08 Aug Four Tips to Order Espresso Like An Italian

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This is a guest post contributed by Alison Haas. If you’d like to blog for NOIAW, e-mail bconnolly@noiaw.org with your ideas! 

Italians believe that life’s pleasures are a God-given right. By contrast, in the United States, hard work is nearly synonymous with the pursuit of happiness. Maybe because of the romanticized version of Italy portrayed in films like Under the Tuscan Sun, we Americans tend to imagine Italy as a land, of bountiful, untethered pleasure.

Despite two years studying Italy’s language and history at Middlebury College, I only superficially understood the way that Italians approached pleasure prior to departing for study abroad in Florence, Italy. The missing key to my understanding? Espresso.

In the early weeks of 2015 before I left, I did a lot of fantasizing. Many of these fantasies were set in cafés where I’d occupy my extra time alone with anonymous, low-stakes social interaction. I’d post up at a corner table, steam from a cappuccino breaking across my face, to linger over an obscure Italian text written by some long-forgotten poet. Afternoon hours would lazily drift into breezy early evenings. A dark-haired someone would make prolonged eye contact with me from across the room.

What I didn’t anticipate, what I couldn’t possibly imagine, was how the process of ordering an espresso would color my vision of the entire country. Here’s what I learned about ordering an espresso like an Italian.

1. Don’t Expect to Sit Down

“Andiamo a prendere un caffè” was a phrase that rang in my ears during the months I spent in Florence. I would hear this from classmates, from colleagues at my internship, or on the street between passing strangers. Most Italians go out for a coffee in the morning for breakfast, after lunch, or as a break (una pausa) from work or in the middle of a class. Getting a coffee is as much about fueling up for the rest of the day as it is about taking a break and socializing with friends, colleagues, or your local barista.

When you step into a café (in Italy, what we think of as a cafe isusually called un bar), the first thing you’ll see are the people lined up, standing, at a chest-height counter (il bar) or glass pastry case. Behind it, the barista expertly tends the espresso machines. There may be a few seats occupied by older folks, but the vast majority of coffee drinkers will be standing up, probably with one elbow on the bar. Sitting is a luxury reserved for pasticcerie (pastry shops). In a bar, it will cost you a few extra euro.

2. Get In, Get Out

Some customers may drop a small spoonful or two of sugar from a dish on the counter into their cups and stir methodically. The tinkling of spoons against the ceramic resounds as if to say “we are impatient” and “we have been doing this all our lives.” In other words, do not expect to stay much longer than the time it takes to drink your coffee. There will always be someone else waiting to take your spot at the bar. Americans are often surprised to learn that camping out in a cafe all day with your laptop is unheard of. Coffee is also never taken to go in Italy.

3. Good Manners Go a Long Way

Have no fear and put your manners to good use! Step up to the bar (or in some cases, a separate counter with a register that will give you a ticket to present at the espresso bar) and place your order. Be sure to greet the barista (ciao, buongiorno, buonasera), and say please (per favore, per piacere). Good manners go a long way. “Prendere un caffè al bar” is like paying a visit to a watering hole. It is a communal activity, a right, something in which one takes pleasure; it is an expression of cohabitation, of survival, of joy. Governed by the rules of common decency and mutual respect, sipping a coffee “al bar”, shoulder to shoulder with a fellow citizen, is democracy in action.

4. Relax

Italians believe that daily consumption of coffee is an essential part of maintaining psychological and physical well-being. To me, the Italian approach to coffee reveals the unique Italian ability to relish life’s small moments. Italian espresso culture blurs the lines between necessity and pleasure, between body and soul. In my opinion, Italy has its priorities straight when it comes to slowing down and enjoying life. You may be perpetually late, but who cares? So is everyone else. With this in mind, once you have your coffee in hand, relax. After all, enjoying life’s small pleasures is the ultimate key to blending in with the Italians.

IMG_0505Alison Haas is a recent graduate of Middlebury College where she was an International and Global Studies major. After studying French and Italian, and spending one semester in Paris, France and a subsequent semester in Florence, Italy, her interests in foreign language, food, and culture were solidified. Currently living in New York City, Alison is pursuing a career in the wine industry and uniting her passions for communications, writing, wine and foreign language.

3 Comments
  • Georgia Lederman
    Posted at 18:45h, 14 August

    Brings me back to my four days in Florence, where I too was surprised to drink my espresso standing up! 😉

    • Benjamin Clark
      Posted at 14:34h, 12 September

      Ah, to be in Italy, where la vita is bella! Thanks for sharing this article Alison, and great point Georgia!

  • Ana H.
    Posted at 18:18h, 28 December

    Drinking espresso in Italy seems like it would be quite a culture shock.