In honor of International Coffee Day, which was just celebrated this past Monday (October 1 each year), we take a look at the different ways in which coffee is prepared and enjoyed depending on the Italian region or city where you are.
It’s well-known that Italians are passionate about coffee; the way it’s prepared though (in addition to the cost of a cup of coffee, much cheaper in the south) changes from region to region, or even from city to city.
The main differences are, as in many other aspects of Italian life, between the north and the south.
In the south, coffee is preferred strong and creamy; before it’s gulped down, people like to drink a small glass of cold water to cleanse the palate, so it will better withstand the high temperature of the coffee and amplify its taste and persistence (drinking water after takes away the aroma produced by coffee in the mouth). The aftertaste must be sharp and slightly bitter, which some balance with the addition of sugar.
In the south, and especially in Naples, where drinking coffee is a ritual, coffee is served in a heated cup in order to maintain its warmth and enhance its flavor to the fullest.
Speaking of Naples, this is the city that invented the generous tradition of ‘caffè sospeso’ (suspended coffee), the habit to pay for one additional coffee for someone else to enjoy. This rite started in Naples at the beginning of the 20th century, and has caught on in other parts of the world as well.
In the north, consumers tend to prefer more delicate aromas, with medium roasting and a sweet aftertaste. For this reason, the most popular variety is the Arabica as it corresponds to these characteristics.
Espresso is the most requested coffee beverage, but the ‘marocchino’ is also popular, ‘corrected’ (corretto) with hot milk and cocoa. Summer versions can also be found in the north, caffè shakerato (shaken coffee) made with vanilla liqueur.
Let’s look at some specific traditions according to city or region, moving from north to south.
In the Aosta Valley, ‘caffè alla valdostana’ is not only a coffee drink but also a way to drink coffee, which involves the ‘grolla,’ a wooden cup typical of the region passed on from one friend to the next. The ingredients include sugar, lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon and juniper.
The well-known and beloved ‘bicerin’ is Turin’s signature coffee drink, which evolved from the 18th-century Bavareisa, the typical breakfast of the wealthy Turinesi who frequented the cafés of the time. Bicerin is a yummy combination of coffee, chocolate and cream, served in a small glass, in separate layers. To savor its aroma, mix the three components with a teaspoon before drinking it.
Padua’s ‘patavina’ coffee tradition dates to the 19th century, and was popular with intellectuals and politicians who met in the city's cafés. ‘Patavina’ combines espresso with cream (panna), to which milk, a sprinkling of cocoa and mint syrup are added.
The Moretta fanese, Moretta di Fano or simply Moretta is a coffee originating in the city of Fano in the Marche region. It’s strong and sweet, and is usually drunk as a digestive after meals or for a burst of energy in the afternoon. It is a ‘caffè corretto’ (in Italy it means coffee with the addition of a small amount of liquor), with a mixture of liqueur made from anise, rum and brandy, approximately in equal parts, although there are personal variations. According to tradition, the Moretta originated among the sailors and fishermen of the port of Fano, who needed a bit of alcohol and very hot drinks to warm up and reinvigorate before going to sea. In the past, poverty led to avoiding waste, so leftover liqueurs were mixed together; from this the Moretta was born.
In Naples there is a special variation which features hazelnut, giving coffee an intense and creamy flavor. Cream is placed on the bottom of the cup, and hot coffee is poured over it, for a sweet temperature contrast.
[Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.]
Naples even invented its own coffee maker, the ‘cuccumella’, used to prepare the traditional ‘tazzulella’: an intense black coffee with a very persistent aroma. The peculiarity of this coffee maker is the slowness of percolation, which transforms the preparation of coffee into a true ritual, celebrated also in art, songs and literature.
Salento coffee in Puglia is also special and can be prepared in two ways: by dropping an ice cube in the cup of sweetened coffee or by pouring the sweetened coffee into a glass that already contains the ice. A variation on this is a coffee drink that is especially associated with summer, in fact it is popular in cafés along the Puglia coast, although it originated in Lecce in the 1950s. Almond milk is poured in the cup, then espresso is added, and everything is covered with ice.
Coffee in Calabria is enhanced with the flavor of a plant that is typical of the region, licorice, and not just that. Calabrian coffee is prepared this way: sugar and brandy are heated together in the glass, in the meantime a licorice tablet is crushed and added to the liqueur, and finally hot espresso is poured.
In Sicily, an island influenced by different cultures, try caffè d’u parrinu, an Arabic-inspired coffee flavored with cloves, cinnamon and cocoa powder, mentioned by Nicoletta Agnello Hornby in her novel “Con un filo d’olio”.
Want to learn how to order coffee in Italian? Check out our language lesson.