Lessons in Italian Coffee, American Style

Being a college student, it is safe to say that I know my way around coffee. From the late night studying to the early morning work shifts, coffee has provided the necessary energy I need to be a functioning human.

Imagine my relief when joining a study abroad program in a country that is one of the number one coffee producers in the world, Italy. Reggio Emilia (the city I live in) has a café on every corner, giving me the opportunity to taste any variety of coffee that I desire.

I have also visited many cities outside of Reggio and I have found that coffee is a culture in itself. Florence, Venice, Bologna, Parma and more, each place has given me a new idea of the Italian culture of coffee.

Coffee Culture

I came into the program thinking that I was a coffee addict. I am not a coffee addict. Italians are coffee addicts. Coffee is a lifestyle here. I thought my consumption of three grande Starbucks coffees a day was absurd, however, Italians take it to a whole new level of coffee craze, and I love it.

I live in an apartment that is conveniently placed across the street from the best coffee I have ever had in my life. It is called Bar Alexander (cafés are called bars in Italy) and it is run by the two most welcoming men who want nothing more than to make your day better with their magical coffee.

This is the first place I encountered the culture of coffee.

A Different Kind of Bar Experience

In the United States, people get through their days in such a state of hurry that the idea of sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee seems like a nice thought, but not a reality. That was one of the first things that impacted me when getting an Italian cappuccino at Bar Alexander during my first morning in my new city.

Each bar in any city, including Bar Alexander, is set up to ensure time to enjoy one of the many cups of coffee you will have that day. There is an area to stand and drink at a bar (probably the closest thing you will find in resemblance to a drive-through coffee shop like in the US) and a large area for seating.

This is how my first experience with this newfangled set up went for me:

Lesson 1: Order of Operations

I walked into the bar in my characteristically American hurried state of mind, quickly asked for a “coffee” and pulled my money out to pay. Wrong, all wrong. The barista curiously laughed as I tried to hand him my money right after ordering. I was just as confused as he was but for different reasons.

This is when I learned the first lesson: you pay after you drink your coffee. You drink whatever you order, enjoy it and then meander over to the register to pay right before you leave. This experience was quickly turning into Italian coffee 101.

Lesson 2: Coffee ≠ Coffee

After this registered I put my money away, a little embarrassed about my naivety. As I thought about this more, the barista then put a miniature sized coffee cup in front of me with a sip of extremely strong coffee in it.

I was proud that I knew that this was an espresso, however, that is not what I ordered. I ordered a “coffee”, or I thought I did. He saw my bewilderment once again and explained.

Lesson two: When you say “Coffee” you get an espresso. If you want anything bigger you must order anything with milk or water in it. There is no such thing as grande, venti, or trenta sized drink in Italy (Ironic considering those are Italian numbers).

Lesson 3: Da Portare

I threw back my espresso and considered ordering another one. It would not be until Italian class days later, after making the mistake many times in-between, that I would learn lesson 3: It is considered exceptionally bizarre to order more than one coffee drink in one sitting. It has just recently become more custom to get drinks “da portare via ”, or “to go”, but it is still very odd to walk down the street and sip on a coffee.

I have been here over a month now and I continue to learn something new every day. However, in all honesty, as I write this I have noticed the high level of comfort I feel now that I have been in Reggio for over a month.

The fact that I can now order coffee with ease speaks volumes about how I used to be. I now laugh at myself when I think back to my first coffee debacle. Every little bit that I grow, even if it is just through my experience with Italian coffee, makes me feel confident in this beautiful city that I call ”HOME”.

– Amanda Bradrick is from the University of Nevada, Reno

Additional Italian Coffee 101

There are hundreds of ways to prepare coffee in Italy – here are some basics and keywords to know:

Un caffe’ – Coffee means espresso in Italy. Tiny cup, plain and simple.

Un cappuccino – In Italy this is thick, frothy and lukewarm, and enjoyed at breakfast, never after a meal or at night! Italians would faint to hear you order a cappuccino after dinner.

Un caffe’ macchiato – This is espresso with just a drop of milk (‘macchiato’ means ‘stained’).

Un latte macchiato – This is a glass of hot milk with a drop of coffee in it (‘stained milk’).

Un te’ caldo – hot tea

Una cioccolata calda – hot chocolate  (Eat this with a spoon – it’s that thick.)

Un marocchino –  Nutella was born in Torino so it shows up everywhere, including in your coffee cup. This specialty is coffee, hot milk and cocoa powder served in a glass with Nutella coating the inside of the glass.

Remember that “Ch” in Italian is pronounced like a “K” in English

Feeling equally caffeinated and informed after reading this post? Find your way to Italian coffee culture when you study abroad in Reggio Emilia, Italy.


1 thought on “Lessons in Italian Coffee, American Style”

  1. Hey there,
    Thanks for this wonderful post,i have learnt some very nice things from this post and surely i will adapt them. I love coffee very much and Italian is one of my favourite….

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