All Italians are purists when it comes to coffee. Not for them the frivolously flavoured drinks at Starbucks – in fact, you will find that there are no Starbucks shops in Rome. Not a single one. Instead, the Italian coffee culture flourishes in snug, casual little bars found down cobblestone side streets. Here, regulars prop themselves up on the marble counter while the Gaggia coffee machine, a sleek, hissing silver behemoth, spits out the dark, aromatic brew.
( the sign on the left in proper Italian should read Cappuccino Espresso Latte Macchiato, te’, cioccolato caldo )
First, elbow your way into the dark interior of the bar, towards the counter. Only tourists sit down and wait for table service. Offer a “ciao” or a “buon giorno” and ask for your tipple of choice. The bill will usually be brought to you at the same time the drink is. But which drink to ask for? There are seldom brightly lit menus with the options spelled out clearly, so you need to know what you’re ordering.
If you request a caffe’ or coffee, what you will get is espresso in a demitasse, which is very strong coffee served in a tiny cup. The best espresso has strong caramel coloured foam on the top, which is the “crema.” Generally, the thicker the crema, the stronger the brew will be. This is what the Italians drink, a thick, black shot of pure coffee without milk or sugar (except in Naples, where they like their caffeine sweet).
Variations on this basic drink is the ristretto, or restricted coffee, which has less water and is even more potent than a caffe’, and the lungo, which is diluted espresso served in a tall cup. Decaffeinated coffee is available in Italy if you ask for it. What you want is a caffe Hag, so named after the largest producer of Italian decaf coffee. Decaf coffee can be substituted for regular coffee. For example you can ask for a “cappuccino Hag” which will get you a decaf cappuccino. Ugly, evil looking women will not, however, be included in your order.
Ask for a latte in Italy and you will be served a large, tall, glass of milk. The correct way of ordering this drink is to request a caffe con latte – coffee with milk. Essentially a shot of espresso and double the amount of hot milk, this drink is topped with a little foam.
The crème de la crème of coffee options has to be the cappuccino. Equal parts espresso, milk and wet foam, a perfectly made cappuccino is silky, light, and velvety smooth. This is a breakfast coffee and you won’t find Italians ordering a cappuccino after eleven in the morning.
The intense flavour of coffee usually works well with a dash of milk. The caffe macchiato is a shot of espresso marked with a tiny amount of foamed milk and served in a demitasse cup. Or, if you like your coffee reinforced with something a little harder, then the caffe corretto is the way to go. This is served with a small measure of liquor such as grappa, cognac, Irish cream or amaretto.