I thought about titling this post “the Beginner’s Guide To Coffee Culture In Italy”, because coffee is actually part of the culture in Italy. Standing at the bar in a coffee shop, knocking back an espresso (un caffe) is part of the social fabric in this very social country, and if you get the system and your order down, it adds to the magic of your experience in Italy.
The first thing to know is that coffee in Italy is nothing like Starbucks.
Drinks for the most part come in one size and are supposed to be consumed onsite. Stomping your foot and demanding a venti will get you exactly nowhere – venti means 20 in Italian. You will be served your drink in a real cup, not a paper cup. Italians don’t walk around eating and drinking in the streets like we do in the US. It’s fabulous.
The second thing to know is that there is a system that you need to follow.
When you walk into a café (coffee bar) check out the situation before walking up to the bar. I most big city places you will need to pay the cashier first. He will give you a receipt that you will take up to the bar to order with. In smaller coffee shops you can order and pay at the bar.
If you are going to eat something – a pastry, a biscotto, a sandwich for example you need to scope out whats behind the glass before you pay for your order. Have a look, decide what you want and then go tell it to the cashier. Normally everything in a given food category costs the same. Panini are equally priced, all the pastries are one price etc, but there can be variables, so it doesn’t hurt to check first.
Now with your receipt in hand, muscle up to the bar and get the barista’s attention. He or she will grab your receipt, ask you what you’re having, and then tear it so they know the order has been filled.
There are 2 prices for the coffee you are ordering. One is for having it standing at the bar and the other is for taking it to sit at a table. Italians drink their coffee standing at the bar.
It should be noted at this point that a coffee in Italy (un caffe ) is what we here in the states call a shot of espresso.
There is no equivalent in Italy to American drip coffee. You also won’t find Coffeemate or flavored coffee creamers. Italian coffee ruins you – it is so incredibly good. After a break in Italy it is near impossible to go back to drinking Starbucks.
The way to ask for your order is to say “un caffe per favore”. In a busy joint you can get away with just saying the name of the drink you want, but you probably will have to get the barista’s attention.
Un Caffe / a coffee.
A coffee is a shot of espresso. It will be served to you in a little cup on a saucer with a teaspoon for sugar. Normally they will also give you a small glass of water on the side.
This is nothing like the huge sugary confection served stateside. It’s a shot of espresso stained (made macchiato) with a drop of milk. If you want the milk to be hot and foamed ask for Macchiato Caldo. This is still served in a little espresso cup.
Un Caffe Con Panna.
This is similar to a macchiato but is sweeter, and instead of milk is topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
Un Cappuccino (or Cappuccio).
This is served in a bigger cup, but still not as large as an American tall. A cappuccino is a shot of espresso with foamed milk. Italians only drink this at breakfast time til mid morning. They cringe at the thought of milk sitting on a full stomach. Being that you probably are not his first tourist your barista will happily make you cappuccinos all day long.
This is the closest thing you will get to an American drip coffee. Sort of. It’s a shot of espresso with hot water added. It will still be much stronger than coffee at home.
This drink is strictly for the tourists – no Italian would be caught dead drinking it.
Un Lungo/Caffe Lungo.
You can ask for a caffe lungo (long) for a slightly weaker version.
Un Corretto or Caffe Corretto.
This is “corrected” coffee, said coffee being corrected with a shot of liquor. This could be grappa, brandy, Sambuca, Cognac or I’m sure anything that you would prefer.
Granita Al Caffe
Granita is a cold coffee that comes out of a slushy style machine. Its very creamy and smooth and delicious.
Coffee In Naples
I personally think Italian coffee is the best coffee in the world. In all my travels around the globe I have never had better coffee, or coffee that I have loved better, anywhere.
Within Italy the best coffee I have ever had has been in Naples. I make sure to allow coffee time every time I pass through, even if its just a quick espresso at the train station. But beware – coffee in Naples is strong!
Italians pop into a bar (café/coffee shop) multiple times per day. It’s a fun habit to take part in! If espresso seems too strong to start with just load it up with sugar. You will get the swing of it and develop a taste for it in no time, and before you know it you’ll either be drinking it straight or with just a little sugar before you know it.
I bring home between 5 and 10 pounds of Italian coffee every time I go to Italy. I buy Lavazza Crema E Gusto or Illy You can order both here on Amazon, but they cost a bit more, although they’re still not expensive.
If you are traveling to Italy anytime soon (or ever!) there
are 3 things you can pretty much guarantee you will eat at least one time while
you are away.
Pasta. Pizza. Gelato.
Some people are lucky enough to have a digestive system and a metabolism that lets them run wild with all three, others of us have to be selective as to how many times we can indulge while away. Whether you fall into the once only category or the multi times per day group, you have to make every time count.
Today we are talking gelato, Italy’s answer to but 1000 x
better than, ice cream.
So what’s so hard about ordering ice cream you say? Well, there’s a little more to it than meets the eye.
It Starts With Where You Buy Gelato
This is in my opinion the most important factor when getting a
With tourism being so huge in Italy (it is one of the most
visited countries in the world) gelato chains started popping up everywhere.
Mass made, factory made ice cream with added color, added sugars, added
God-only-knows-what. Chain store gelato doesn’t taste as good and can be so
over sugared that it bites the back of your throat. As authentic as a Big Mac
and with a provenance and nutritional value equally as questionable, these are not
the places to buy gelato in Italy.
Their gelato either ships in frozen or is made from a packet. This is not the gelato you traveled across
the world to eat!
Everywhere you go in Italy you can find fantastic, artisanal
or artiginale gelato shops. These are owner operated stores where gelato is
made freshly each day from fresh ingredients. The taste, texture and quality
are superb. Think of it as chain store gelato being like eating Kentucky Fried
Chicken versus artisanal gelato being like fine dining. Technically both will
fill your belly but the experience is drastically different!
Artisanal gelato flavors tend to be only what is in season.
You won’t find strawberry year round.
Some artisanal shops only make a handful of flavors each day. In Pienza my friend Nicola’ from Buon Gusto makes only 6 flavors per day. When I take my Glam Italia Tour groups to Pienza I have learned to take them to his store when we first arrive, because we only spend a few hours in town and everyone always wants to go back for another gelato before we leave!
Explore the Flavor Profiles
Artiginale gelato shops offer some really fascinating flavor
combinations. Don’t order the flavors you do at home – try something different!
Look for things like raspberry and rosemary, peach and sage, figs and honey.
They always offer samples so you can try before you buy. I
find the more unusual the flavor combination (unusual to us, quite normal to
them) the more amazing the gelato is. I always try anything with lavender,
sage, basil or rosemary as they give such a fantastic flavor to gelato.
On one of my tours one of the travelers tried orange,carrot and spinach gelato, the thought of which wasn’t overly enticing, but it was so incredibly good we all ended up going back and ordering one!
Mix It Up
Can’t decide which flavors to order? Try a scoop each of two
Don’t be surprised if they refuse to pair the flavors you want
or if they look at you funny. They get so invested in their creations and your
taste experience is so important to them that sometimes they won’t want to put
two flavors side by side.
One time in Sorrento a gelato guy refused to give me 2 flavors
together. It was pretty funny! I couldn’t decide between the two so in the end
he gave me 2 separate cups each with one flavor, then told me which one I was
to eat first. He wasn’t being a jerk, it was because he didn’t want me thinking
his gelato flavors were bad.
I go back every time I’m in Sorrento, which is multiple times per year, and now he just chooses two flavors that play nicely together for me. And I feel no guilt at having two scoops either, because the walk up the hill to the apartment I rent there is savage, so I’m convinced I burn it all off on the way home…
Most artisanal or artiginale
gelato shops will proudly post signs saying they are artiginale/artisanal. You
can also just google artiginale gelato
near me and get walking directions, invariably just around the corner from
where you’re standing!
An easy way to tell if gelato is artisanal or not is to just
look at it. Chain store/mass made/made from a packet gelatos tend to have
punchy, bright colors, whereas artisanal gelato colors tend to be more dull.
Gelato made with fresh strawberries will be a slightly dull pinkish hue, whereas mass market strawberry gelato will be bright pink. Another one to look for is pistachio, a flavor you will find year round. Artisanal pistachio gelato will be a dull, mossy or grey/green whereas mass market pistachio will be a vibrant green.
The best gelato shops are like the best little local eateries
– heavily populated by Italians. Watch where they go, and buy your gelato
there! Sometimes you will see long lines of people stretched out across the
piazza waiting to buy gelato. At Dondoli Gelato in San Gimignano the lines get
crazy long and sometimes stretch beyond the well in the middle of Piazza
Cisterna, but the gelato is award winning and is definitely worth the wait.
Funnily enough the café across from it also sells gelato and never has a line.
Those in the know prefer to wait and have the good stuff.
This tends to be a really good sign, unless it is a bus tour
and that’s where the tour guide told them to go. Bus tour groups are generally
easy to spot though – if everyone in line looks like a tourist, this is not the
place for you to be!
If you can’t spot a good gelato shop don’t worry – ask a local. There is always a good gelato shop close by.
Are you thinking about renting a car and driving while you are
in Italy? Or maybe you are wondering if it is necessary to have a car while you
As someone who rents cars in Italy several times per year, I can tell you there is nothing so freeing and fun as getting behind the wheel of a zippy little Italian car and racing through the hills of Tuscany, the olive lined roadways of Puglia or the lesser traveled parts of Lazio. With Italian music blasting, the wind blowing your hair while you glamorously look at the road ahead through an oversized pair of sunglasses – what could be more fabulous?
I can also tell you the heart pounding stress that comes with
your GPS dumping you into the heart of a busy city, backing up a long line of
cars because you got in the telepass lane at the toll booth by mistake or
finding yourself deep, deep inside the one way street labyrinth of the storico centro in a medieval town that
was built for horses not cars – going the wrong way (all of which I have done)
can ruin a trip or at least leave you a nervous wreck.
First things first, let’s look at your trip and see if you
even need to drive while you’re in Italy. Start by mapping your trip and seeing
if a car is necessary. If your trip is primarily major cities, for example you
are going to Rome, Florence and Venice then no you definitely do not need a
car. If your trip is going to be spent exploring outside of the cities look to
see whether the places you are going are on a train route.
So much of Italy has really fantastic train access that
frequently not only do you not need a car, but a car would be slower and more
If your travel plans include aimlessly roaming the hill towns
of Tuscany, or exploring Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria or Sicily, then a car is
going to be essential.
not need a car inside the cities. In fact I emphatically
recommend you do not get a car if you are inside the cities. Public transport
is excellent, and in the big cities taxis are plentiful, so you can get
anywhere you want to go quite easily.
On the other hand driving inside the cities can be
treacherous, incredibly stressful and very expensive.
It is so easy to get lost and your GPS can be more of an enemy
than a friend, especially inside old towns where the signal doesn’t always find
I was recently walking in Venice with some women who wanted to
go to a specific restaurant that was at best a little wiggly to get to. Walking
through the narrow calle the GPS would drop and a couple of times I had to take
us back into an open campo to let the signal find my phone again. There was
much eye-rolling and snorting from the peanut gallery who just didn’t get it
that there wasn’t a consistent GPS signal.
This is just a nuisance when you are on foot, but when you are
driving it can be really stressful and have you going down the wrong streets
and getting into situations you cannot easily get back out of.
Parking inside the cities can be hard to come by. It almost
always requires parallel parking super-proficiency, and the ability to not only
parallel park in traffic, but with only an inch or two space at either end of
There are parking buildings here and there but they can be very difficult to find and once inside the individual parking spaces are small and tight.
ZTLs are very expensive traps for unsuspecting tourists. The Zona TrafficoLimitato or Limited Traffic Zone is designed so that only cars with
a special permit can go inside. These are normally, but not always, in the
central heart of a city, as well as in small villages and towns.
Your GPS probably will not recognize a ZTL and will send you
straight into the heart of it. With everything else that is going on chances
are you won’t even see the warning sign. If you are on a one way street you can
be inside the ZTL before you even realize it, or worse still you see it coming
but have no way to get back out of it!
ZTLs are monitored with cameras that catch you the moment you
cross into one. It will take months to arrive but suddenly you find yourself
with a steep fine that nearly doubles if not paid within 60 days. You also get
an “admin fee” from the rental car company, charged to your credit card.
In all likelihood it won’t just happen once – if you are not
on top of it you can find yourself going in and out of ZTLs without realizing
and find yourself with multiple fines. On an Italy travel forum that I was
reading a traveler was fined over 2400 euros, a year after his Italy trip. He
hadn’t known where all the ZTLs were and just drove in and out of them,
somewhere near 24 times!
So even if your parallel parking skills are on point and you
don’t get stressed easily, I sincerely recommend not driving inside the cities.
5. Discover New Towns And Villages
Having a rental car and driving around the countryside,
discovering random little towns the tour buses don’t go to is one of my
absolute favorite things to do in Italy.
The trick to it is to keep an open mind, decide ahead of time
you won’t allow yourself to get stressed out, and then go have fun!
On my most recent trip to Italy I flew into Bari, picked up a rental car and then drove by myself across Puglia and Basilicata to get to La Rabatana
It was a beautiful and easy drive, except for one roundabout
that had 5 exits, and that the GPS couldn’t decode. At various points I was
going the wrong way, heading back to the airport, even driving through an olive
grove! The only reason I made it to the correct exit from the roundabout was
that the other 4 were wrong!
It was such a lovely drive though that I forgot to get
stressed out. My feeling about driving around the countryside in Italy is so
what if you get lost or go through some roundabout shenanigans – it’s all part of
the fun. Getting lost just means discovering some incredible little town, and
is actually how I have discovered most of my favorite secret places!
Another good idea is to print out maps of your route before you drive off. You can’t rely on GPS alone, and having a backup little map showing you how to get from point A to point B at least will give you a concept of where you’re heading.
Also, should you lose cell service/have no data/lose Wi-Fi/run out of battery you will be glad you had a back up plan!
7. Look For City Names, Not Route Numbers
This comes back to the way they sign things in Italy. You’re
not looking for the A1 when you leave Florence airport, you are looking for the
A1 Roma or the A1 Bologna. Once you get on that highway it may give you a variety
of different route numbers such as the E185, SS125 etc that can get really
confusing, so think directionally and keep looking for the name of the town you
are going to.
From Florence I take the A1 Roma to whichever roads are taking me to San Gimignano – I don’t get too involved with the route numbers, I just keep looking for the San Gimi signs, which is a much easier way to do it.
If your little town isn’t likely to have much signage, at least know which big towns are in that direction.
If you don’t live somewhere that uses roundabouts they can be
confusing. I grew up with them, so they are second nature to me, but if they
are new or unfamiliar to you, here’s the deal:
Always yield (or give way) to the left. You merge into the
traffic when there is a space.
There are no lanes in roundabouts, so stay in the space you
Your GPS will tell you which exit to take, such as take the 3rd
exit on the right. Sometimes this is a guessing game as the 2nd exit
could be a dirt track or maybe just the suggestion of an exit. There will be
vertically stacked signs for all the places off each exit, which makes having a
passenger navigating for you so much easier!
If you can’t figure it out just stay on the roundabout, making
loops until you see your sign. One time with my then 12 year old riding shotgun
we looped around the roundabout about 20 times before we found our exit, which
was one of about 40 signs all stacked up, and wasn’t easy to find the first 19
times! Really it’s all just part of the fun.
Most of the motorways are going to be two lanes in each
direction. The left lane is for passing, so stay in the right lane unless you
are passing someone.
10. Watch For Speed Traps
There are camera speed traps along all the motorways/highways.
Just as with ZTLs you won’t know you’ve got a speeding fine for months, and
these fines are hefty.
I have learned the hard way that if my name and credit card
are the ones on the rental car booking, no one else is driving. A year or so
after a trip driving through Puglia I found that my friend who kept wanting to
drive had been blowing through speed traps like a race car driver. Each fine
was for 270 euros, each also came with an administrative fee from Hertz, and each
fine was set to double if not paid in 60 days.
Luckily each fine indicated exactly where the speeding had happened, so I was able to show her that it was all her, but it took some wrangling to get the money wired to Puglia and off my card.
11. There Will Be Tolls
Be prepared for toll roads and toll booths. Just because they
mostly take credit cards doesn’t mean the credit card machine will be working,
so have coins ready.
Also as you are exiting the motorway into the toll area look
for the yellow telepass sign and then make sure you don’t go in those lanes. My
first time driving alone in Italy I got into the telepass lane, backed traffic
up all the way to the motorway, couldn’t get out of the line, and was somewhere
between a heart attack and bursting into tears when a nice fellow on a
motorbike figured out what was up and came and rescued me.
I haven’t made that mistake twice!
You can’t guarantee that there will be a human working the
toll booth, so have a variety of coins with you.
12. Don’t Trust The GPS
Well not entirely anyway. One time I had the people at Hertz
program the rental car’s built in GPS system for me. Initially it was shouting
at me in Russian, but once I got it to English it started giving me crazy
directions. I was on my way to San Gimignano, a route I have driven a thousand
times, so I knew it was giving me crazy-wrong directions.
On your phone the Google Maps GPS is the worst and will try to
drive you off cliffs. Waze is good but will always take you on circuitous
routes that may save you minutes but will have you arriving with a full head of
grey hair, as it routes you through alleyways and side streets and hair raising
turns. Apple Maps is perhaps the best, but Siri still doesn’t always get it
If you miss a highway exit it can be 30 minutes before you get
to the next one to turn back. With that in mind, mapping the drive beforehand
can be a really good idea, just so you have a general idea of where you’re
13. You May Get A Stick Shift
In Italy I actually prefer driving a stick
shift, especially when driving through the hills. I spend a considerable amount
of driving time in Tuscany, which in turn means a lot of time driving through
the hills! A stick shift gives you so much more control as you are buzzing
around the countryside and is much more fun to drive.
This past summer Hertz put me in an automatic
station wagon, which apart from having zero coolness whatsoever, also was a
pain to drive in the hills as it couldn’t down shift quickly enough.
But be advised that most of the rental cars
in Europe are stick shifts. If you require an automatic you need to specify
that when you book your car, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get one. If none have
come back in when you are picking your car up you will be given a manual
14. Rent A Diesel
In my experience renting endless cars in
Italy, diesels get much better gas mileage and diesel is much less expensive
Expect to pay between $7 and $9 per gallon on
Whenever possible, book a diesel! They run quietly
and efficiently and leave you with more money for shopping.
You will have several insurance options with
your rental car. Choose the Super Cover option. This comes with zero
deductible, so if anything happens to your car you can walk away.
Most rental car companies have a 3000 euro
deductible and will have you paying through the nose for the smallest scratch.
A cursory glance at cars in Italy will tell
you that most of them are covered in dings and scratches.
The chances of someone bumping your parked
car or opening their door into it are huge, so it’s better to be safe than
Super Cover is expensive and can add an extra
45 euros per day to your 20 euro per day rental, but can be worth every penny
if you get so much as one scratch on your car.
16. Stop At An Autogrille
At least once while you are driving on the
highways in Italy, stop at an Autogrille. These are something like our truck
stops in the U.S. but oh so different!
Yes you can gas up the car there, but they
also have a full espresso bar, a full bar, and really fantastic food.
Unlike the guaranteed gastric turmoil of the smelly rolling sausages and dubious foods at truck stops here in the states, the food at the truck stops across Italy is tremendous. From fresh panini to crisp salads and much more, a country whose culture is so deeply bound into their cuisine doesn’t tolerate bad food for hungry travelers!
Even after all these years of travel in Italy
I still get a huge kick out of stopping at Autogrilles. Often we will buy
breads and cheeses and fresh sliced prosciutto at a local village market to
bring home for dinner then stop at an Autogrille on the way home and pick up
salad to have with it. You will love it!