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The Italian Morning Ritual: Part 1


Most Italian kitchens don’t have kettles or toasters so that’s your first clue that the Italian morning ritual is a little different to that in many English speaking countries. And no Italian is ever going to fry an egg or bacon or sausages for breakfast, never mind all three together. Omelettes could be a lunch or a dinner but never a breakfast and forget pancakes or French toast. There are no diners or greasy spoons with scrambled eggs and hash browns in Italy and no English transport café with a hot bacon butty or 'full English' with a big mug of tea.

The first thing on an Italian’s mind in the morning is not even food, it’s coffee. Italians love their coffee and they should because it’s very good, better than anywhere else in the world and it’s a rare thing to be served a bad cup of coffee in Italy.

Sant' Eustachio coffee bar in Rome
Sant' Eustachio coffee bar in Rome

The Italian bar opens early because many Italians grab an espresso on their way to work. Note that although espresso is a real Italian word, it is normally used to describe a fast train with limited stops not a coffee, but it is well understood almost everywhere that foreigners will often use this word for a coffee and they're not in fact asking about trains. An Italian however, if he wants an espresso, will simply order un caffè or if he wants to be absolutely clear un caffè normale. If you want to fit in better as a foreigner in Italy order a caffè normale instead of saying espresso.

espresso coffee being poured in Italy

In the pre-work early morning hours the first coffee of the day is usually drunk standing at the bar because everyone’s in a hurry. A simple caffè is the normal drink at this time and it is never served scaldingly hot because it is consumed immediately it is served, and if the person is not also having a bite to eat then he’s back out the door and on his way in seconds.

People sitting outside a bar generally have more time to enjoy their coffee and there is a greater range of coffee drinks that are ordered. And table service usually comes at a slightly higher price. But however you like your coffee there are none of those enormous sizes that have become standard in the US. It is ironic that Howard Schultz started Starbucks after being inspired by the Italian coffee culture on a trip to Milan in 1983 because the Starbucks drinks today have very little in common with the coffee drinks that you find in Italy, especially with regard to size. Even the smallest Starbucks size is almost double the regular Italian size and the Venti is from another planet entirely and certainly not Italian.

These are the various ways of drinking a one shot coffee:

1. Caffè normale: the perfect espresso combines 8 grams of ground coffee with a hot water pour of 25 seconds. Many people, including Elena, will ask for a caffè doppio which is effectively two single espressos combined.

2. Caffè ristretto: as implied by the name, this is the same 8 grams of coffee but with a restricted pour of only 15 seconds resulting in a smaller, stronger coffee with a more intense flavor but no extra caffeine.

3. Caffè lungo: also as implied by the name, this has a longer pour of 40 seconds over the same amount of coffee, resulting in a weaker taste but more caffeine. A choice for those who want a coffee more like the one they make at home.

Things you can add to a one-shot coffee:

4. Caffè macchiato: an espresso 'stained' with a little hot milk and foam. Macchiato means stained in Italian.

5. Caffè marocchino: an espresso poured over hot chocolate with a dash of hot milk and foam (as in the macchiato above) and finished with a sprinkling of cacao. This combination heightens the notes of chocolate already discernible in most coffee beans.

6. Caffè corretto: the espresso is 'corrected' with a small amount of booze to get the day off to the right start. The type of alcohol will depend on where you are in Italy and can be rum, sambuca, one of the many types of anisette drinks or grappa of course.

Cimbali espresso machine in a coffee bar in Lucca

More ways to have your coffee served:

7. Caffè con panna: an espresso with a big dollop of whipped cream. Some people like it apparently, but it's not a breakfast drink.

8. Shakerato: a summer drink consisting of an espresso, brown sugar and ice, shaken not stirred, again not a breakfast coffee.

9. Caffè americano: a familiar drink for all the tourists in Italy who complain that an espresso is too small and too strong. An americano is normally a double shot of espresso served in a large cup with hot water at the side for you to add as you wish.

Milky coffee drinks

Cappuccino: a perfect combination of 125 ml of hot milk with foam on top, poured over an espresso. Each element should be one third of the total with the consistency of the foam being key and served in a classic cappuccino cup.

Caffellatte: a bigger serving of 250ml of milk with very little foam, poured over a double espresso and served in a large cup.

Latte macchiato: 250 ml of hot milk in a separate container to the single espresso, for you to add as you wish. In this case it is the small amount of espresso that is 'staining' the milk. Normally served in a glass.

Note that whatever you choose to order, don't just say latte as you can in a Starbucks, because the word in Italian simply means 'milk' and you're liable to be given just a glass of milk with not a trace of coffee. And while we're on the subject of milky drinks, even though there is no actual law against ordering a cappuccino after lunch it is a cultural faux pas and conflicts with la bella figura so you may catch a look of disprezzo on the waiter's face. Italians drink a cappuccino only in the morning, so do as the famous saying suggests, "When in Rome.........."


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