Follow Caterina and read about Italian girlfriends meeting at an Italian bar for cappuccino in the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books!
The Conversational Italian for Travelers textbook begins each chapter with a dialogue from a story about the character Caterina, an American girl who travels to Italy to visit her relatives. As the story continues from one chapter to the next, we learn Italian, and about Italy, in an engaging way through Caterina’s experiences.
After Caterina settles into the routine of daily life with her family in Italy, her sister-in-law, Francesca, invites Caterina to have coffee and lunch with an Italian girlfriend. The women meet at an Italian café, also known as a bar, and order espresso coffee and sandwiches. They also meet someone special, so feel free to listen in on their Italian conversation at our website www.LearnTravelItalian.com and learn some Italian phrases of endearment for that special someone in your life!
The Cultural Note below, adapted from the Conversational Italian for Travelers textbook, talks a bit about the history of espresso and cappuccino and how each drink and its variations are made. Read on and then order your own favorite Italian coffee drink—here or in Italy!
The Italian Bar
Italian-style coffee, or caffè, has become so popular in America today that confronting the list of coffees available in an Italian bar may not be as intimidating as it once was. The list of specialty coffees offered by a coffee bar is usually displayed on a large sign behind the counter, opposite where one stands to place an order.
Most Italians pay at the counter and drink their coffee standing up at the counter as well, often fairly quickly, before proceeding on to their next appointment. Space is at a premium all over Italy, and most coffee bars have only a few small tables. So, for the luxury of a seat, the price for the same coffee is slightly higher. But although the fee is higher, I’ve always felt that for visitors, it is nice to sit down at a table with a friend, have a waiter take your order, and have coffee and any pastries or sandwiches brought to you. Then relax and enjoy while watching the world go by!
If you want an Italian coffee, keep in mind the general “rule” that most Italians follow: cappuccino in the mornings, usually before 10–11 a.m., and espresso later in the day. This “rule” may have come from the many well-meaning Italian mothers and their idea that milk is bad for digestion, although I don’t think anyone really knows how it started.
To support this theory, consider that those of us raised by Italian-American mothers (like myself) were often told that milk does not “go with” Italian food—that is, a tomato sauce–based meal, of course. Eat tomato sauce and drink milk and maybe, just maybe, the milk will curdle in your stomach! End result: indigestion. Not what an Italian cook wants for her family after hours spent making a special meal! In our house, soda for the children was a once- or twice-weekly event—with Italian dinners only! (If you want, leave a comment and let me know the “tradition in your Italian household. I’d love to hear!)
Of course, if you like your coffee the American way, order a caffè americano any time! Read on for a few fun facts about Italian coffee drinks and what to expect to receive when you order an espresso- or cappuccino-type drink in Italy.
From the Italian Bar: True Espresso Drinks
In Italian bars, all coffee drinks are made by the specially trained barista (this title is used for men and women). Espresso means fast or quick and refers to the method of brewing the coffee.
The classic espresso takes 7 grams of fresh, finely ground dark-roasted coffee beans, filtered under high pressure by an industrial espresso maker, with just the right amount of hot water to fill an espresso cup halfway to the top. There will be a layer of crema (foam) on the top as the result of the high pressure those large, gleaming stainless steel coffee shop machines can generate to make the coffee. For more information about how the modern-day commercial espresso machine came about and the components of these industrial espresso makers, click on this link from the Smithsonian magazine and this espresso equipment link.
Add sugar or, for a caffè corretto, a shot of brandy or one of the other liquors always found on the shelves of coffee bars. For a caffè lungo, extra water is added to fill the espresso cup to the top. For a ristretto, less water is used for the same amount of coffee grounds, to one quarter of the cup.
The popular stovetop espresso maker that is part of every Italian household—and I mean every household—here and in Italy is shaped like an octagon. Don’t expect to get a real crema in this case, because this coffee pot does not operate under the high pressure of the industrial espresso makers, but this classic espresso pot is an easy, inexpensive, and convenient way to brew your everyday espresso.
All stovetop espresso makers require very finely ground espresso beans packed firmly in place into a metal coffee filter that fits into the center of the pot. Freshly ground beans are, of course, best.
Put water in the bottom half of the stovetop espresso pot, insert the filter with its coffee grounds, twist on the top, and heat over medium-high heat. The water in the bottom compartment will boil, and the steam will move upward through the coffee grounds in the filter to re-condense as coffee in the top compartment.
Below is a picture of my favorite home espresso set that I picked up in Rome at one of its famous coffee bars, Cafè Sant’Eustachio. (Leave a comment if you can find the orange cat waiting for his morning coffee in the background on this lovely fall day!)
From the Italian Bar—Cappuccino, Anyone?
The Italian cappuccino drink that we know today is a fairly recent development of the 20th century, although historians have found coffee drinks with a similar name that date back to 18th century Austria.
Cappuccino coffee is said to be named after the Italian Franciscan order of Capuchin monks, presumably because the combination of the dark brown color of the coffee and the milk froth (schiuma) that tops the drink is reminiscent of the white-faced monks in their habit with the distinctive dark brown hood.
This short explanation begs the question, “How did the Italian Capuchin monks get their name?” In Italian, the word “cappuccio” means “hood.” Adding the diminutive “ino” ending for the coffee drink changes the meaning of the word into “little hood.” This may sound like a lot of trouble to go to just to name a coffee drink, although one should remember the Italian tradition of nicknaming people and food based on catchy associations that then become a part of Italian tradition.
The now classic Italian cappuccino calls for three equal parts espresso coffee, milk, and milk froth, and is served in a large coffee cup. The milk froth is traditionally made by steaming low-fat milk with the wand attachment on the espresso machine.
Gently stir in some sugar if you like, then sprinkle the froth with a bit of cocoa powder, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
For a smaller coffee drink with milk later in the day, foam can be added to an espresso for a speckled drink called caffè macchiato that is served in an espresso cup.
Above all, enjoy your cappuccino drink as a delicious start to your morning!
-Adapted from Conversational Italian for Travelers, “Cultural Note – Italian Coffees,” by Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Italian Barista Asks, “Cappuccino, Anyone?”