The minute my eyes caught the display of pastries at Rinaldini coffee shop in Milan, I was in trouble. What I didn't expect was a crash course in Italian coffee culture.
As I perused the colorful assortment of incredible-looking pastries, trying to decide what to order, small groups of Italians shuffled in for their morning cup of coffee.
They lined up along the pastry display, ordering and sipping coffees produced by the skilled baristas working the espresso machine.
A conversation ensued before they continued on their way. Nobody was there for more than a few minutes.
3 Traditions of Italian Coffee Culture
Tradition #1 - Italians drink coffee standing up.
Each time an Italian walked in, I was nudged further down the counter to the point where I was standing at the register, wondering what a guy had to do to get served.
I realized if I wanted to linger over the pastries casually and sample a few, I'd have to act like an Italian, which meant stepping up and ordering a coffee first. Everything else is secondary.
Easier said than done, looking at the menu's exhaustive list of coffee combinations.
Espresso, latte macchiato, corretto, shakerato, latte caldo. I felt so unprepared for this moment.
I ordered my usual, a cappuccino. The Italian barista asked if I'd like cacao with it. Yes, please!
The cappuccino is made with a shot of espresso and steamed milk foam; it's named after the religious robes worn by Capuchin friars.
At Rinaldini, the cacao was dusted on top of the foam using an R-shaped stencil.
Tradition #2 - Italians prefer milky coffee before 11 a.m.
Examples include the cappuccino, cafe latte, and latte macchiato.
The milk makes for a heavier coffee, which is seen as less desirable in the afternoon following lunch or in the evening after dinner.
Italian espresso is consumed any time of day and is the more traditional choice following a meal.
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Once I'd received my cappuccino, I settled into my standing position at the glass counter and returned to deciding which pastries to try.
It was only 10 a.m., and I had a big dinner planned at VUN Andrea Aprea, a two-star Michelin restaurant, so I didn't want to go overboard.
I started with white chocolate and vanilla macarons. I'm not a macaron lover, but they were too colorful to pass up.
Additional flavors included vanilla and apricot, milk chocolate, and salted caramel.
Next, it was time for a mini Sicilian cannoli. Now, these, I love. Cannolis are a traditional Italian dessert from Sicily made of a fried dough shell filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta mixture.
This one was garnished with a piece of dried fruit on one end and pistachios on the other. It was almost too perfect for eating. Nonetheless, it was gone in two bites.
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One of the staff introduced me to another traditional Italian pastry, a mini puccioso with vanilla cream.
He said the proper way to eat it was to dip it in my cappuccino first, which I did, before taking a bite. Another lesson about Italian coffee culture was learned.
Conscious of the time and the ease with which I could order another ten pastries, I finished my coffee and asked for the bill. My coffee and three little pastries cost $6.
Tradition #3 - Italians love their coffee bars.
Taking small coffees together throughout the day is a social experience. Unlike Americans and Starbucks, Italians don't take their coffee to-go.
A few days later, upon arrival in rainy Florence, I stopped for lunch and ordered a latte.
When a cup of hot milk arrived, I looked at it quizzically and asked the waiter why there was no coffee.
I'd made a common mistake as a foreigner, ordering a "latte" when I wanted a "cafe latte."
Throughout the rest of my trip to Italy, I continued to observe Italian coffee culture with great interest.
Drinking espressos after lunch and dinner became the norm, though it was a habit I didn't need to bring home with me.