13 December 2016

Italy has the best coffee shops in the world!

Coffeehouses were already popular in Constantinople by 1550. And by 1632 there were 1,000 public coffee houses in Cairo. In 1645 coffee-drinking was already known in southern It­aly. From Italy, coffee made its way to France where it was intr­o­duced in 1650. The first coffee house in London opened in 1652.

But it took until after the Turkish siege of 1683 for the Vien­nese to know what to do with the coffee beans they found. Finally someone pop­ularised the custom of adding sugar and milk to the coffee, allowing coffee shops to open across Vienna.  Soon drinking Viennese-style coffee spread across central Europe, and it has been ­a beloved drink ever since.

So Vienna as a European coffee centre is perfectly understandable, ever since the Austrians accidentally learned to adore Turkish coffee beans. But why Italy? Two separate explanat­ions have been offered:

a] Italians have loved coffee ever since the cof­fee bean first arrived in Venice in the C16th, brought directly from Egypt and not via Vienna. A flourishing trade between Venetian and Arab merchants meant a wide variety of goods could be imported, especially the very expensive coffee beans.

b] The Jewish kab­b­alists in Safed had to study Torah all night during Tikun Lel Shavu‘ot. Since at least one coffee-house was documented as existing in Safed by 1580, it made sense that the Italians would have copied the idea for their own nocturnal studies.

But coffee in Italy was initially considered sinful and was deemed to be an Islamic threat to Christianity. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) was about to ban the drink as heathen, but was encouraged to sample the drink first. He loved the unique taste and aroma, and decided that it would be a great sin to ban coffee. Thus it was declared a Christian beverage, eventually leading to the first Italian coffee house - in Venice in 1640.

Just while I was pondering the Italian history of coffee, an article arrived from Michelle Hammond, the Senior Editor of The Escapologist. Since I am an espresso fanatic, this article could not have been better directed.

Dear Helen and Joseph,
The first time I visited Italy, I was only 15. Not yet a coffee drinker, I was amazed by the locals, who would flock to cafés and espresso bars every single morning. Unlike Australians, who typ­ic­ally gulp down cups before work or at their desk, Italians savour their coffee. In Italy, drinking coffee is a national pastime. So if you ever find yourself in this amazing country, where do you go for the best brew? Happy living! Michelle Hammond.

“Where to Find the Best Coffee in the World”
By Debra Kolkka
in The Escapologist, November 15th, 2016

In Italy coffee making is an art form, and the Italians have perfected it. Flor­ence is home to one of my favourite cafes in all of Italy, Caffe Giacosa. Established in 1815, it’s a Florentine institution. It was popular with the Florentine elite in the C19th and it’s always my first stop after arriving in Florence.

Cappuccino and pastry

I get there at 10am, in time to see the gorgeous people from the nearby shops… Gucci, Pucci, Prada, Max Mara, Armani, Fendi and, of course, Cavalli. The Florence-born designer bought the café in 2002 and painstakingly restored it to its former glory. Caffe Giacosa offers some of the best people-watching anywhere. Customers glide in (fresh off the pages of Vogue), greet friends, chat with the handsome barista, drink their espresso and head back to work.

On one visit, I spoke to a group of elegant older ladies I often see there. They laughed as they told me they had been enjoying their coffee at Caffe Giacosa all their lives. They now greet me with a smile and a wave each time I see them. You can sit here for hours and watch the world go by, or make like a local and enjoy a coffee and a delicious pastry for less than $4.

When I’m in Rome, Caffe Greco on Via Condotti, near the Spanish Steps, is where I head for my caffeine fix. Established in 1760, and named for its Greek owner, it’s the second oldest café in Italy. It’s long been a place for artists and writers to gather. I like to stand at the bar and watch the baristas, in their smart white shirts and black jackets, make my coffee — which costs less than $2.

When I want to treat myself, I make the move from the bar to the beautiful inner rooms. Here the walls are lined with paintings and photos of famous guests, including Casanova, Goethe, Keats, even Buffalo Bill! Coffee and cake will set you back $26, but the gorgeous surroundings make it worth-while. Even a trip to the elegant bathroom is an experience.

Beating Rome’s Caffe Greco to the title of oldest café in Italy is Venice’s Caffe Florian, running continuously since 1720. You’ll find it in the magnificent Piazza San Marco, in front of the golden church. But you won’t find $2 coffee here; it’s very expensive but it’s also an unforgettable experience. Casanova was a regular here, as it was the only coffeehouse that allowed women. No doubt he sat in one of the sumptuous rooms to impress his conquests. On my last visit, I enjoyed an affogato/gelato soaked in espresso.

Caffe Giacosa in Florence

Back at my local café in Bagni di Lucca, Annalisa single-handedly serves a packed bar every morning. My coffee arrives just as I like it within minutes. Once you become a regular, your special choice of coffee will appear without you even having to ask. The ordering system can be a little confusing in Italy. In many places, especially in larger towns, you will be expected to pay for your coffee and pastry at the cash desk/cassa before you approach the barista. So cruise past the pastry counter to make a selection before paying.

An espresso is usually just called a cafe, a cappuccino is just as it is in Australia, and a flat white is a cappuccino senza schiuma/without foam. Latte is warm milk, so order a cafe latte. Once you have paid at the cassa, take the docket you are given to the barista and order.

Coffee is an experience in Italy. Find your nearest bar, become a regular and watch the passing parade. Do visit the iconic and pricier places too. Sit there and soak up the atmosphere. It will be great fun, so much more than just coffee.

Debra Kolkka


Thank you Michelle and Debra. I will add one more important point myself. After WW2 Italian immigration to Australia increased dramatically, including large numbers of agric­ultural workers from southern Italy. The number of Italians in this country, and their Australian-born Italian-speaking children, peaked in 1970 at c800,000. Pelligrini's Espresso Bar, Don Camillo Restaurant and Legend Café laid claim to being Melbourne's first real espresso bars, opening their doors in 1954, 1955 and 1956 respectively. Leo's Spaghetti Bar opened just as the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne in 1956 and was frequented by every Italian athlete and official. As was Mirka's Café.


Ex Pat said...

Thank goodness for Pope Clement VIII. He deserves a retrospective Nobel Peace Prize.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am reading your post about exotic coffee as I am drinking a cup of instant decaffeinated--no fair! Taiwan is a producer of select coffee, and there are tons of coffee houses here, some of which emphasize the quality of the brew, and some the atmosphere. I know two people who have opened coffeehouses, and a third who is considering it.

Hels said...

Ex Pat

agreed. If Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) had banned coffee as heathen, I would be the most sinning person alive.

Hels said...


a cup of instant decaffeinated? Do you add chemicals instead of sugar and powdery muck instead of cow's milk? Once your friends open proper coffee houses in Taiwan with proper espresso machines, customers will flock to their shops!

Parnassus said...

Hi again, You see, I violated one of my prime rules of writing, Never make any bad admission about yourself, and I immediately lost caste. Actually, I consider instant coffee as a separate drink from the real thing, which I usually take black.

If you come to visit in Taiwan, I will have to give you tea--I also have friends in the tea leaf business, and am well stocked with rare and special varieties.

Hels said...


I never take offence (except I suppose for politicians cashing in on sexism, racism or anti-Semitism). But never for comments made in a blog.

And that reminds me of a joke that our local espresso bar has with my husband who always orders decaff latte' with fake sugar and fake milk every time. As soon as he walks in, the barista yells out "Hey Joe, do you want your normal glass of Why Bother?" :)

Andrew said...

Our friend in Malaysia is making a fortune there with his coffee business, importing and selling coffee, importing coffee machines, especially from Italy, and teaching proper coffee making. It seems there is some snob value there to drinking good coffee. I think we should get good coffee in Portugal and Spain when we visit next year. Certainly never did in North America. I thought it might be ok in Canada because of the French connection, but it wasn't. I expect I will enjoy barista watching in Europe too.

Ex Pat said...

Portuguese coffee shops are terrific, Andrew

Hels said...


I am sure there IS an element of coffee snobbery in the world, just like there is wine snobbery or whiskey snobbery amongst aficionados. Even though I assumed I wasn't being snobby, I remember the first time I had coffee in the USA (Starbucks, Seattle). Apparently they added syrup in the glass to give it eg a vanilla taste and to take away the coffee taste :( In plastic containers :( OK, OK, I AM a coffee sob.

Now I think that the coffee shop itself is as important as the beans. The shop doesn't have to be big, but it does have to be attractive. And NO plastic.

Hels said...

Ex Pat

spouse and I travelled all around Spain and Portugal during their worst era of unemployment and depression. Their children finished school/uni at home, then emigrated immediately to France or other more northern countries. Heart breaking.

Yet the coffee shops were still inviting and the coffee ritual was still much loved.

bazza said...

My elder daughter, Ruth, has just returned from a long weekend in Vienna (where it was -4C). She is a great coffee lover and thought Vienna was a Paradise. We visited some wonderful inexpensive coffee houses in Italy and were very pleasantly surprised in Portugal with the flaky pastry custard tarts! Thanks for the history.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Vienna IS paradise! Joe and I were in Vienna one year and we decided to test the coffees and pastries in a scientific fashion. We stopped every day at 3 PM at a different coffee shop to test and record the experience. Not for selfish gourmandish reasons, you understand, but to improve world knowledge.

Here is the post. http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/vienna-coffee-art-pastries.html
I have been blogging bi-weekly since November 2008 and it might not surprise you that this Vienna Coffee and Pastries post is the second-most read post I have ever published.