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Italian lessons, Part I: Coffee-time, Roma-style
Don't order this after 10 a.m. in Italy or you'll get a crusty look from your barista.
By Andrew Hood 

Italian lessons, Part I: Coffee-time, Roma-style

By Andrew Hood

May 28, 2008 —  When you’re ready for a coffee in Rome, don’t do like the tourists do.

Sure, it’s off-the-charts romantic to sit in a piazza in front of the 2,000-year-old Pantheon and soak up its pulsating history while sipping a frothy cappuccino.

But in these days of the ever-shrinking dollar, it’s wise to watch the locals.

How do the Romans do it? They sip their coffee at the bar and leave the sight-seeing for the evening passegiata, or stroll.

For most Italians, the idea of sitting down for a coffee is as alien as drinking their cherished beverage from a plastic to-go cup. It just doesn’t bridge the cultural gap, no matter how many Starbucks keep sprouting up in Milan, Rome and Florence.

Italian lessons, Part I: Coffee-time, Roma-style
The piazza in Cerfalu, Sicily, is a scenic site where you'll likely pay through the nose to linger and sip a coffee.
By Andrew Hood 

For the authentic (and more economical) coffee experience, sip your brew on your feet. Italians drink their coffee fast, fresh, hot and at the bar. Standing up, usually reading the morning paper as well.

Almost all those terraces and outdoor cafes in the heart of any Italian historic district will be loaded with American, Brit and Japanese tourists. It’s not that the locals don’t love their monuments, it’s just they know how to enjoy them without paying through the nose for the view.

Here’s how you get your coffee, Italian-style:

First, go to the cassa, or cashier, usually near the entrance of the bar. Lay down your euros and say what you want. Grab the receipt and walk to the bar. The barman might ask you what you want or simply look at the receipt. Putting a 10- or 20-cent coin on top of the receipt as a tip for the barista typically speeds up the process.

Then it’s bam-boom-blam, and your freshly prepared, piping-hot coffee is presented to you in a flourish only the Italians can muster, typically with a nice touch of a signature twirl of the froth atop your cappuccino. Add sugar, suck it down, and off you go.

If you want that brew with a view, however, it won’t come cheap. The general rule is, the further you are from the bar, the more it’s going to cost you.

A cappuccino (only taken at breakfast, by the way) typically sets you back between 1 and 1.50 euros, depending on the establishment. At the famous Sant'Eustachio café, just around the corner from the Pantheon, a cappuccino at the bar costs 1.25. Take it sitting down inside, double the price. Order it while sitting in one of those cafés facing the Trevi Fountain, expect to pay up to 5 euros.

Sometimes a splurge when you do get to those postcard moments is simply worth it.

Traveling to Italy is a sensory experience, and there’s nothing better than admiring the handiwork of a Roman architect from two millenniums ago while enjoying the handiwork of today’s best coffee artisans.

Those 6 euro cappuccinos seem like a bargain when you’re sitting with a view of a 2,000-year-old intact Roman temple.

Just don’t do the conversion back to dollars. It might give you indigestion.

Andrew Hood is in Italy all month covering the Giro d’Italia. He gets his morning coffee standing at the local bar with a copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport in arm.



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