Coffee Culture from Colorado to Italy 

It’s 8am on Friday at the Denver Central Market, and people are lining up to get their morning coffee and pastries. The industrial building houses a a collection of gourmet, locally owned food establishments and markets. I came here for the bakery and coffee shop, but there is also a fish and meat market,  fresh produce market, an ice cream parlor and several restaurants. Near the entrance is a long bar and tall community tables, where I am sitting.

It’s bustling at 9am and the people watching is fantastic. Many are dressed up and getting their goodies to go, presumably on their way into work. More than a dozen are sitting alone with their laptops, and I wonder if this is their regular “office” and what it is that they do.

As the time passes tables become more occupied with people meeting up, some casually and some for business. I’m pretty sure there is an interview in process at the other end of my table. I think this would be a stimulating place for the exchange of ideas.

As I sip my single origin drip coffee, I am oddly reminded of a little café in Italy, which is completely different from my current scene.

Perhaps I am reminded of it because I often go for a cappuccino on Fridays, when I lead bike tours in Piedmont. We start the day early with guests who choose to squeeze in one last bike ride and coffee stop at the end of the six day trip.

It’s an invigorating ride along a ridge line with  vineyards on either side. We spin along the winding road to the little town of Mango, where we treat ourselves to a cappuccino and sometimes a chocolate filled croissant.

It’s funny, the town square of Mango is probably smaller than the size of this building. We always struggle to find a spot to park our bicycles and the locals watch us with curiosity. I imagine there are very few foreigners who visit the tiny hilltop town. With nothing more than a bank, a church, a castle and the little coffee bar, the town of just over a thousand residents is not on a typical Piedmont itinerary. (Although it would seem that visitors would come to see the castle, there are so many other castles in Piedmont that this often gets overlooked).

What I love about those Friday mornings in Piedmont, is the feeling of being part of the local scene. It’s a very simple and humble place to get a coffee; there’s nothing flashy or amazing about this particular coffee stop that makes it shine above other places. The typicity of it is actually what I love. We immerse ourselves among the agricultural Piemontese people who have the same agenda: getting their morning caffeine!

The mood is alive with regulars standing at the counter and chatting heartily among each other. People on their way into work stop in, but no one orders their coffee to go. In fact, most places don’t even have to-go cups. Instead, they sip their cappuccinos out of 8-10 oz porcelain mugs with cute little saucers. Many will stand there to eat a croissant or sweet pastry as well. No one seems to be in a rush, and although there are tables and chairs, most prefer to belly up to the bar. It’s a time to chat and gossip with the other patrons and their barista before continuing on with their day.

Whether a small town or big city, Italian coffee shops (referred to as bars in Italy) are gathering spots for locals, morning, noon and night. They serve coffee, pastries, sandwiches and generally they will also have wine, beer and alcohol. In the evenings they put a spread of snacks out on the bar that come free with a drink. (Because in Italy it would be weird to have a drink without food).

I take my last sip of black coffee and remember the hipster barista in the Denver Central Market saying that drip coffee is bottomless. Excellent! I think to myself.  I get up from the table and walk over to the now empty coffee bar. The barista gives me a little nod as I refill my coffee from the tall air-pot on the counter. It’s typical, American self service. There are still several people scattered about the dinning area, focused on their laptops. Ironically, everyone is sitting alone, claiming opposite ends of the big community tables.

I find it fascinating to think about these cultural differences among something as simple as coffee.  In Italy, you would never observe anyone working away on their laptop over multiple cups of drip coffee. This is just not part of the Italian culture. There is no such thing as bottomless coffee because Italians regard drip coffee as too watered down. If you order a coffee (caffè), you will be served a single shoot of espresso.

I think back to those Friday mornings in Piedmont. Out front, a group of older men always gather at one of the little tables. They stay for hours, visiting, smoking and observing the people who come and go. It seems like every Italian bar has this same scene of older men who gather to talk, play cards and either drink an espresso or beer depending on the time of day. They are the staple of every authentic Italian bar.

When we arrive on Friday mornings, we generally join the older men and gather around a couple of other tables out front. The friendly barista comes out to take our orders and questions jovially why we would ever ride our bikes rather than drive.

By that point on our guided trip, everyone knows not to order a latte or they will be served a glass of cold milk. Instead, most of us order a cappuccino. I am delighted when several of them order completely in Italian, using little phrases that we have been practicing all week.

“Vorrei un cappuccino per favore” (I would like a cappuccino please”

“Grazie mile!” (Thanks a million!)

Our American guests, now savvy on Italian culture, may also check their watches and joke that it’s still ‘cappuccino time’. Italians would never order a cappuccino after 11am, as they firmly believe that milk should only be consumed in the morning. In the afternoon, it’s much more common to order a caffè or caffè macchiato (espresso with a dollop of milk foam). After dinner it would be appropriate to order another caffè, or better yet, caffè corretto (espresso with a shot of alcohol).

I snap out of my daydream and back to my current surroundings. It’s already 10:45am (nearly the end of ‘cappuccino time’ if I were in Italy!).  I gather my mug and other dishes and take them to the bus tub. I chuckle to myself at this final observation of cultural differences…just as it is expected that patrons bus their tables at American coffee shops, it is also expected that patrons don’t bus their tables at any establishment in Italy.

I honestly don’t prefer one style over the other. In fact, I really appreciate that there are such noticeable differences in this simple morning ritual. Otherwise, what would be the excitement of travel if everything were the same?

Planning a trip to Denver or Italy?

If you’re in Denver, be sure to check out the Denver Central Market. Grab a coffee and pastry, pick up a loaf of bread and fish for dinner, or order from one of the restaurants and have a drink from the bar.

When you visit Italy, join the locals at one of the many coffee bars. If you’re in Piedmont, why not check out the little coffee bar in the town of Mango for a truly authentic experience? Below is a chart of the most common Italian coffee drinks:

Caffe- single shot of espresso (1 oz) served in a tiny espresso cup on a saucer with a tiny spoon and packet of sugar.

Caffè doppio – double shot of espresso (not very common)

Cappuccino-one shot of espresso, topped with 1-2oz of steamed milk and topped with a generous portion of milk foam. (This with a pastry is the typical Italian breakfast)

Caffè latte- (not as common) a single shot of espresso with steamed milk, served in a tall glass

Caffè Macchiato- a shot of espresso with a dollop of milk foam on top (this is my favorite after lunch!)

Caffe Marocchino (A Piedmont specialty) –  A small mug smeared with either nutella or chocolate and filled with steamed milk, milk foam and a shot of espresso (It’s like a teeny tiny mocha!)

Caffe shakeratto- a shot of espresso shaken (or blended) with ice and sugar, if desired. (This is great on a hot day!)

Caffè corretto- a shot of espresso with a shot of alcohol, often grappa, the distilled grape liqueur.  (This is usually consumed after dinner- I like mine with a shot of Amaretto!)

Enjoying a caffe marocchino with nonna at a bar in Dogliani, Italy.

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  1. Gloria Kaasch-Buerger

    It’s true, what would be the fun of traveling if there were no differences? Also, I was a coffee and Baillie’s girl when I drank the nectar of the gods.

  2. So true! Americans are in to much of a hurry and don’t enjoy life nearly as much as Europeans if you ask me. Thanks for the education on the coffee!

  3. Love this, T! Especially the parting shot with nonna and the delighted lady in the background clasping her hands in glee. Cheers lady!

    • I know, that is my favorite part of the photo and of course I had no idea until looking back. I just love those Italian nonnas!

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