The Italian Coffee Bar

We've asked author and Massican's Roman correspondent, Victoria Cece, to guide us on a journey across Italy. With her insights, we'll be traveling through stories, history, and the vivid tableau of Italian life.

The Italian coffee bar (also known as a caffeteria or, as Italians simply call it, a bar) is not just about coffee. Coffee bars are the social centers of Italian neighborhoods, serving as venues for both lively conversations and solitary moments of reflection.

Join us as Victoria transcends into Italian coffee history and culture, which is as rich and aromatic as the drink itself.
Typical Italian Bar Sign, Rome, Italy

The Cornerstone of Community

Sophia Loren, famous Italian Actress (1964), drinking a coffee.

The Scene

It’s 11:30 a.m. You’re sleepy and a little jet-lagged, staring out your window at an angelic vista of a Roman cupola. Your stomach starts to kick, craving a cappuccino and maybe something sweet. The rumbling leads you into your clothes and out the door. Before you can even pull up Google Maps on your phone, you spot a bar. You walk across the cobbled street and slip inside.

The barista notices you immediately as you approach the chaos at the banco (bar counter) -two women are gossiping over two caffe, and two elderly men are taking shots of grappa. They grin. You wiggle in, elbows first, as the clock strikes 12:02, wondering if you can still get a cappuccino.The barista smiles.

The cappuccino after midday, once a silent discourse, now sits between your fingers, a testament to the evolving heart of Italian traditions. Within 5 minutes, you are adequately caffeinated and have a sugar high from a cornetto con crema (an Italian croissant filled with pastry cream). And you now have a new friend – the barista.

And none of the regulars blinked twice about your afternoon cappuccino.

The Controversy

An Italian coffee bar (also known as a caffeteria or, as Italians simply call it, a bar) is not just about coffee. Coffee bars are the social centers of Italian neighborhoods, serving as venues for both lively conversations and solitary moments of reflection. The culture around Italian coffee bars emphasizes the importance of indulging in life’s pleasures, no matter how small, underscoring the age-old Italian philosophy of la dolce vita – the sweet life. Sure, there are coffee traditions that many love and cherish. Ordering a cappuccino after a meal at a restaurant is not a thing, but here is the thing: an Italian coffee bar isn’t a rigid place – it’s a safe space where you can drink what you wish and go as you please.

And, just like many customs we adore in Italy today, this wasn’t always the case.

The History

Italians weren’t always leisurely lingering at coffee bars.

The caffeteria dates to 16th century Venice, where coffee traditions traveled from the Ottomans to the Austrians and finally landed in the Venetian peninsula, bringing the concept of elegant coffee houses with dark beverages served in porcelain. Further south, a similar event occurred. The French Bourbon’s political marriages with Austrian Habsburgs brought coffee house traditions to the Neapolitan elite.

Caffè del ginocchio (coffee ‘up to the knee’ – referring to the height of a mobile street cart) in places like Milano was the first example of the modern-day Italian coffee bar culture. These carts gave regular folks a dose of caffeine and community in the early hours before long workdays. People would gather around and often fight to get their fix.

The coffee served was a far cry from the creamy shot we are used to today – it was mostly rebrewed grinds. There wasn’t mass-produced espresso yet – an invention of the early 20th century. The espresso machine at this time was new, ornate, and expensive – not very accessible to working-class Italians in pre-war Italy.

As the post-WWII Economic Miracle shifted the socioeconomic landscape, so did the innovations that came with it – and the espresso machine went from manual to mechanized.

The quicker the espresso shots, the more customers and the greater the community building. At Caffe Gambrinus in Napoli we saw the birth of caffe sospeso which opened the doors of the caffeteria (the bar) to everyone. Caffe sospeso was a practice where a customer would pay for two coffees, having only one and leaving the second for someone who couldn’t afford it.

So, espresso machines were born, and the coffee exclusivity diminished, but what about the coffee itself?

Italian Coffee, Today

While we love a good Autogrill coffee bar or fancy Milanese caffeteria filled with servers in bowties, Italy has many hip coffee shops too. Italian cities are undergoing a specialty movement, with young Italians working for one thing: better quality coffee.

While more sustainably sourced and higher-quality beans may make a better brew, Italy’s specialty coffee movement reminds us what makes Italian coffee bar culture so iconic – that it isn’t just about the coffee.

The new global and fashionable coffee shops are up against the one thing that makes an Italian coffee bar an institution – the community. A prime example – the caffè (an espresso shot). Drinking espresso quickly at the bar is a definitively Italian experience. Italians often take their coffee standing up, especially during the morning rush or while on a short break. It’s common to see people popping into their local bar, exchanging a few words at the counter with the barista or a neighbor, downing their espresso, and moving on with their day within minutes.

But there is a bright side to these new coffee shops. The owners are Italian, and they grew up with their coffee bars for their pizzette or cioccolata calda after school. A specialty coffee chain in Florence has respected the tradition of the coffee bar and has stabilized its house espresso at 1.50 euros, knowing that locals wouldn’t tolerate it if it charged more.

Yet, one thing means more than price stabilization – the banco. The counter is the quintessential aspect of an Italian coffee bar. In Rome, even the smallest specialty coffee shops make room for a banco.

Why? Because the banco is the cornerstone of the bar. Navigating it is ingrained in Italians – elbows and all. It’s the place to have a caffè without any hassle. The banco and the Italian coffee bar is a meeting place, a symbol of community that isn’t going anywhere, whether you want a shot of grappa at 9 a.m. or a cappuccino at noon.

Victoria Cece, Author and Contributor to Massican.

From the top:

Italian Bar, Rome, Italy: Image courtesy of PSI/Alamy Stock.

Sophia Loren: Image courtesy: Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy Stock.

Our Writer, Victoria Cece: Image courtesy of the author.