Café at the Rome airport.
I first went to Italy almost two decades ago. Back then there was only one café in Ann Arbor, Espresso Royale on State Street. It was half the size. As students we all called it Café Pretentious and you could smoke there. This made it an instant substitute for the library. It was always busy.
Things are a lot different now. Yet while cafés have become a fixture across America, there’s still an aura surrounding Italian cafés and, along with it, a lot of myths and legends. It got me thinking and observing on my last visit as I made the trip to an espresso counter three or four times a day. Since American cafés have basically copied a lot of Italy’s espresso style and culture I thought it’s worth it to check in on some typical myths — and truths.
Myth or Truth: Italians only drink cappuccino in the morning, after that it’s espresso only.
Myth! Italians order every coffee drink every time of the day. At the end of dinner, though, espresso is definitely the norm.
Myth or Truth: Italians never order coffee To Go.
Truth. I’ve seen it once, maybe twice in a thousand coffees. There are no paper cups at an Italian cafe.
Myth or Truth: Italians drink coffee really fast.
Truth. I sipped a cappuccino at normal speed and the counter turned over three times. Once I was on a bus that made a stop at a red light and — no shit — the driver got out, bought and drank an espresso, and got back on the bus before the light turned green. The whole bus burst into applause. In Italy this is considered an act of athleticism.
Myth or Truth: Italians drink their coffee standing up.
Truth. Most cafés have no seats. If they have them, no one is sitting at them. (The coffee costs more when you’re seated.)
Truth or Myth: Italian coffee is affordable.
Truth. A shot of espresso runs about a euro ($1.40). A cappuccino, 1.40 ($2).
Myth or Truth: Italian espresso drinks are the best in the world.
Myth. This may have been true twenty years ago. Perhaps even ten years ago. But in the last few years I’ve had better coffee in London (Monmouth), Portland (Stumptown), Chicago (Intelligentsia), New York (Gimme!) and Ann Arbor (Zingerman’s). I would say, on average, you can get a better espresso drink in Italy than America. But the best cafés in America beat the best in Italy. And I hear New Zealand beats all of us, though I’ve never been there.
Truth or Myth: Italians don’t order coffee at a restaurant. They go hit a café after dinner.
Myth. Six Romans ordered espresso at a pizza joint next to me. Then three more next to them. They’re ordering coffee all over the place, all the time, restaurant or not. That said, an Italian may still hit a café on the way home for a post-espresso espresso. The shots are all singles.
Truth or Myth: Italians don’t drink drip brewed coffee.
Truth. In restaurants and cafes it’s not available. If an Italian doesn’t have an espresso machine at home they have one or two of the ubiquitous silver Mokha makers.
Truth or Myth: the foam on an Italian cappuccino is different.
Truth. They don’t heat the foam as much. It’s lighter and cooler than ours. Because of this and the fact that they use less milk overall, coffee lines in Italy move super fast. You never wait more than a couple minutes.