Moka Espresso maker and Italian espresso cup in an Italian shop in Philadelphia, Pa.
Moka Espresso maker and Italian espresso cup in an Italian shop in Philadelphia, Pa.

Coffee? Un Caffè, Per Favore

“Coffee?”

“Coffee.”

So goes the call-and-response between my best friend, Amanda, and me, which happens at least once a day.

“Where to? Our adopted Italian grandpa’s shop? Alphaville? Or shall we just wander?” are usually the questions that follow.

Amanda is a barista at a cafe in her hometown of Minneapolis. And me? Well, I am a coffee enthusiast. We’re a match made in heaven. We lucked out even more meeting here in Italy, the world’s capital of coffee drinkers. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since coming here, it’s how different Italian and American coffee culture is.

We learned this by our first-hand coffee experiences, which were supplemented with a workshop we took at the university. We got a crash course in coffee culture, complete with taste-testing the main Italian coffees, my favorite part.

Differences

Self-portrait: coffee drinker in action.

Self-portrait: coffee drinker in action.

So just how do the coffee cultures differ?

The first big difference is where we buy coffee. In the United States, big coffee chains are popular for our cup of Joe. In Italy, most people get coffee at little local shops, called bars. These bars are found everywhere. Sometimes they are located right next to each other. Italians take pride in their local shops, and I have yet to see big coffee chains, such Starbucks or Costa, here. (Side note: I just googled Starbucks in Italy, and the closest ones are in Switzerland.)

Portions, brewing and roasting methods, and how the coffee is consumed also differ.

In the U.S., we are used to drip coffee. Roasted beans are ground and then hot water is poured over them. This makes more coffee, but it’s watered down to varying strengths. Though coffee of all forms can be found, especially in specialty shops, drip coffee is most common. Coffee is usually enjoyed in a to-go cup on the way to class or work or our next stop.

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In Italy, the most common coffee is espresso. Beans are roasted and finely ground, then processed through an espresso machine. Instead of hot water being poured over the grounds, the water is sent through the compacted coffee in the machine. The coffee—now called an espresso shot—is pulled by water pressure. The shot is small, but more concentrated. Coffee is usually paid for and then finished off immediately at the counter. While there are seating areas in most cafes, a cover fee of a couple of euros is usually charged for seating, which is worth it if you want to enjoy your coffee slowly.

Coffee prices are relatively equal when prices are converted. In the United States, the price for a cup of coffee that is not espresso-based will range from $1 to $3, and comes in different sizes. Of course, that is not taking into consideration the extra pumps of caramel and other goodies we are used to putting into our coffee. Meanwhile, the average price for a shot of espresso is around $2. Here in Italy, a caffè will cost €1,00 ($1.10) and any other drink will rarely be more than €2,00 ($2.19).

Taste Test

Cappuccino and Nutella Cornetto with my travel journal

Cappuccino and Nutella Cornetto with my travel journal.

In the workshop, we sampled five common Italian coffees, all of which were espresso-based: plain espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, caffè d’orzo, and caffè corretto.

Aside from espresso, referred to as a caffè, there is macchiato, which is a shot of espresso with a macchia, or a “stain” of steamed milk. Cappuccino is espresso with milk, topped with foam. Unlike in the U.S., cappuccino is normally taken at breakfast and usually not ordered after noon.

The other two coffees are more unique to Italy. Caffè d’Orzo is not actually coffee. It’s prepared the same way espresso is, but with barley. It has a chocolate taste and is caffeine-free.

Caffè corretto literally translated is “corrected coffee.” This is a shot of espresso with either sambuca, a liquor made from anise, or grappa, a liquor made from grapes. This coffee is common among workers in northern Italy, where temperatures are more frigid.

I’m happy to say that clearly, the best way to keep learning about these diverse coffee cultures is to keep on drinking coffee. I think I’ll propose a challenge for Amanda and me: to find the best coffee in Perugia. And since it’s the culture here to have multiple coffees a day, we can cover some serious ground.

Un caffè per me, grazie!