Italy vs the USA: Coffee Culture – When Size Matters

by Guest Contributor
Coffee culture by Misty Evans - all rights reserved

Other Americans often ask me, “What is different about Italy from the USA?” After living here for four years I have a long, long list of noticeable differences, some of them are valid and “anthropological,” others more ethnocentric.


Do it like a local? Well, maybe...

One of the first things I noticed when I first arrived here, probably because of my addiction to caffeine and nostalgia for home, was the coffee, or rather the method of consuming it. When I arrived, like most newbies, I tried to be “Italian,” blend in, and do what the locals do. When in Italy, right? Sure. Soon I was looking for hometown comforts and I found myself searching for a nice, quiet café to relax, work, and stalk, but finding that place took months. They don’t do coffee like we do coffee.

A typical stand-up breakfast in a bar, Italian style. Photo by IGer @mondicaffe
A typical stand-up breakfast in a bar, Italian style. Photo by IGer @mondicaffe

This is one area where Americans might out-romance the Italians. We are dedicated to loving our coffee and some of us even live for it. We search for the best coffee shop, and the best combination, we become loyal to it, use it to warm our hands and our bodies, to inspire; we sip it slowly, carry it with us, and we commit to it through the ups and downs of overdose and withdrawal. Through many moments in our lives – a first date, a breakup – coffee is with us. We overindulge, while Italians seem to drink coffee like a regrettable one-night-stand, there is no love, just wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. They stand at the bar, slam a shot of espresso, served scalding hot in a thimble, and then they’re on their way.

Coffee is not a thing to savor here, you can’t spend an entire afternoon molesting a twenty oz to-go cup and you will not easily pound out a novel to the intoxicating scent of caffeine vapor. The largest “da portare via” cup they have here is eight ounces. Sometimes, my friends, size matters. When I was a student, one of my classmates had her friends ship her a box of twenty oz Styrofoam to-go cups so she could bring a large coffee with her to the studio to feel a little more “at home.”

For the few of you who are like me, who like to be in public without having to engage in human interaction, this can have a large impact on how you live. For example, before moving to Italy I never spent an entire day in my apartment “working”. In the US of A, coffee shops are like free, communal offices for working, studying, pretending to be social, and freeloading wi-fi. In Italy, bars are where locals go to pound a shot of espresso on one of their breaks, drink a quick cocktail, or scream about politics and soccer. It makes hovering in the corner with a laptop difficult. After four years, the lack of home-away-from-home space still gives me anxiety.

Breakfast moment in a typical Italian bar. Photo by
Breakfast moment in a typical Italian bar. Photo by

I know, I sound like one of “those” Americans incapable of blending, but in this case it’s not because I refuse to adapt to another culture, it’s more about feeling at home, and I believe it goes both ways.

My husband is Italian and it drives him nuts when I ask him to go out for a coffee, then I order a Cappuccino and sit down because he wants to go! When I make fun of him for chugging espresso he says,”Italian coffee is the best in ALL the world and you don’t know how to drink it,” and I agree that the coffee is good, so why do they insist on throwing it back like nail-polish-grade vodka? But something about tossing one back comforts him, while the idea of sipping six consecutive buckets of “dirty water” gives him heart palpitations. When we’re in the US visiting our family, he’ll make me drive across town to a very specific coffee shop where they make, according to him, the “espresso right.”

Working with coffee
Working with coffee credits Simon Wright under c.c. licence 2.0

He’ll stand at the cash register and start drinking it while the barista repeats “Can I help you? Do you need something else?” while people in line behind him become increasingly nervous and confused by the weird foreign guy who won’t move. He cannot, and will not sip a mug of coffee with me in our pyjamas at my parents’ house because “it’s weird.” He’d rather be that dude standing way too close to the cash register throwing back a shot while everyone wonders what the hell he’s doing, and I’d rather walk across town to find a place that allows me to sit down for hours without the sound of old men or women bantering about foreign intruders, Berlusconi, or what kind of cake they enjoy baking or eating.

Sometimes we need certain things to feel at home, to feel normal, and the coffee ritual is a tough habit to break for anyone (except for the tea drinkers – those people make me nervous). Luckily, after four years I’ve managed to find a few places a little more like home.

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Misty Evans


M. Elizabeth Evans is a blogger, a writer, and a marketing manager born and raised in Utah, USA. After studying literature and sociology in university, she moved to Italy to study art and Italian language, then married an Italian man and stayed.
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