutional and professional roles.

In observing the guests, it is surprising to note the incredible number of variants of the coffee ordered: ristretto, lungo, doppio, macchiato caldo, macchiato freddo, decaffeinato, schiumato, corretto, (short, long, double, hot, cold, decaffeinated, foamed, corrected). And then the cappuccinos: light, dark, very hot, warm, cold, with foam, without foam, a little milk, lots of milk. I asked a bartender from a well-known bar in Rome, a place stormed in the morning for breakfast: how do you remember all the different coffee orders you get. He answered with a smile: I make them all the same. But it was a joke. In reality, the good bartender remembers the peculiarities and tastes of each guest, so they do not even have to order to have coffee served at the counter as wanted. If one day the frequent guest wants a different coffee, he must at his entrance warn aloud to the bartender, who was already starting to prepare "the usual".

Coffee after lunch is a more relaxed ritual that the morning coffee. Warning: we are talking about coffee. One thing that causes horror and disgust to Italians is a cappuccino after lunch, or worse, after dinner. The cappuccino is exclusively a morning drink, tolerated even in the late morning, but ends its right to exist at lunchtime. If you really cannot help but order a cappuccino after lunch or after dinner, do it discreetly, perhaps asking the waiter in a low voice, and keep it away from the view of other guests.

A typical and funny scene is the simulated quarrel to pay the coffee to friends and colleagues after lunch. Winning this little quarrel, made of sleeve restraints, gentle pushes and loud protests, is a sign of importance: you can understand who is the most influential person in the group.

Legend has it that the best coffee is served in Naples. Those who criticize Naples for other aspects also agree. Pure in carcere, o sann’ fa  (Even in prison they know how to make it) sang Fabrizio de André in Don Raffaè.

The coffee in Naples is not a drink, it's not even a drug, it's a ritual. There are many references to the preparation of coffee in the Neapolitan culture, the most famous ones written by the playwright Eduardo De Filippo, who dedicated an exhilarating sketch to the correct preparation of the coffee.

Among the Neapolitan habits related to coffee, the most fascinating one is called caffé sospeso (suspended coffee). A customer, in the mood to do a good deed, orders at the bar two cafes, one for himself, one is suspended. The bar manager records the suspended coffee. Every now and then a beggar, a idle or a poor man looks into the bar. "Is there a suspended coffee?" The bartender nods at him with a smile and says: Come in. And serves him the coffee previously paid by a stranger.

Why is the coffee in Naples better than in other places? There have been never ending discussions on that matter, everyone has his theory: it is water, it is the roasting of coffee, it is the ability of the bartender, it is the fact that the coffee machine works a lot and does not contaminate the aroma with other tastes and smells.


Italian Media s.r.l. - via del Babuino 107, Roma, c.a.p. 00187, p.IVA 09099241003, edita il settimanale Italiani con registrazione al Tribunale di Roma n. 158/2013 del 25.06.2013 - email:

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