My favorite part of my daily routine is drinking coffee in the morning. Whether brewed at home or from one of my favorite coffee shops, it’s a time when I can relax and have my much-needed alone time to recharge, do homework or chill with a friend.
When arriving in Italy, naturally one of the first things I did was seek out a cup of coffee the morning after landing. I immediately noticed coffee is one of the biggest cultural differences between Italy and America — both coffee shops and the drinks themselves.
Besides being a coffee snob, I’ve also been a barista for three years at both a Starbucks and a small business, so I know a thing or two about a good cup of coffee.
Coffee shops in Italy are called “bars,” typically serving coffee, pastries and panini during the day and alcoholic drinks such as wine or spritz in the evening — although it’s more normalized in Italy to have a glass or two during the day as well.
Coffee bars are quaint and have limited seating both outside and in. There’s usually open counter space as it’s very common for people to sit or stand and drink their espresso there, right when the barista gives it to you.
The coffee culture in Italy is simple and slower. You’re meant to sit down to savor and enjoy it. It’s more uncommon to get your cup of joe “da portare via” (to-go) than it is in the United States where many coffee shops give you a takeaway cup as the default — although you can always request one.
A major difference is the menu itself. While American coffee shops typically have a diverse menu of drinks, milks and flavors, Italian bars are usually more limited in their options.
Italy doesn’t have the drip coffee that’s commonly consumed by Americans. Worst of all, they don’t have cold brew or any beloved iced latte drinks or fun flavors. I frequently find myself missing my cold brew with almond milk creamer. I’ve only found iced coffee (the weaker cold brew) at one location so far, right outside the Colosseum.
Instead, Italy is known for its espresso.
Cappuccinos are probably the most popular coffee drink in Italy and have three parts: espresso, milk and milk froth. Italians drink these at breakfast paired with a pastry such as a cornetto, which is essentially an Italian croissant that can be plain or filled with Nutella, custard or cream.
Although after lunchtime, don’t order a cappuccino. Italians don’t drink them after lunch because they are heavier and can disrupt digestion. Instead, order an espresso for a quick pick-me-up.
Italy also doesn’t have lattes. Well, technically they do — but if you ask for one they’ll give you a glass of milk. In Italian, “latte” directly translates to milk and isn’t the creamy coffee drink you know and love. The closest thing to it would probably be a latte macchiato, which has a layer of milk, a layer of espresso and topped with a dollop or two of foam.
American coffee shops offer diverse options depending on the spot you go to. Go to Philz (my personal favorite) and you’ll find a menu with tons of coffee bean options for a freshly brewed drip hot or iced. Venture out to Edie’s Cafe in River North and you can try an experimental drink like a sparkly charcoal latte.
All three of these spots have very different atmospheres depending on what you’re looking for. In contrast, Italian coffee bars, while not all the same, have a consistently similar vibe.
The pitfall of American coffee is the price. A good cup of coffee costs $4 to $7 unless you get a watered-down, flavorless gas station coffee for a buck or two. This is different in Italy, where I haven’t paid more than two euros for an excellent cappuccino or espresso and have been hard-pressed to find a bad cup of coffee at all.
American coffee culture is more fun, with a variety of drink options, flavors and add-ons. You can seek out a relaxing coffee shop with 1930s Art Deco decor like Cafe Deko or a creative and colorful shop like Collectivo, where you can also get a bomb breakfast burrito.
Though far simpler, Italy has consistently better coffee for an amazing price, and their equally cheap pastries and sandwiches are also unmatched.
I’d boil it down to this — if you love your coffee drink iced or love fun flavors like toasted marshmallow, American coffee wins. If you’re a coffee purist, then it’s Italy for the win. Either way, both cultures offer very different experiences and have amazing coffee concoctions.