While researching restaurants and cafés for my month-long tour of Italy, I came across an article that mentioned the strong coffee culture that is as inherently deep rooted in tradition and custom as pasta and olive oil. Immediately, I conjured up images of Julia Roberts yelling her order at the barista across a crowded counter in Rome a là Eat, Pray, Love. Thankfully, I made a couple Italian friends who took me under their wing (just like Julia!) and taught me the art of il culto de caffé, the unspoken rules that will label even the most accomplished traveller as a tourist if broken. Follow my guide below to blend in with the locals and check out my favorite cafés across Florence, Rome, and Sorrento.
No Milk After 11 o'clock
If you only follow one rule, let this be it - ordering a coffee with milk after breakfast is a huge no-no in Italian culture. While I had heard about this before landing in the country, I was still skeptical when I saw others (ok, only tourists) still ordering cappuccinos and lattes well after lunch. My friend Tania, a wonderful Australian woman who had been calling Sorrento home for six months while studying photography, confirmed this was in fact "a thing." Not only should any milky form of coffee only be enjoyed in the morning, but also never on a full stomach - not typically an issue for an Italian when your usual breakfast is a simple croissant. Rumor has it that while coffee is a wonderful digestive aid, milk is not and is considered too heavy and filling for the afternoon or evening. Instead, order a single shot of espresso or caffé in Italian.
Worried that a single shot of espresso may not cure your caffeine withdrawals but don't want to look like a tourist ordering that latte at two in the afternoon? Double it up with two shots of espresso! Though not commonly ordered by locals, who prefer to take the "less but more frequent" route, you'll still avoid judgy looks from the barista and maybe even a smile if you ask for a doppio, or double shot.
Keep It Simple
Leave the fancy orders at home. You won't be able to get a Grande Triple Shot Vanilla Soy Latte No Foam in Italy - well, you can, but that means going to Starbucks which is practically sacrilegious in a country where local cafés are not only better but around every corner.
Stand, Don't Sit
You'll notice most cafés have a distinct lack of seating, but plenty of bar space; many cafés in Italy include a surcharge for sitting and believe that coffee (especially a quick shot of espresso) should be enjoyed hot. Takeaway coffee is a foreign concept in Italy and you rarely will find this an option anywhere. My first attempt at ordering in Italian was while walking through Verona and ordering un caffé per favore from the barista in a relatively empty café. Thankfully, no one was around to witness my poor Italian and the man was still able to understand my mumbled order, happily serving me at the bar with a tiny glass of water to wash down the strong shot of espresso.
Hold the Ice
As I mentioned above, Italians believe coffee should be enjoyed hot, even in the middle of summer. While there are a couple cafés that cater to the expat crowd in larger cities like Florence and Rome, you'll otherwise be out of luck if you're craving something cold with caffeine.
What's the Rush
While we're accustomed to paying at the time of order in America, the opposite is true in Italy. Similar to the lack of takeaway options, Italians move at a much slower pace and seemingly are never in a rush, especially when coffee is involved. You'll find if you order at the bar, you're only expected to pay once you've taken the time to enjoy and finish your coffee, even if you end up chatting to Francesco for 15 minutes about how the family is doing between sips.
Spending a week or more in Florence, Rome, and Sorrento gave me plenty of time to explore the cities and discover different cafés. Check out my top recommendations below and visit them yourself if you're in the area!
La Milkeria is a charming little café located about a 5 minute walk down a side street from the Duomo. Decorated with a certain 50's nostalgia in mind, they offer limited seating that was packed nearly every time I wandered in. Their coffee is reasonably priced and offer a variety of pastries, gelato, and crepes in addition to their drink menu. They also offer free wifi, making this a great place to enjoy a snack and recharge, however it is not laptop-friendly.
News Café is the perfect spot to break almost every rule listed above. Known for it's cappuccino art, I broke rule number one several times just so I could see what sort of fancy design I'd get in my cup. We're not just talking hearts and flowers here; these baristas mean business and can easily recreate the duomo in your foam. The café also offers ample seating, free wifi, and cheap prices, catering to the city's large student population. There's also an adorable French Bulldog that you can catch snoozing by the door or waddling about freely from table to table.
Barnum Café is the perfect place for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktails. Located near the famous Campo di Fiori, the bohemian café is popular with both locals and tourists, which can make finding an empty seat a challenge during peak hours. Getting there by morning or late afternoon however, you'll find tables both inside and out featuring cozy couches and arm chairs. With free wifi and multiple outlets available, laptops are welcome throughout the majority of the day except during their busy lunch rush, where tables are reserved for only those ordering meals. With fresh juices in addition to coffee, traditional Italian fair with an updated twist, and a fantastic playlist providing your daily soundtrack, you can't find a better place to post up for an afternoon of work or a night of cocktails.
AntiCafe is modeled after a new approach to the work-friendly café that is slowly gaining popularity across Europe. Unlike your typical café, you don't pay for your food or drinks, but instead pay for the time you spend there. The amount charged varies by how long you stay (hourly or day pass) and if you are a member. The café offers snacks such as cookies, cakes, and chips while water and a variety of coffee options are available to drink. Pros include a quiet, work-friendly space, where you don't feel guilty about over-staying your welcome, but the cost can be a bit steep if you don't plan on taking full advantage of the snacks and beverages provided.
WeLovePuro was my favorite café to grab a morning cappuccino and croissant during my week in Sorrento. Located in the center of town, it's a easy walk from nearly anywhere in the city. Reasonably priced in a city that charges local vs tourist prices, this Italian chain offers a modern vibe with health-conscious options like gluten and lactose free gelato, whole grain breads and fresh pressed juices. Wifi is also available with room to stand at the counter, inside or outside seating, and even several swings along the inside wall for a more playful approach.
Pasticceria Monica is a local bakery and gelateria just off the main road that runs through the town. While I didn't get the chance to go there myself, it was recommended by my friend Tania as her go-to place for a caffé and croissant. Don't expect to find many tourists here; if you happen to walk by, you'll spot locals spilling out of the doorway and old Italian men trading gossip while finishing their afternoon coffee. If you want authenticity, you'll get it at Monica's.