The Italian Bar – A Licensed Coffee House for Every Time of the Day

This article hopes to shed some light on another North American misconception. Despite being licensed, bars in Italy are nothing like pubs. They are more similar to coffee shops, but they are actually far more than that: they are a service that runs all day with a wide range of food items, and a necessity for tourists with fast and affordable refreshments.

Bars can also be the source of misunderstandings that may cause frustration for tourists, mostly due to the many unwritten rules that they conform to, and to their many exceptions. This post explores the significance of bars in the Italian popular culture and gives important tips for travelers who are unfamiliar with their ins and outs.

What to get in a bar?

In an Italian bar,
all coffees are espresso-based.
If you ask for “a coffee” (‘un caffè’),
you get a single shot of espresso.

Bars sell a variety of products catering to the desires of the moment, and they are often a daily routine for Italians. Coffee is sold all day, but is especially popular in the morning, and after lunch and dinner. Cappuccino is almost exclusively a breakfast item (accompanied with croissants or other pastries), as are juices. Aperitifs are served before lunch and dinner – some bars offer complimentary snacks as an accompaniment. At lunch time, many bars sell sandwiches (generically called ‘panini‘ in Italian, whether they are grilled or not), accompanied by sodas, beer, or wine. Some bars instead offer a more extended restaurant service, from salads and cold platters, to first courses and other warm dishes. A few bars remain open in the evening turning more into pubs.

Seated or Standing?

In Italy, customers should always ask themselves: “Am I allowed to bring my order to a table to enjoy it while sitting?” Ignoring this question may lead to an unpleasant experience since, in general, seating is not complimentary in a bar. The price of items served at the table is much higher than the price at the counter. The surcharge is a fee for being served by a waiter, occupy the table for any amount of time, but mostly for sitting in a premium location, such as in an historic piazza. When they choose to be served at the table, customers are generally allowed to sit themselves, and they are then greeted by a waiter. When ordering at the counter, instead, customers don’t have rights to a table, even if they carry their order themselves, and even if there are plenty of tables available.

Some bars, however, choose not to have table service – in these it’s OK for the customers to carry their own orders to the tables. Generally, complimentary tables are small and unclothed, with no tableware and no menus, or high tables without chairs. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask: ‘Possiamo sederci?’ (May we sit down?)

Even when paying for seating, remaining for an excessive amount of time is frowned upon in Italy. Not like in North America, where coffee shops act as community centers, and people who buy a drink gain the right to hang out with their friends, do their homework, or use the free WiFi for as long as they want.

Pay before or after?

In many cases the customers pay after, when they’re finished with their food or drinks. This is generally the case during off-peak hours, especially when sitting at a table and in other situations where the barista can easily keep track of the customers to ensure that they don’t leave without paying. Sometimes, the bar might require pre-payment, by asking customers to pay at the cashier first and then present the receipt (‘scontrino’) as a voucher in order to be served at the serving counter (the barista will partially rip it to tag that it has been used). Pre-payment is always in effect if the bar has an active cashier station either located at the counter or stand-alone. Stand-alone cash registers may also sell cigarettes, transit tickets and stamps.

When being served at the table, the bill is generally brought upon request, when the customer is ready to leave. In some cases, however, the check may be brought together with the order and payment may be required immediately. This is quite common when the seating area is located outdoors (especially on sidewalks) and it would be easy for a malevolent customer to dash without paying.

Where are the fixings?

In a bar, all coffee drinks are served in their porcelain or glass cups, on a saucer and with a metal spoon. There is no “milk and sugar” station, just sugar packets in a container positioned on the counter. Sometimes, a sugar packet is placed directly on the saucer by the barista – this is often the case if the coffee is served at the table. Generally speaking, if Italians wish to have any milk added to their coffee, they ask for it as they order (see table below). It is uncommon, although perfectly acceptable, to ask the barista for additional cold milk (in a small milk jug).

Caffè – Regular (single-shot) espresso, 20-30 ml, served in an espresso cup (~60 ml)

Caffè doppio – Double-shot espresso, 40-60 ml(1)

Caffè macchiato caldo (“marked” or “stained”) – Espresso with a dollop of steamed milk

Caffè macchiato freddo – Espresso with a couple of teaspoons of cold milk

Caffè corretto (“corrected”) – Espresso with a teaspoon of liqueur, grappa if not specified, or brandy (e.g. Vecchia Romagna), Sambuca, or other

Caffè lungo (“long”) – Espresso obtained by allowing more water to flow through(2) (30-40 ml)

Caffè ristretto (“shrank”) – Espresso obtained by interrupting the water flow part way through(3) (15-20 ml)

Caffè con panna (“with cream”) – Espresso with a teaspoon of cold heavy cream

Caffè decaffeinato (“decaffeinated”) – Espresso made with decaffeinated ground coffee (popular is the brand name “Hag”)

Marocchino – Espresso with chocolate powder on top, and then a dollop of steamed milk

Cappuccino – Espresso with steamed milk(4) (at 65°C) in the proportions of 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk, 1/3 milk foam, served in a cappuccino cup (~120 ml)

Cappuccino tiepido (“lukewarm”) – Espresso with steamed milk and some cold milk (served around 50°C)

Cappuccino ben caldo (“well hot”) – Espresso with steamed milk (warmed up to 75°C)

Latte macchiato – Espresso with a larger amount of steamed milk (with only a small layer of foam on top), served in a latte-macchiato glass (~200 ml)

(1) Not as commonly ordered in Italy as it is in North America
(2) Weaker in flavor, but containing more caffeine
(3) Stronger in flavor, but containing less caffeine
(4) It’s preferable to use whole milk, for a creamier and more flavorful foam

Can I get it to go?

Getting coffee to go is quite uncommon in Italy, mostly because it only takes five minutes to drink an espresso or a cappuccino (which are never served too hot). Italians also prefer to use ceramic or glass cups, which are warmed up not to draw any heat from the freshly made coffee. The only case in which is acceptable to ask for the coffee to be served in paper cups with lids is when the coffee is meant to be carried to a work meeting in a nearby office, or when the customer can’t physically go to the bar, e.g. because they are working in a nearby store. In big cities, occasionally, bar waiters can be seen walking around the streets as they deliver coffees-to-go on a tray.

Am I even in a bar?

There are different kinds of bars, and they have different opening hours. Most bars open quite early in the morning (some as early as 5 or 6 am), catering to commuters. These bars remain open until late afternoon or early evening. Other establishments, instead, open around lunch time (with cafeteria service) or even later in the afternoon and continue until late at night (some as late as 2 or 3 am). This is often the cases for bars that operate as ‘enoteche’ (wine bars), or as ‘gelaterie’ (gelato shops).

Bars that double as ‘pasticcerie‘ (pastry shops) are more likely to be open during regular store hours (generally, 9.00 am to 7.30 pm). It has to be noted that not all pasticcerie offer bar service – when they do, they tend to display a “Bar Pasticceria” sign. Similarly, some restaurants also offer bar service. When they do, they also display a “Bar” sign (e.g.: “Bar Ristorante, “Bar Trattoria”, or “Bar Pizzeria”). Unlike in North America, it is generally not acceptable to stop in a restaurant, that isn’t also a bar, just for coffee or drinks.

15 thoughts on “The Italian Bar – A Licensed Coffee House for Every Time of the Day”

  1. I loved reading this post about Italian bars, Paolo, since it has been a very big year for my family both in American and while in Italy in October. We experienced every type of dining venue in Italy and especially the stand-up espresso bars. We were very surprised to have a $17.00 per person price to drink 3 beers in the famous (as you noted in your article) piazza of San Marco (there were 3 of us). We easily stood up and sat down at small tables everywhere else for our caffe latte's which we fell in LOVE with. I also noticed the stand up food bars in Venice where they enjoy 'small bites'. Everything that you wrote is true. Italy is wonderful and interesting how some things are slower in life and how some things are faster in life such as drinking espresso quickly and driving overly fast than in the States. Great post to help educate people more about Italy!

    Buon Anno!

    1. Hi Roz, thanks for your comment! Piazza San Marco is probably the most expensive place for drinks while seated. Thanks for the note about stand-up food bars, I didn't know that they've become more widespread.

  2. My mother received a DeLonghi espresso machine, my sister received a Nespresso machine, and I received a stove-top espresso pot . . . all for Christmas, thus the reason why it was a big year for us here in America for Italian espresso! YUM!

  3. Buon anno Paolo! Very informative and accurate post for those travelling to Italy. We who live here sometimes don't stop to think about how complicated these unspoken rules can be for visitors. And this without mentioning the enormous variety of coffees you can order. I also discussed this topic in a long-ago post about Italian hot chocolate, but yours is definitely a vademecum for tourists.

    1. Buon Anno to you and thanks for your kind comment! I would like to see your post on Italian hot chocolate, I will search for it – but please feel free to also post a link here.

  4. Thanks for an expert and much-needed article on the Italian bar. From this point forward, whenever we are asked to explain a bar, we will simply direct the individual to this post!

    We were recently commiserating on how true Italian barista service is far too rare here in North America. How wonderful it would be to have a local bar to go to for a perfectly executed, not-boiling-hot morning cappuccino or an early evening aperitivo.

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