10 Rules Of The Italian “Bar”

In Italy, you can get your upper and your sedative in the same place. Morning, noon, and night. Want to make that a macchiato? How about a shot of brandy in it? And a pastry…with a glass of prosecco? And then another coffee in the afternoon to ward off the 3pm dull, before aperitivo rolls in around 5:00?

You only need to go to one place: a bar.

How the word bar worked its way into Italian language is a mystery to me (I imagine the French/anglicized term café is not used because it’s too close to the Italian word for coffee = caffé). But I do know that the culture, rules, and rituals of “bar” hopping differ greatly from what we anglophones are used to. So to help orient you for your next Italian travel, here are nine rules to help you navigate Italy’s infamous bar:

Jason enjoying a coffee a bar in Puglia (Italy).
Jason enjoying a coffee a bar in Ostuni (Puglia, Italy).

Rule #1: It’s not a bar

A bar, in Italy, isn’t actually a late-night drinking establishment. While you can always get an alcoholic beverage in a bar, you’ll rarely go to one with your friends to party the night away — that usually takes place in a locale. Instead, a bar is a combo (1) café for pastries and coffee, and (2) casual bar for light drinking, aperitivo, and snacks. There’s nothing like it in the US of A.

This "bar" is also a restaurant and a tobacco shop (Italy)
This “bar” is also a restaurant and a tobacco shop (Italy)

Rule #2: Forget the to-go cup

There will be no taking your coffee “to-go”, folks. It’s always served in porcelain, with a tiny spoon on the side, and in such a small quantity (think: espresso) that you throw it back like a shot, then head out. If you’re in southern Italy, a small glass of water — flat or fizzy, your choice — may also come with your caffé.

Coffee in Italy always comes in a porcelain espresso cup.
Coffee in Italy always comes in a porcelain espresso cup.

Rule #3: No specialty coffees from a list of 100 ingredients

No coffee drinks will be personalized, and you’ll have to go back to the US to get your double half-caff skinny sugar-free bullshit whatever. Your options in Italy involve variations of the standard espresso, differing only terms of water, milk, milk froth, or alcohol content. Basta.

Rule #4: Stand at the bar, or pay more to sit

Most of the time, coffee is drunk standing up at the bar top, quickly like a shot of liquor. Also, if you order a glass of wine, you’ll likely drink that while standing. too. Should you prefer to sit at a table and be served, however, you are free to do so — you may simply have to pay a coperto, a seating charge (although the same goes for being seated in a restaurant). Tipping in Italy is uncommon, though, so…it all evens out?

Drinking coffee at the bar top (Perugia, Italy)
Drinking coffee at the bar top (Perugia, Italy)

Rule #5: “Fare lo scontrino”

In many Italian “bars”, you must pay first and then take that tiny slip of paper (lo scontrino = the receipt) over to the bar top where the barista will prepare your order. In smaller establishments or in places where you’re a familiar face, you may be able to get away with paying after you’ve ordered and imbibed, but just be aware that you could be told, “Prima, devi fare lo scontrino”! (First you must pay!)

Rule #6: Leave your laptop at home (sometimes)

Italian coffee joints don’t operate as a second office as they so often do in the US (in Seattle, in particular). In fact, working on a laptop in a bar is so uncommon in Italy that you may feel awkwardly out of place. So awkward, in fact, that you might write an entire blog post about it. That is, if there’s even Wi-fi, or if the advertised Wi-fi actually works….

Guy on his laptop in a "bar"
One of the few people I’ve ever seen on a laptop in a “bar” in Italy (Perugia)

Rule #7: No cappuccino after lunch

American and German tourists are notorious for ordering a cappuccino after lunch, which is a big no-no in Italy, where it’s believed that milk hinders digestion. Cappuccino is only drunk in the morning, with your light breakfast of pastry (called a brioche), and should you order it any other time of the day, fine — no problem. You’ll only get classified as “definitely a tourist”.

Rule # 8: Alcohol comes with food

Order a beer or a cocktail in Italy, and you’ll always get something small to eat with it: potato chips, peanuts, a bowl of green olives. The snacks aren’t always paired well with your drink — I was once served fried corn nuts with a fancy glass of white wine — but, hey. It’s always nice to have a little something to munch on so all that alcohol doesn’t go straight to your head.

Some of the food served with cocktails (Naples, Italy)
A sample of types of food served with cocktails — corn nuts and bbq “chips” (Naples, Italy)

Rule # 9:  Aperitivo

In the evenings (especially on weekends, and more so in cities) there’s a little bar ritual known as aperitivo. It works like this: you buy a drink in a “bar”, and with that comes a range of dishes, either brought directly to your table or served as a buffet.  It can start as early as 5pm or be served as late as 9 (depending on what part of Italy you’re in).

Every establishment differs in terms of what they offer, and whether they offer aperitivo, so be sure to ask. The food options can range from mini-bowls of salted peanuts to a stunning spread of veggie pasta salads, fresh cheeses, bruschetta, and other cold dishes. At the best aperitivi, the food will be so delicious and plentiful, dinner will be rendered obsolete.

Drinking spritz in a piazza (Italy)
Drinking spritz in a piazza — notice the peanuts that came with it (Parma, Italy)
'Aperitivo' food spread in Brindisi (Puglia, Italy)
‘Aperitivo’ food spread in Brindisi (Puglia, Italy)

Rule # 10: Consistency is KING

From Trento to Naples, a bar is a bar. Slight variations in coffee flavor or quality do exist, but you can generally expect the same standards and service no matter where you go. There are prescribed times of day for imbibing certain things and for taking a coffee break at work — rituals and routines that make the Italian coffee drinking experience one you don’t dare try to change. And that’s a good thing.

Because for all the things Italian’s don’t seem to have figured out (like how to properly pave streets or maintain a cohesive government), the bar is something done well, and done right.

Coffee advert in Milan: "Italians Do It Better"
Coffee advert in Milan: “Italians Do It Better”

Now it’s your turn: Ever been to an Italian “bar”? What was your experience like? If not, think you would find it confusing or exciting? Anything you wish your country would import from the Italian coffee scene?

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