Drinking coffee is a unique experience in Italy and it is nothing like drinking coffee in the United States.
An Italian caffe’, or espresso, comes in a tiny white cup and it is a deep brown syrupy-looking liquid at the bottom with a few little lighter brown bubbles around the edges. Italians stand at the coffee bar, throw back their caffe’ and leave.
There is also cappuccino which in Italy go in the size of a larger coffee cup, has the same amount of espresso caffe’ at the bottom but then is filled up with a lovely fluffy layer of milk. Italians also drink their cappuccino’s standing up. For that reason a cappuccino is usually served tepid.
As an American, I like to linger over my coffee, I would prefer to sit down and have a good chat with someone over the coffee, and perhaps nibble on something sweet. That is not the Italian way. I have had to learn to speed it up. My colleagues and I often make our mid-morning visit to the coffee bar. I always order my cappuccino “caldo, caldo” (hot, hot) because I don’t like it tepid. My colleagues think I am crazy. They throw back their cappuccinos and caffes and then are standing around waiting while I sip at my hot cappucino.
In the US, Starbucks has taken the Italian coffee drinks and Americanized them. All the coffee you get at Starbucks that has the same name as one you might get in Italy– caffe’, caffe macchiato, caffe’ latte, cappucino– is tripled in size. Starbucks mostly gives you the coffee in to-go containers. To-go containers don’t exist in Italy. If I ask at the coffee bar below my office for an espresso or a cappucino to-go the coffee bar-tender will put it in a little plastic cup and carefully fold a napkin over the top. During the brief walk back up to the office the napkin inevitably gets wet with coffee and slops down inside and it is usually undrinkable by the time I get back upstairs. The whole Starbucks atmosphere – with tables and comfortable couches for lounging on and reading while lingering over one’s coffee– does not exist in Italy. No lengthy lounging or lingering or you will pay a high price for it. If you sit at a table in a coffee bar in Italy, you will be served by a waiter and pay double the price.
After my husband and I got engaged, I learned his mother was not happy with the idea. An American and non-Catholic would not have been her first-choice for a wife for her son. I was invited over to Italy to try to convince his family of my charms. It was a daunting task. I was worried they thought there was something wrong with me –like I might have a purple tail. I was determined to be on my toes, always appear well-dressed, be articluate and charming and keep my purple tail tucked away out of view.
My 28-year-old future husband stayed at his home while I was given a room in his sweet grandmother’s apartment. My first morning there his grandmother informed me that my future mother-in-law was on her way over and the three of us would go out for a coffee. I panicked. What were they going to do to me? What would they ask me? Did I have all my arguments ready? Could I turn off my aggressive, happy-go-lucky, all-American journalist personality and be discreet, charming and demure?
My future mother-in-law picked us up and we drove down the street to a coffee bar. She double-parked and we went inside. It was packed. We had trouble getting up to the counter. My future mother-in-law asked me what I would like and I said a cappuccino and a cornetto (croissant). They both got espressos. The coffee bartender handed me a croissant in a napkin and I stood there awkwardly holding it wondering if there was a table anywhere. My future mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law stepped up to the bar, and threw back their espressos. They then stepped aside and my lonely cappuccino was sitting on the counter. I asked if there were any tables anywhere, still convinced that they wanted to talk to me and not wanting to have a conversation standing up in the middle of all that chaos. They kindly found a tiny, round table at the back of the bar and I carried over my cappuccino. I sat down and awkwardly ate my cornetto and drank my cappuccino as they stood waiting.
And that was that. Having a coffee in Italy does not mean having a heart-to-heart conversation. It is a way to be together with someone briefly, throw back that little squirt of exquisite black liquid, get the caffeine jolt, and move on.
And, guess what, it was so fast, they never noticed my purple tail.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.