Americans have a particular way of behaving at a coffee shop and ordering, but so do Italians. In the US, you typically order at the register, pay, and then wait a bit further down at the counter for the barista to bring you your drink. You leave a decent tip, or tip every few days maybe if you’re a regular. Camping out in a coffee shop to work is acceptable, and common, behavior, and it’s easy to spend your whole day, when in college, at a coffee shop catching up on homework.
None of that applies in Italy. Coffee shops, or i bar as they’re called in Italian, have a different set of common rules.
Paying: First off, you order at the counter and wait for the barista to give you your drink. While sometimes you can pay beforehand, you can often pay before leaving. As far as payment goes, you don’t need to leave a tip if you go to the same bar all of the time, but if you want you can leave a 10 or 20 cent tip, though not necessary.
Sitting: If a bar offers table service and you sit and are served, you’re going to pay more for that service. People frequently stand at the bar and drink their coffee standing up while talking with a friend, and then heading out, going back about their business.
What to Order: Iced coffee is rarely a thing in Italy. If you get a caffè in ghiaccio (coffee poured over ice), you’re going to be looked at funny, so know what the bar offers. If you’re an iced coffee fiend like me, some places have caffè shakerato, which is coffee shaken with ice in a martini shaker to give you a frothy and cool drink. Some places will make caffè freddo in ghiaccio tritato, an iced coffee in grated ice.
An important distinction in nomenclature: un caffè, a coffee, is what Americans consider espresso. There’s no such thing as a true American coffee brew in Italy, or at least as far as I know. In Italy, your options are all espresso based. Un caffè, the simplest you can get, is a shot of espresso. Un caffè macchiato is the same with just a splash of milk. Similarly, a latte macchiato is the opposite: steamed milk with just a splash of espresso. For cappuccinos, Italians only order them before 10 AM and will never drink them after eating anything with tomatoes. Everyone says that if you want an American coffee to order an americano. However, they are still different. An americano in Italy is the same as an americano in the U.S. And an americano in the US is not a coffee but a watered down espresso. Moral of the story? You’re not going to find true, American coffee in Italy, so don’t try. Instead, order what the locals do: if you came to Italy, go for the more authentic Italian experience.
General Behavior: Finally, going with a friend or a group to the bar in Italy is considered una pausa, a break from school or work. Instead of being a place to continue working, a coffee shop is somewhere where you drink a coffee, talk about things besides your upcoming exam, and then head back out and continue on. If you bring a laptop and work to do, you may stick out.
It may seem like there are a lot of rules, but if you accept them and go with it, you can have a pleasant and different experience. It can be nice to use the coffee shop as a place to just step back from work for fifteen minutes, chat with a friend, and then step back to reality.