How to navigate an Italian coffee bar

When to pay, how to behave and more

Kevin Harper
February 5, 2015

If you are new to Italy, whether as a visitor, student or expat, you may be uncertain how to proceed in the initial confusion, and apparent anarchy, of the local coffee bar. In your home country, you may be used to finding—and staying quietly in—a neat line to the person at the counter taking orders. No one cuts in front; everyone has read the prominently displayed menu board and is ready with an order when it is his or her turn, and also ready to pay, step back and wait for the order to be filled. Often a strategically placed sign declares, ‘Customers are asked to leave their seats for another user after 20 minutes.’

 

Forget those rules. You are in beautiful Tuscany (or just about any place in Italy).

 

Peek into a local bar. You will notice there appears to be neither a line nor a prominently displayed price board. However, just as there is a price list somewhere on display, the customers—some at the bar, some a few feet away, some on phones, some talking together—know exactly their positions in the one of the two intertwined queues: one to order and one to pay. The first queue is very important; the second is not.

 

It is going to be up to you to make your presence known to the barista and the other customers. If you are diffident or shy, you will be coffee-free for quite some time: it is a point of honour not to pressure a customer to order.

 

coffee

photo by Flickr user woody

 

So, upon entry, catch the barista’s eye and say ‘Buongiorno’ heartily. Now walk slowly up to the bar. Look for subtle details and movements among the others at the bar and the barista. Crowd in if you need to. 

 

‘Prego?’ That is how the barista will announce when he or she is free to take your order. Try to place your order with confidence. The barista, who may have been working his or her espresso machine for 30 years, knows Italian coffee inside out and will help you. But I suggest that you not ask for an americano: if you need watery coffee, ask for acqua calda along with your caffé lungo.

 

Once you have your beverage, it is time to relax. Stay at the bar or grab a nearby table and check out the locals and the sights. Stay as long as you want. You may note that many of the other patrons do not have a drink or a pastry at all, but are merely enjoying the sunshine or conversing with their neighbours, who also have not purchased anything and may in fact be reading the bar’s free daily newspapers at their ‘home away from home.’

 

(The coffee, by the way, will be great, and you may be ruined for coffee in any other country.)

 

Now the sun is slanting, you are happily buzzing, and it is time to leave. Paying may be the most difficult transaction to complete in the local Italian bar. No one will bring you a bill. No one is worried that you will drink and run. The system runs on honour.

 

Watch the other patrons and follow them to the cash register, which is usually not particularly noticeable, but usually just to one side of the bar. You must wait. You are low in priority. The baristas and owners will complete all the orders for current customers before coming to close the bill. Do not bring out your wallet or purse and start counting change until the bill is presented. Relax, chat with the owner or, more probably, his wife. Pay what she asks and make sure to take the printed receipt given to you (it is the law for both you and the bar). Please do not try to tip her. Would you tip your mother? 

 

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Comments

Lucky Loncar

25 days and 18 hours and 2 minutes ago
This is wonderful. I can't count how many people I've had to help with this process. I tend to tell them to look for the register first and pay there before doing anything else (often, tourists tend to be in the train stations and such where they are expected to pay, first). Then, place the receipt on the counter where the barista will tear it once your order has been taken. Also, avoid trying to order anything "to go" or decaffeinated. While both options exist, it's more trouble than it's worth, with diminishing returns.