Italy is a land of secrets, from Rome’s catacombs through to the Carnevale masquerades, and if you really want to get under the skin of the country you first need to understand its coffee ‘laws’. When people talk of the Italian ‘Coffee Police’ they are only partially joking!
Italians drink coffee in a certain way; there are rituals that are set in stone. One of the most important of these is that you only drink cappuccino, latte macchiato or any milky type of coffee in the morning, and never after eating.
It’s easy to get confused, so first all it’s important to understand that Italian and American-style coffeehouses are just distant cousins at best. The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, once explained that it was during a trip to Milan that he became inspired to create the now internationally famous brand. The fact is, though, the Italian coffee bar and Starbucks just couldn’t be more different. Most Italians have no wish to sit reading a newspaper whilst sipping a caramel-flavoured latte. Indeed, ask for a latte in Italy and you’ll simply end up with a puzzled barista … and probably a glass of lukewarm milk.
So whilst coffee was not invented in Italy, coffee culture most certainly was, and the country is now populated by aficionados who refuse to tolerate anywhere that serves bad coffee. How did this all come to be? Well, it all began back in the 17th century when the first coffee was shipped from the Middle East to Venice, the maritime city that saw the opening of the first European coffeehouse. It was initially enjoyed purely as a medicinal drink, with its cost putting it out of reach of most Venetians. However, as its popularity grew and the price came down, coffeehouses were opened in major cities throughout Italy, a number of which are still operating today. Turin’s oldest surviving coffeehouse, for example, Caffè Al Bicerin, was founded in 1763 and was once frequented by the likes of Puccini and Dumas.
Today, the tiny coffeehouse has just eight marble-topped tables, dictating that there is often a long line of people waiting outside to sample the coffee and pastries within. Finally, we can’t leave Italian coffee culture without mentioning a lovely Neapolitan tradition that is now sadly disappearing – ‘caffè sospeso’, which translates as ‘suspended coffee’. This is the practice of paying for two coffees but only drinking one, leaving the other for a stranger to enjoy for free. Some people say that the Enlightenment took place in 18th century Europe because that’s when coffeehouses started to flourish. You’ll find very few Italians who disagree!