You’re in Italy and before coming here you may have boned up on a few key words and phrases to help you communicate and, possibly, to have at least a vague idea of what is going on around you. Now, however, you have to learn a whole new vocabulary – that which you need to order coffee and to get an idea of how Italians like to drink theirs. After all, you’re not just here to see the Coliseum and the Grand Canal. You’ve also got (I hope) a minimum of curiosity about how people elsewhere live.
Despite the fact that in Italy you ain’t going to find the Starbucks concoctions you may be used to, if you pay a bit of attention you will be able to witness the amazing variety that coffee orders have here. I have already explained about how here in Italy you have to use both words and not just call it a “latte” (unless, of course, you are asking for a glass of milk. And you all know about cappuccino. But the mainstay of Italian bar-going is, of course, espresso.
Espresso can be ristretto (less water, hence stronger coffee) ristrettissimo (even less water and therefore even stronger coffee), lungo (more water, thus somewhat weaker), macchiato caldo (espresso with a splash of hot milk added) or macchiato freddo where the milk added is cold. Then there is espresso decaf which is often called “Hag” because that was once Italy’s best-known brand of decaf coffee.
But that’s just the start. Some people (usually blue collar workers) want their coffee corretto, that is spiked with something alcoholic. Others want it al vetro, in a small shot glass rather than the classic demitasse cup. Then there’s the cappuccino (never, never to be drunk at the end of a meal) which sometimes gets modified in the following ways: senza schiuma (no foam), poco schiuma (just a little foam), scuro (less milk) and thus darker or chiaro (more milk). And of course, you might also want to specify that you want it tiepido (lukewarm) or bollente (boiling hot). And when the weather gets warmer, lots of people switch to caffé freddo, something, I personally avoid because they almost always prepared it sweetened and I never take sugar or sweetener in my coffee.(One way to get around this, especially if you are at a bar where they know you, is to ask for a glass with ice in it and then get them to pour a freshly-made caffé doppio (double coffee) over it.)
Since politically correct hasn’t sunk in here as it has in France (where apparently one can no longer order a small black coffee with the words, un petit noir, a little black), some people still ask their barista of choice to make un marocchino, a Moroccan, which is a lovely-to-look-at, swirly drink of coffee, cocoa and cream.
The Roman barista: a national resource
This was the title of a story I wrote a while back for the Rome daily, Il Messaggero, and from the little feedback I had I am inclined to believe that every barista in Rome thought I was writing about him (yes, there are women bariste but they are a minority, generally the owners of smaller bars or the relatives/girlfriends of the owners but they are generally less professional and I have yet to find one who can make you a cappuccino with a perfect heart floating on the top of the foam).
If you are, like me, someone used to having your first coffee or cappuccino outside your house, the right barman can give your day a good start, while a sulking or uncommunicative barista is to be avoided at any cost. What you want (as well as a professional capable of taking care of a variety of orders at the same time, since you might be on your way to the office) is someone who gives you a hearty hello, calling you by name if he already knows you, and will let go with one of those ready quips on current affairs, sports or your own personal history, of which only the Romans are truly capable.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most important quality of all, what you want is a barman who remembers how you take your coffee so that you don’t even have to speak. At the bar on the corner of Vicolo del Cinque in Trastevere that I have been going to for decades, Giancarlo (now retired) used to make my coffee when he saw me through the window so I would find it steaming on the corner when I got there. And this kind of personal treatment was not unique to him. A friend who moved back to New York after years in Rome was deeply moved when she came back for a visit a couple of years later. She walked into the café in Via dei Giubbonari (near Campo dei Fiori) where she used to have her prima colazione and the barman didn’t miss a beat. “Buongiorno Signorina”, he said. “Your usual cappuccino?”
Most Italians like to have breakfast – prima colazione – at the corner bar or café which means accompanying their coffee (or cappuccino) with a cornetto, either plain, semplice, or ripieno, filled (with custard, chocolate, or jam). By the way, most cafés also will have a whole wheat (integrale) cornetto.
I am not a real cornetto fan, preferring American donuts or muffins or French croissants to Italian pastries. But occasionally one finds something like a Danish or a good pound cake, or ciambellone, although here, too, I have reservations, since the yeast used in most Italian baked goods is vanilla-flavored and I prefer our own unflavored version.
Somewhere along the line, I got into the habit of having tea when I wake up in the morning; usually a rather strong, smoky black tea called Lapsong Souchong which provides me with an initial wake-up shot of caffeine as soon as I’ve gotten out of bed. But after a while I need something a bit more to get me going – to carburare as the Italians would say – and so once I’ve gotten dressed and checked my e-mails I’m ready to go downstairs and get my first espresso of the day. I’m a coffee addict, so that is really only the first of several.