When you go into an Italian bar to order a coffee, you could be faced with a bewildering array of different drinks. Here’s a brief guide.
Close your eyes as you sit at a table under an arcade in any piazza in Italy and listen to the sounds. As well as the hubbub of a hundred Italians all talking at once, and maybe the haunting melody of an opera played by a lone violinist, you’ll certainly always hear the clatter of coffee cups and the slam dunk of the barristas banging out the used coffee grounds in order to make more espressos.
Coffee in Italy is a ritual, more complex than it first appears. Naturally they believe that theirs is the best in the world. It has to be, they say, infuocato, nero e puro (burning hot, black and pure) – “burning like hell, black as the devil, and pure as an angel, but sweet as love.”
Coffee can be enjoyed at all times of the day in Italy, but you need to be aware of the many variations on a theme to appreciate fully its subtleties.
Generally in a bar people order an espresso, a thimbleful of very strong black coffee which they down in one go. A doppio is the same, but double the quantity. Meanwhile, a ristretto is even more concentrated. At home they make moka with one of those characteristic hexagonal metal pots on the hob.
If the sheer strength of an espresso is more than you can tolerate, you can ask for a lungo which means it will be diluted with a good deal of hot water. Sometimes even Italians like their coffee with a splash of milk. This is a macchiato (it means stained) either caldo (hot milk) or macchiato freddo (cold).
As well as adding milk, they also often like to add alcohol to coffee. This is known as a corretto. And in summer when a cool drink might be preferred, you can always ask for a shakerato, a coffee which has been shaken like a cocktail with ice. (Incidentally, here’s a further tip. When ordering ice cream you might like to ask for an affogato. It won’t be on the menu, but everybody knows what it is: vanilla ice cream “drowned” in black coffee.)
The English generally like their coffee very milky and usually ask for a cappucino, with foaming milk in a large cup. Not as well known is the smaller version, the marocchino, with a sprinkling of cocoa powder.
A recent piece in Italia Oggi by Alessandro Coppini ended with this warning: “Coffee in Italy ia a religion, and to drink a cappuccino after lunch in the eyes of an Italian is a sacrilege!”