Italian’s Know Their Coffee

Tasting Italy Through Espresso & Coffee Roasts

italian coffee maker and flower vintage color style toned

Five of the Oldest Coffee Shops

Of the five oldest coffee shops around the world, the oldest in the United States is Caffe Reggio in New York City which was founded in 1927 and boasts of bringing the first espresso machine to the United States and introducing Americans to the cappuccino.

The oldest of the five is in Paris, Café Le Procope founded in 1686, which was famous for its clientele ranging from Voltaire to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Imagine those brains engaging in hours of espresso-fueled conversation!

Italian Words – Italian Coffee

Espresso and cappuccino are Italian words, which makes the fact that of those five oldest coffee shops, two are in Italy. Caffe Florian in Venice is the oldest still standing Italian coffee shop, founded in 1720. It survived in part, perhaps, because it was the only coffee shop of its time to allow women as patrons. It also boasted a famous clientele like Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens. Then there is Caffe Greco in Rome which was founded in 1760, which was also reportedly patronized by Lord Byron, as well as John Keats and Percy Shelley, plus Goethe and Wagner if that’s not impressive enough for you. (Just goes to show you that intellectuals and artists have always been drawn to coffee houses with their combined stimulation of conversation and espresso).

Caffe Greco also boasts patronage by Gogol and Stendhal and even currently has a couch inside that belonged to Hans Christian Andersen who once lived in an apartment above the coffee shop.

Venice Grand Canal gondolas, hotels and restaurants at sunset from the Rialto Bridge
Venice Grand Canal gondolas, hotels, and restaurants at sunset from the Rialto Bridge

Where In The World Espresso

Coffee didn’t originate in Italy, which got on that bandwagon along with the rest of Europe in the 17th Century; but, with the advent of steam power, Italy did bring the world espresso and espresso drinks, including of course the cappuccino and the latte.

One of the main appeals of espresso, according to the director of the University of Coffee in Trieste, Italy, is that it is made to order. “In all other cases, when you ask for a coffee, the coffee has already been prepared, while espresso must be prepared on express order.”
That’s where the name comes from, the express preparation made only when a customer asks for it, instead of made in a vat to wait around for the next customer who wants some. Expresso = espresso.

Cappuccino, which is foamed milk poured on top of the espresso, was named by the Italians for a group of monks called Capuchin because the color was said to resemble their recognizable robes.

The Italian commitment to coffee goes beyond their claim to name; they are fairly regimented and ritualistic about their coffee as well.
For example, the cappuccino in Italy is not supposed to be drunk beyond breakfast time; it is a breakfast drink. Having a cappuccino in the afternoon, or really anytime after late morning is definitely frowned upon.

This practice may stem from an association with the body’s digestive needs. Some experts even go so far as to call the Italians’ relationship with digestion an “obsession.” After a meal, the idea is to avoid something additionally heavy in order to let the digestive process take its proper course. Having a cappuccino is essentially like having a cup of warm milk, which is simply too heavy for the ideal Italian digestion. The same goes for the latte, which also has a strict time when it should be consumed. Apparently, some Italian coffee houses will serve customers a glass of milk if they order a latte at the wrong time of day. Sassy.

Italian Clothiers Drink Espresso Roast

This type of relationship can also be seen with the tradition of having a plain espresso after a meal.

I worked in a coffee shop near the fashion district in New York City. The Italian clothiers would come to our shop ritualistically, like clockwork around 1 pm every day. It was, of course just after lunch.

Even though I haven’t yet been to Italy myself, I can vouch for another Italian coffee custom because of my experience with this Italian transplants. Firstly, yes, they have an espresso after their meal. With coffee being a tremendously social occasion in Italy, they also have the customary practice of standing at the bar while having their espresso and chatting with each other and with the barista.

Back in America: Coffee Culture & Starbucks Culture – Are they the same?

At my American shop, where the coffee culture is synonymous with Starbucks and fast food, aka grab your drink and get out, it was occasionally frustrating to the baristas and non-Italian customers when these adorable, jovial men would gather around the end of the espresso bar for their post-meal digestive to chat in Italian and occasionally English. Thankfully, we had other stand-up bars that weren’t directly connected to the espresso serving counter so everyone could be happy.

If you thought there were coffee snobs in America, you haven’t met many Italians. There are those who will insist on having their espressos or cappuccinos in glasses instead of porcelain or ceramic cups because it tastes better. I can vouch that ceramic and glass are preferable to paper in general, but I don’t know about all of that. To each their own, though; who I am I to judge the creators of the coffee culture which has come to permeate so much of so many of our lives?

I have to say, I prefer the Italian macchiato to the Starbucks version unless I’m looking for a toothache, which some days, to be honest, I am. This preference also stems from my time as a barista. It was significantly more irritating than friendly, laughing Italian men milling around when someone would come in, stubbornly insisting that they wanted a macchiato and then look at us as if we were idiots for not giving them a venti cup full of drinkable caramel.
Yes, we would clarify that they wanted a macchiato and not a caramel macchiato; yes it still happened far too often that they were wrong but we took the blame.
I digress.

The Heat of Piping Hot & Freshly Brewed

Finally, with summer suffocatingly upon us, it may be a wonder how these strict coffee drinkers deal with unbearable heat when they have a preference for piping hot, freshly brewed coffee beverages. There are alternatives for the summer months; the Italian version of the Frappuccino is the Freddo. More common than that, however, sticks to the simplicity of the Italian espresso by adding espresso to a shaker full of ice until it gets foamy and extra cold. Our version added simple syrup to the mix for the weaker tongued American customers.

Italians are not anti-dessert, however; in Italy, you can also get a Granita di Caffe, which is frozen coffee, sugar, and water served with whipped cream. And, of course, there is the caffe corretto, which adds a shot of cognac to your espresso for the perfect, sophisticated cross-buzz.
While tradition and rigidity like this can seem restrictive to some, it is highly comforting to others, just like the rituals involved in the religions of the world or annual family celebrations. You do it the same way, you do it the right way, it’s familiar and reliable and that brings a momentary relief to an ever stressful world.


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9 Comments

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  1. Italians really do know their craft. They always play with tastes and come up with delicious combinations and really respect the reason behind all the rules about the time and way of consumption and I think that is great.
    I want to feel the real taste behind the coffee whenever I’m drinking it and I think that I can achieve that best in Italy. So, off I go! 🙂

  2. I visited Italy a couple of times and I must say that their coffee is really amazing, no matter where you decide to oder it. I actually ordered cappuccino a couple of times in the afternoon but they did not serve me additional milk…hahah I guess they guessed I was a foreigner. 😀 Oh well, I guess that when drinking coffee while watching the Grand Canal in Venice your coffee could never taste bad. Right?

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