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All About Caffes in Italy

Pauline Kenny

Caffes, also referred to as bars or caffetterias (pronounced kahf-feht-eh-REE-ah - don't confuse this with the American "cafeteria" which is more closely related to the Italian "tavola calda"), are found in nearly every village and town. Note that the Italian spelling is different from cafe, the way it is spelled in France or the way we usually spell it in the US. An Italian caffe serves coffee drinks, tea, juices and sodas, alcohol, and some food items.

When you are in Italy, you will come to depend on the caffes:

  • In the morning go to your local caffe for a cappuccino and pastry.
  • Mid-day, when you are out touring, drop into a caffe and pick up a panino (sandwich) and an espresso to get you through until lunch time.
  • Mid-afternoon, drop into a caffe for an espresso and a chance to sit down and rest awhile. Many caffes serve gelato, so you could have a nice ice cream with your espresso.
  • During the day, if you need to find a restroom, you can always find one in a caffe. Public telephones are either in the caffe or nearby.
  • In the early evening, before heading out for dinner, drop into your local caffe for an aperitivo, to stimulate the appetite. Sit outside and watch the evening passeggiata.
  • After dinner return for a final grappa, to help with digestion.

Going to the caffe is almost medicinal!

Caffe in San Casciano dei Bagni, Tuscany

Our daily visits to the caffes provide some of the nicest times we have in Italy. The people who run caffes are usually very friendly and used to tourists. They make you feel comfortable and at home, as well as giving you the best coffee you have ever had. By the end of your trip you may long for the large cup of American coffee with its endless refills, but you will never have espresso as good as what you get every day in Italy. And, of course, the caffes are excellent places for people watching.

"You can observe a lot by watching."
- - Yogi Berra - -

How to Use a Caffe

After we settle into our vacation rental, we check out the caffes in the closest towns. One of them (if we are lucky enough to have a choice) will become our local caffe. In Panicale, the best caffe was on the central square and run by the wonderful Signor Gallo and his wife.

When we stayed outside Celle sul Rigo, our favorite caffe was Bar Centrale on the main square in San Casciano dei Bagni, even though there was a caffe in Celle sul Rigo. The one in Celle sul Rigo was run by a very nice couple and had a very good restaurant attached, but we found that it was frequently empty, especially in the morning, and they did not serve breakfast pastries. On the other hand, the caffe in San Casciano dei Bagni was always bustling, had a good selection of breakfast pastries and sold some English-language newspapers. It has an excellent restaurant attached. The two women who run the caffe were always charming and gracious. At the end of our two weeks there, I wanted to purchase a souvenir coffee cup from them. They gave me one as a gift. Now it is sitting on my bookshelf reminding me of what a wonderful time we had there.

Here is something we figured out: after you have picked your local caffe, introduce yourself to the owner. Tell them where you are staying, how long you will be there and where you are from. This gesture is usually graciously received and establishes a good relationship at the start of your visit. Steve did this with Signor Gallo in Panicale. Every time we went in, he knew who we were and greeted us warmly. At the end of our two weeks, when we were saying goodbye, he gave us complimentary espressos and asked us to send him a postcard from New Mexico (we did). Many caffe owners have a postcard collection and will ask you to send them one.

Prices

The price of items in a caffe is regulated by the government and the menu with all prices is always on display, usually on the wall beside the coffee machine. Be aware, however, that these prices apply to items consumed while standing at the bar. The prices for those same items increase, sometimes dramatically, when you sit at a table. In a larger tourist center, like Venice, the price of a coffee taken at a table could be 5 times the price at the bar. In smaller towns, the extra charge is small and sometimes there is no extra charge.

In 2003, the price of an espresso consumed at the bar was 0.80 euro. The price of a breakfast pastry was 0.80 euro.

How to Order

How you order and pay for your drinks in a caffe depends on how the caffe is run. Have a good look around when you go into a new caffe to figure it out. Usually they use one of the following three common systems.

Order and pay at the bar

In the smaller towns the caffes all work the same way. You go into the caffe and stand at the bar until it is your turn. There may be other people standing at the bar - some drinking their espressos, some waiting to pay for newspapers if the bar also sells papers, others waiting to order. You are served in the order in which you arrive. Never interrupt the bartender; he will speak to you when he is ready. When it is your turn, the bartender usually says "dica", which means literally "tell me". Tell him what you want. You do not pay until you have finished your drinks. If you want to sit at a table outside, tell him that. The drinks will be brought out to you. Otherwise, he will put your drink in front of you on the counter.

When you have finished your coffee and are ready to leave, get his attention and tell him you would like to pay. He will ring up the order and, if he knows you do not speak Italian well, will hand you the printed receipt so you can read the total. Put your money on the plate that sits on the counter beside the register (do not hand him the money directly). He will take the money and put your change there. Take your receipt with you. Say "grazie, arrivederci".

Pay at the cashier, order at the bar

If you want a coffee standing at the bar in a larger caffe (e.g. the Autogrill caffes on the Autostrada, larger caffes in Siena and Florence), you go to the cashier, tell her what you want, and pay. She gives you a receipt. You take this receipt to the bar and put it down on the counter with a small coin to "weigh it down". This is the tip for the bartender.

These bars are typically very busy. Just stand and wait until your turn comes. The bartender will take the coin and receipt, read the receipt and tear it at the top (to indicate that it has been used). You repeat your order to him. He will make the drinks and place them before you on the bar.

Order from an outside table

If you want to sit at an outside table in a larger caffe, you sit at a table and a waiter takes your order. When they bring your drinks, they will either hand you the receipt and ask you to pay immediately or they will discreetly tuck it under the ashtray and leave it for you. When you are done you can just leave the payment on the table or give it to the waiter. Remember, you pay more for you coffee when you have it at a table (but usually it is worth it).

Ordering breakfast pastries

When you walk into a caffe in the morning, you will see a display of pastries. In larger caffes, they may have a large selection on shelves behind glass. In smaller caffes, they may just have a box of them on the counter. In any case, the price for any type of pastry is usually the same. You point at the one you want and they will pick it up with a paper napkin and hand it to you. The usual selection is the following:

  • Bomboloni (donuts) filled with either jam (marmellata) or custard (crema). Bomboloni translates as "big bombs".

  • Cornetti (croissants) filled with jam (marmellata) or custard (crema) or with no filling (semplice or senza niente).

  • Brioche (pronounced as you would in French), a sugary roll.

In my early days in Italy, I would just point at the pastries and repeat "crema" until they handed me something. Now that Steve's Italian is much better, he discusses with them which ones have jam and which have cream and then tells me and I get just what I want. Once, in Perugia, I asked for a croissant with panna (it was on the menu) just to see what it was. They took a large croissant and cut it in half like a sandwich. Then they went over to the whipped cream machine (used to top gelato) and put about a cup of whipped cream in the croissant - like a whipped cream sandwich! Kind of disgusting.

A few examples

  • At Gallo's Caffe in Panicale and Bar Centrale in San Casciano dei Bagni, you order your drink inside at the bar and then tell them you will sit outside. They bring the drink to you. When you are ready to leave, you go inside and pay.

  • During the week at our favorite caffe in Greve we were able to order at the bar, pay the cashier and then carry our drinks to an outside table. On the busy weekends, you had to sit at an outside table and a waiter would come and take your order. You paid the waiter when he brought the drinks (it was more expensive this way).

  • In large cities, where it can be very expensive to sit at an outside table, if you just want a quick espresso, just find a small caffe on a side street (not on the central piazza) and have your espresso standing at the bar. You will pay the standard price for an espresso (0.80 euro in 2003).

  • I will never forget the 15,000 lire espresso we had on St. Marks Square in Venice. We just sat down at an outside table and ordered. The bill was 35,000 lire (about $18) for two espressos - our personal best! We were charged 5,000 lire for the live band. We just laughed when we got the bill (and then we paid).

All About Sugar

Italians love sugar in their coffee. There will be a large bowl of sugar on the bar counter. When the coffee is served to you, the bartender takes the lid off the sugar bowl so you can use it or pushes it towards you. If you are served outside, you usually get two sugar packets with your espresso. It is assumed that you will use the sugar. Italians tend to put one or more spoons into a small espresso.

We do not use sugar and it is easier to pretend to use it than to refuse and enter into a discussion about it. Signor Gallo in Panicale could not understand how we could drink espresso without sugar. I have noticed that some places offer some sugar substitute (the diet kind), so if you use that, you may find it, but it is probably best to carry a few packets with you.

Note: In 2004 new regulations were passed banning the bowls of sugar in caffes. All are supposed to use sugar in packets now. See Resources to learn more about this.

How to Choose a Caffe

In our experience, there are two types of caffes. The first type is a bustling caffe that serves coffee drinks, non-alcohol drinks, alcohol drinks and some food - the family oriented caffe. There is usually a freezer full of ice cream bars somewhere. The door is wide open, tables and chairs are set up outside, various types of people are hanging around. It is a busy, friendly place. This is the type of caffe you are looking for.

The other type of caffe seems to be for more serious drinkers, presenting an atmosphere you can quickly recognize. When you walk in, everyone looks to see who you are. It is usually full of older men - not many younger people or women. This is a caffe where you get a quick coffee; you don't hang around long. In these caffes you sometimes get the feeling that they are only open during the day because they have to be; their main business is at night.

Now, I may be wrong about this, and all caffes are excellent. This is just what we have noticed on our travels. I always feel strange when I wander into the non-family oriented caffe. And, this isn't to say that the family oriented caffes don't have a row of old men sitting and watching the goings-on. They do, but they have other ages and genders too!

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: Photos of caffes in Italy.

Slow Travel Italy - Caffes: How to read a caffe menu.

eng.caffe.it: The world of coffee by EspressAroma, an Italian coffee company..

www.tazzadoro.it: Tazza d'Oro caffe in Rome.

Language LessonsSlow Travel Italy - Language Lessons - Caffe Talk

Recommended Books

Click to buy from Amazon

Joe Wolff, Cafe Life Florence: A Guidebook to The Cafes & Bars Of The Renaissance Treasure, photos by Roger Paperno, Interlink Books, 2005

Good book with photos and detailed descriptions of the best caffes in Florence, by neighborhood.

Order from Amazon

Click to buy from Amazon

Joe Wolff, Cafe Life in Rome: A Guidebook to the Cafes and Bars of the Eternal City, photos by Roger Paperno, Interlink Books, 2002

Good book with photos and detailed descriptions of the best caffes in Rome, by neighborhood.

Order from Amazon

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