For Lorenzo, an Italian daddy at the boys’ bus stop, walking and drinking a to-go cup of coffee is like tapping your head and rubbing your belly at the same time: Awkward. Lorenzo and I had a fun conversation one morning this week – over coffee – about the differences in coffee culture between the US and Italy.
Lorenzo says that ordering a cup of coffee in the US was very stressful for him when he first traveled there because he didn’t understand the choices required in ordering: the kind of coffee, the type of milk and the size. Hearing him talk about this made me think of that funny scene in LA Story when Steve Martin orders a “half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.” I remember the days before Starbucks when choices were limited to a Coffee (black), a Regular (coffee with milk and sugar) or a Regular, no sugar.
In Italy, ordering is still that simple: There’s un Caffe (espresso) or un Macchiato (espresso with a dollop of steamed milk). You can get a Cappuccino or Cafe Latte but don’t dare order one after 12:00 – it’s a sure way of screaming “I’m American.” Italians would never consume that much milk in the afternoon.
Lorenzo also notes the size of American coffees: They are so big. And the temperature: Too hot to drink. Italian coffees go down easily in one gulp or a few sips. Temperature and size allow for this.
And while you are gulping, there’s no need to sit or to take away (“portare via”) because having a coffee is a quick affair. Italians often stand at a bar for their coffee. Some bars have seating but it usually comes with service so you pay more to drink coffee seated than you do standing.
Lorenzo says that grabbing a coffee with someone in the US was a commitment. It meant having to put aside an hour to order, sit, chat and drink all that liquid. There are plenty of sidewalk cafes in Italy where one sits and orders coffee but sitting seems more an act of leisure than routine and certainly rarely looks as though business is underway.
You can also get alcohol at an Italian bar but the term bar is generic and typically refers to a place where you get a quick coffee and snack. The bar at the boys’ school has alcohol on the shelf, next to the candy (illegal in US public schools):
A typical coffee bar (and my local morning pit stop):
The rest in photos: