Italians are known to stick to their culture and traditions, and their coffee, with its unmistakable heavily roasted flavour, is no doubt among them. An aroma that contains all those bittersweet tones explaining why Italians are so in love with it. Available in different varieties, it is generally served with a glass of water aside.
Italian coffee history dates back to the 16th century. Since the first coffee was poured in Venice, Italians never ceased to claim their sincere adoration for a beverage that would have later become a real cornerstone of Italian culture. The Serenissima Republic of Venice was in fact one of the first European states to import coffee beans when they reached the Old Continent. Founded in 1720 and located in outstanding and iconic Piazza San Marco, Caffè Florian, is the most ancient operating coffee house in the world. Many of the most important international personalities and artists of the past – such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lord Byron and Giacomo Casanova – habitually stopped by there for a coffee, while sharing intellectual conversations. Hosting people of every social class, Caffè Florian would have set a precedent for the social role a coffee house could hold.
During the 19th century, Italian patriots and statesmen in bowler hats would have met in Turin’s elegant coffee shops and cafés in order to plan the country’s unification, while at the beginning of the XX century Italy would have emerged as the global leader in the commerce of coffee soon after the inventions of the businessman Angelo Moriondo. In 1884 he presented a new machine able to produce a short and concentrated drink, the so-called espresso, whose name derives from its brewing: it could be prepared appositely for each consumer, since water had to be expressed through the coffee. In 1901, the project was than revised by the engineer Luigi Bezzera, which allowed to spread this preparation system throughout Italy.
Easy to make and good to wake, espresso rapidly became an emblem of the turn of the century, together with high-speed train sharing its name. Espresso machines became popular in the “American bars”, where customers could stand at the counter instead of sitting at the table. The first one to be opened in Italy was the Caffé Maranesi, located in Florence and also known as Caffè dei Ritti, referring to “the standing people” that were hosted in the inside.
Still nowadays, many Italian households do have a moka, a stove-top brewer able to extract a great tasting coffee within the walls of your home!
During World War II, coffee basically disappeared, due to the embargo that the League of Nations imposed on Fascist Italy, and was actually replaced by surrogates, such as barley. The first idea of the Italian style espresso as we know it can be traced back to the city of Turin, after which many took inspiration from and created their own versions and modifications, such as the barista Achille Gaggia in 1948, during the post-war period. He introduced a new pressure extraction of the precious beans, a technique which also turned out to be important for the following history of Italian coffee, as it made it possible to obtain an even more concentrated and aromatic drink with the distinctive crema on the surface.
After Achille Gaggia’s invention, many new professional coffee machines would have been conceived during the 1950s, when large companies began to produce and make available models that could be increasingly accessible to the general public.
In his youth Italo Calvino was a regular at Caffè Talmone, in Turin, where he used to drink Italian espresso with a layer of foam on top and meet up with other intellectuals to discuss books, politics and current affairs.
Let’s take a journey through the different types of Italian coffee, in order to understand which may be more appropriate for each consumer’s tastes.
When the day breaks, it is customary in Italy to consume the first coffee of the day, generally accompanied, in one way or another, by milk, since a typical Italian breakfast certainly includes a sweet pastry paired with a delightful cup of coffee. The most popular and tasty recipes including milk are the famous Cappuccino , requiring one shot of espresso, and equal parts of steamed and foamed milk, the Caffelatte, which consists of an espresso with more steamed milk and less foam, and the Latte macchiato, namely steamed milk with a drop of espresso. You will never taste a better drink based on coffee and milk elsewhere, since the first steam-driven coffee machine was indeed invented there! Regardless, Italians do not order milky coffee after 11 am.
Considered as the authentic Italian coffee, the espresso, is instead preferred at lunchtime or later in the day. Over time, Italians have created dozens of varieties and alterations including espresso itself. The Caffè americano is to be considered as a taste of home Italians intend to offer to their guests from the United States as an interpretation of their habits in terms of coffee. It involves Italian espresso diluted with plenty of hot water. For its part, caffè lungo, a “long coffee”, is a similar but is just made by extending the extraction of a regular espresso.
Besides, each Italian region boasts a unique and motley coffee culture. While espresso is undoubtedly pervasive, one can find so many diverse regional twists and unexpected combinations. When visiting the region of Marche, it is possible to enjoy a caffè anisette, a delicious anise-flavored espresso, while in Sicily the arabesque-tasting caffè d’u parrinu includes cinnamon, cloves and cocoa.
Italy has a wide historically rich culture and is prominent in so many different fields. When you think of Italy, it's all about amazing landscapes and monuments, art and tradition, food and wine, but also, last but not least, coffee.
When visiting Italy, you have probably run into the following sentences a thousand times: “Time for a coffee”, “a coffee on the fly”, or the pretty common “we must have a coffee together once of these!”. Whether in a bar or being a guest at someone’s home, you can count on Italians to brew and drink coffee. Though, why is Italian coffee culture so special? Why is good Italian coffee so delicious? We may look at it as a culmination of traditions, customs and historical contributing factors. While different regions have their own variations, the fundamentals are the same, since Italians would never give up their espresso at standing bar in a groovy social atmosphere. This is just one of the customs explaining how coffee is an integral part of Italian everyday life and culture. It even marks the passage of time and serves as a constant pretext for dating. No wonder several of the most internationally renowned coffee brands were born in Italy.