During their semester stay for Study Abroad in Rome, the students are obviously immersed in “all things Italian”. While there might be many similarities between Italy and the U.S., the truth is that daily life here can be very different from daily life at home. Things we take for granted might not even cross the minds of Italians. Conversely, what they consider “normal” is often “strange” or “surprising” for Americans.
Matthew Tinsley, a Theology Major and Finance Minor from Worcester, Massachusetts, has written a guest blog on the coffee culture of Italy. Matt confesses to be a “coffee-oholic” at home. And here he has noticed several differences in the way Italian understand, consume, and celebrate their most preferred beverage. His reflections are below.
On a typical morning here in Rome, at around 9:00 A.M., I leave my apartment on Via Cola di Rienzo and head for class. I stop in a “bar” (café) along the way, stand at the counter, and order my coffee: “Prendo un caffè, per favore.” At a typical bar in the city you’ll find businessmen, construction workers, lawyers, policemen—people of all professions patiently standing together, enjoying simple conversation and waiting for their coffees. After finishing my espresso, I wave to the workers and continue on with my day. This is the coffee culture here in Rome. It is relaxed, conversational, and it is very much a part of the Roman daily routine.
When I think back to my experiences ordering coffee in New England, I picture this: A long and discouraging line of F-150s, covered in snow and sand, sitting at the Drive-Thru of a Dunkin Donuts. While this is hardly the only way to get coffee in the U.S., let us consider how this image contrasts from the coffee culture here in Rome.
How is the coffee itself different? The translation of “coffee” from English to Italian is “caffè,” yet each word refers to a different beverage. When Romans order caffè, they are really ordering a small cup of espresso. If I wanted the type of coffee that you would typically find at American diners, Dunkin’ Donuts, Honey Dew and so on, then I would have to specify, “caffè Americano”.
There are many, many ways to take your coffee here. A caffè lungo is an espresso with added water, whereas a caffè ristretto is a stronger, more concentrated espresso. There is the macchiato, which is coffee with milk, and it is served caldo, or freddo, hot or cold. One may order a caffè shakerato, which involves putting coffee and ice cubes in a shaker and serving it in a cocktail glass. After dinner, one might enjoy a caffè corretto, or coffee with added liquor, (typically Grappa or Sambuca). There is also the caffè marocchino, which consists of coffee mixed with chocolate powder. As you can imagine, the list goes on.
Indeed, there are many different types of coffee here in Italy, but in fairness, the same can be said of the U.S. How else could the coffee culture be different in Rome than in the States? I submit that the way people drink coffee here is much different. For example, Italians do not have an easy phrase for taking coffee “To-Go”; you would have to say, “caffè da portare via,” or literally “to take away.”
I have yet to see a major and dominant chain coffee company in Rome, let alone a “Drive-Thru” option for motorists. Romans prefer taking their time while drinking coffee; they’ll often enjoy a cup while standing at the cafe countertop, reading the newspaper or simply exchanging small-talk with the bartenders. If someone is eating or drinking while walking down the street, it is likely that that person is not Italian.
I have enjoyed observing the differences between the coffee culture in Italy and the U.S. I think this experience has given me a glimpse into the broader cultural traits of each country as a whole.