Dhe coffee is sometimes a brisk affair in Italy. The latest machines need 25 seconds for an espresso, which means that you have a cup in front of you about 40 seconds after ordering in an Italian bar. “Caffè al banco” is the name of an espresso that you – quickly, quickly! – drinks while standing at the bar. For the immense importance that this ritual has, it is surprisingly short.
It’s hard to imagine that there is an Italian place anywhere – no matter how small – without a bar. They can differ from each other, but their noises are always the same: the hissing of the espresso machine, the clattering of the saucers on the counter. I could spend hours in these bars, admiring the skill with which every call is handled in a flash. Watch the guests greet each other, chat with each other – or want to be left alone. Often, especially in the morning and after lunch when everyone needs a coffee, a visit to the bar is a spectacle.
A social ritual
When Germans talk about coffee in Italy, it’s often about the fact that it’s cheap. A cappuccino for just one euro! That’s true, of course – and it’s great. But the cost is not the crucial point. You shouldn’t drink coffee at the bar because it’s cheaper there than at the table. But because it is a different experience. A social ritual in which a wide variety of people meet in a confined space. It must therefore be cheap so that it is accessible to everyone (preferably several times a day). That is why there is the so-called “caffè sospeso” in Naples. If you have a few euros more with you, you can pay for a coffee for someone whose wallet is empty. You simply leave an extra coin – and you will never know who will benefit from it.
“Il caffè si offre”, a colleague from Rome once explained to me, “you give out the coffee” – sometimes one pays, sometimes the other. The coffee breaks together were part of everyday office life: in the afternoon, the entire (admittedly small) staff of the publishing house went to the other side of the street to drink a coffee. The barman knew everyone and had long known who drank their coffee and how.
Hip cafés, where you have to make five different decisions in order to get a cup of coffee, are often made fun of (this almost drives the protagonist in Jan-Ole Gerster’s film “Oh Boy” to despair). When ordering a seemingly simple espresso, you can sometimes give free rein to your quirkiness: there are, for example, those who absolutely do not want to drink their shot out of a cup but “al vetro”, in a glass, because that supposedly makes a huge difference in taste . And anyway, a very small cup offers more variations than you think: macchiato caldo (with a dash of hot milk), macchiato freddo (with a dash of cold milk), decaf (without caffeine) and in summer, in the south, caffè in ghiaccio (on ice ) – preferably with almond milk.
He must be hot!
The classic espresso, called “caffè”, on the other hand, is simple. Basically, it only has two crucial properties: it has to be hot and “corto”, which means stronger and with less liquid than ours. An Italian woman who has lived in Germany for a long time once told me that the German answer to her request for the espresso to be served “very hot” never satisfied her: it was just as hot “as the machine makes it”. to hear them again and again. She is convinced that the coffee is hotter in Italy.
Once a Dutch friend and I ordered an espresso in Rome. My girlfriend went to the toilet. While she was away the barman had thrown her coffee away in anger and when she returned he threw another one in her face without comment. He couldn’t bear such a lack of culture to let the coffee cool down for even a minute. That’s another reason to drink the caffè “al banco”: Imagine the drop in temperature before the espresso has arrived at the table!
The bar, that magical place
Italian bars are different from places you know here because they are and can be everything at once: there is coffee and drinks, you can have breakfast and an aperitif, and even often have a very decent lunch. The bar is always open, from early morning to late at night. And you can have a caffè al banco at any time. It would never happen that, as in many a German bar, the sentence: “No hot drinks after nine o’clock.” Because in the bar a lot revolves around this one drink, the caffè.
And the caffè would be nothing without the bar, this magical place. There are sociologists who deal with the bar and a cult book that almost everyone knows almost fifty years after its publication in Italy: “Bar Sport” by Stefano Benni tells in various episodes humorously exaggerated about everyday life in a bar. As in Italy the corona pandemic broke out was one of the big questions: when can we go back to the bar? Standing close together at the counter? When you drink your espresso in a hurry at the bar.