The home of coffee culture as most of the world knows it, originated here in Italy, even if coffee itself didn’t. And yet, this adopted national drink has evolved to a point where Italians have developed an entirely different concept of coffee and a different way of drinking it to the rest of the planet. There are rules. Strict ones. You should obey them, or risk being ridiculed. If you want to follow in the footsteps of the best coffee-drinkers in the world, here are some of the basics:
1.Take your coffee standing at the bar. Sitting down will cost at least four times more.
2.Never drink a coffee with your meal, always after. The exception is below at no. 3.
3.Never drink a cappuccino with or after a meal unless it is breakfast. Dunking is allowed.
4.Never drink a cappuccino after midday. Exceptions to this are: you have woken up late and it is your breakfast or it is an exceptionally cold day and you are warming yourself up with it.
5.Never drink a cappuccino with something savory. It just doesn’t go.
6.Latte is simply milk, and a latte macchiato (what most English speakers would consider a “latte” is usually drunk by children or pregnant women).
Suffice it to say, these rules can seem a bit strict to the outsider, but you must know that many of these are age-old rules, passed on down the generations and often come from now irrelevant but totally reasonable ideas – take the cappuccino rule for example (a big one for foreigners to break when they are in Italy). Back in the day when refrigeration was a luxury, Italians only ever had cappuccino and milky drinks in the morning when the milk was fresh, but didn’t risk it after midday when the milk could go sour. It is still in the mindset of young Italians today, passed on no doubt by their nonni, or grandparents.
Once these rules are understood, it starts to become clear why the languid, long coffee culture that you find say, in Paris, where rows of chairs out in the sun become occupied for hours at a time, does not exist in Florence. Florentines do not sit in a café with their laptop or latest book in a comfy sofa like so many New Yorkers often do at their local Starbucks. Neither do they sit and sip their coffee over the morning newspaper while waiting for friends as they love to do in Sydney. No, Florentines have their coffee on the go. They zip in, pay for their coffee first, stand at the bar, order their “caffè”, chug it down in one go, and off they go. They do this with friends, alone, or perhaps on the way to work or after their lunch break, but it’s a quick exchange. A couple of minutes, tops.
If they’re not drinking their coffee at home, as many do, Florentines usually have their one place (a coffee shop is a “bar” in Italian) where they go for coffee day in and day out, a ritual that most could follow through blindfolded. They usually order the same thing, and the barista has everyone’s faces matched with their preference of coffee – caffè (simply an espresso – a short, very strong black coffee), macchiato (an espresso with a dash of milky froth), macchiato freddo (an espresso with a drop of cold milk), cappuccino senza schiuma (cappucino with no froth, a bit like an Australian “flat white”), caffè lungo (a longer, strong black coffee), macchiato in tazza grande (macchiato in a larger cup), caffè al vetro (an espresso in a glass cup instead of a ceramic cup – oh yes, there’s a difference, they say) or caffè corretto (coffee that has been “corrected” with a dash of grappa, sambuca, cognac or other liquor – don’t be surprised to find workers or old men ordering this first thing in the morning as a pick me up)… There are as many ways to have a coffee as there are inhabitants of a town.
In the summer, many prefer their caffè shakerato, a shot or two of espresso sweetened with a bit of sugar and shaken with ice on the spot until it becomes frothy and cold. Or for a little winter indulgence, topped with fresh whipped cream.
If you want to enjoy a morning sitting in a cafe in Florence, there are places that you can do it, even if the coffee costs more if you’re sitting at a table, or in particular, a table with a view. You’ll find the locals are the ones heading straight to the counter, while the tables are often left available for the tourists. But it’s a good a spot as any to soak up the culture and the atmosphere and contemplate the wonderful world of Italian coffee.