Coffee in Italy is a captivating blend of tradition, artistry, and community, captivating the taste buds of visitors and locals alike. From the rich, velvety espresso to the sweet, frothy sip of a marocchino, Italian coffee traditions have made quite a mark on the world of coffee. Let’s dive in and explore what makes coffee in Italy so special, and where you can find the best cup.
History of Coffee in Italy
Coffee was introduced to Italy in the early 16th century when Venetian merchants brought beans from their travels to the Ottoman Empire. Initially regarded as a medicinal drink, coffee quickly gained popularity among the aristocratic circles of Venice. The first coffeehouses, known as “botteghe del caffe,” appeared in Venice in the late 17th century, serving as social hubs where intellectuals, artists, and merchants gathered to exchange ideas.
From Venice, coffee culture spread across Italy, with coffeehouses opening in major cities like Turin, Rome, and Naples. By the 18th century, coffee had become an integral part of Italian society, transcending class barriers and becoming a symbol of Italian conviviality.
The advent of espresso revolutionized the Italian coffee scene. Angelo Moriondo created the first espresso machine in 1884, allowing the coffee to be brewed under high pressure, resulting in a rich and intense beverage. This invention meant it was quicker to get your coffee, and more clients could be served on their break. Espresso quickly became the foundation of Italian coffee culture, consumed throughout the day in small, concentrated servings.
In the early 20th century, the introduction of the Moka pot and the Neapolitan coffee maker further changed coffee in Italy. The Moka pot became an iconic symbol and household staple. It allowed households to brew coffee on stovetops, bringing the aroma and taste of fresh coffee into the comfort of homes. Similarly, the Neapolitan coffee maker, also known as the “cuccumella,” offered a traditional brewing method using two stacked chambers. These affordable and convenient home brewing devices played a significant role in popularizing coffee and making it accessible to a wider audience.
Coffee Culture in Italy
In Italy, coffee is more than just a drink, as you probably experienced on your first day here. From the quick chat at the bank to the obligatory offering to house guests, and of course, comparing which bar has the best coffee at the best price, coffee is present in every moment of the day.
Espresso is the foundation of Italian coffee culture, and is consumed throughout the day in small, concentrated servings. Italians also enjoy a variety of other popular coffee options, such as cappuccino, macchiato, caffè latte, marocchino (with a bit of cacao) and caffè Americano.
You’ll notice quite a few little rituals when it comes to coffee culture in Italy. Italians enjoy their coffee al banco, standing at the bar. This is a fast-paced moment of the day, contrary to the slow life in Italy. In many places, coffee is often consumed with a small glass of water to cleanse the palate and enhance the coffee’s flavors.
And of course most places you go you’ll taste an espresso rather than a filter or other preparation.
Art of Espresso
There’s quite a process that goes into creating the perfect cup of espresso. I won’t lie to you – not every bar can do it perfectly. A perfect espresso starts with the right selection of beans and the right roast, and moves down to the actual process. It involves using specialized equipment and techniques to create a perfect shot. Here are some of the factors that go into making a great espresso:
- Equipment: A professional espresso machine is necessary, and yes it matters.
- Coffee Beans: Italians prefer a medium to dark roast. The beans are freshly ground just before extraction. Every bar serves a specific coffee -personally, I always trust a Lavazza bar, but everyone has their preferences.
- Grind Size: A fine grind is used to increase the surface area.
- Temperature: setting the machine at the right temperature can make a world of difference!
- Extraction Time: The extraction time is critical for achieving the desired flavors and typically ranges from 25 to 30 seconds.
Espresso-making requires practice, skill, and an understanding of the variables at play. From adjusting the grind size and extraction time to perfecting the amount of a pour, the barista’s expertise brings out the best.
Specialty Coffee & The Future of Coffee in Italy
Specialty coffee is gaining ground in Italy, marking a shift from traditional espresso culture. The country has embraced the global “third wave” coffee movement, focusing on quality, traceability, and direct relationships with farmers.
Artisanal coffee roasters are sourcing high-quality beans and showcasing single-origin and specialty coffee blends. Alternative brewing methods such as pour-over and AeroPress have gained popularity, offering diverse flavors and brewing styles. Specialty coffee shops have emerged, prioritizing transparency and providing detailed information about the coffee’s origin and flavor profiles. Italian coffee enthusiasts are embracing the complexity and diversity of coffee flavors and seeking out specialty coffee shops for their commitment to quality and innovation.
If you are looking for some excellent specialty roasters, here are a few to try:
- Ditta Artigianale: Located in Florence, they’ve quickly become a favorite coffee spot of locals and visitors. You can buy their coffee online, or in the shop to take home with you.
- Caffè San Domenico: roasting in the Val di Susa of Piedmont, they use Slow Food Presidia beans and slow roast over birchwood fire.
- I Druper: located in Trento, they have many single-origin and personal blends made.
Where to experience the best coffee in Italy
Now, I have to be honest, the location doesn’t make any difference to the coffee, and no city can truly claim the best coffee – it’s all about what beans they are using and the barista. But there are a few cities that claim a bit more coffee culture than the others. So if you are looking to explore Italian coffee culture deeper, there are a few key destinations you should consider:
- Torino: a city renowned for its historical coffee houses such as Caffè San Carlo and Caffè Mulassano. It is also the birthplace of espresso, and home to international coffee brands such as: Lavazza, Costadoro, and Caffe Vergnano. Take yourself on a coffee tour of Turin with this guide.
- Napoli: the city that claims to be the city of coffee. You can experience historic coffee establishments like Caffè Gambrinus and Caffè Mexico, plus learn about the famous cuccumella at Caffè Cuccuma.
- Milano: Milan is home to iconic coffee institutions such as Caffè Cova and Caffè Sambuco. Explore the city’s modern coffee scene, stop at Cafezal, and explore this map for more!
- Trieste: here you’ll find a strong coffee heritage influenced by its historical ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Discover Caffè Tommaseo and Caffè degli Specchi, which have been serving exceptional coffee since the 19th century.