Italian Bars Explained
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Italian Bars Explained

Learn the crucial difference between getting a table and standing at the bar. Find out what you get when you order a coffee (or a latte) and if you're expected to pay upon ordering or as you leave.

Italian Bars Explained

The Italians call them “bars”, though they are more like licensed coffee shops that often also sell pastries, sandwiches, ice cream, cigarettes, stamps, lotto tickets and transit passes. But, despite the multitude of services they provide, the popularity of Italian bars comes from their signature product: proper espresso – the kind you can’t make at home, the one that requires a state-of-the-art espresso maker and the hands of a trained barista. If you like coffee and you happen to be visiting Italy, you must go to a bar and try it for yourself – you will be amazed! However, you may also find the process of ordering and actually getting a coffee quite puzzling. Here you may find answers to some of your questions.


Question #1. Do I pay as I order (like in a fast food), or before I leave (like in a restaurant)?

It depends on whether there is a cashier:

  • Bars that have a large flow of customers employ a cashier with the sole purpose of taking payments. If you wish to order a coffee, go to the till first, then take the receipt to the barista. The barista will invalidate it (by ripping it partially, or by crossing it out with a pen) and give it back to you*, then they’ll make your coffee.
  • If there’s no cashier, just place your order at the bar:
    – If they give you a receipt, it’s because they prefer to be paid in advance.
    – If they start making your coffee, they’re OK with being paid after. When you finish your drink, ask how much you owe them (“Quanto pago?“).

In some cases, it gets a bit more complicated:

  • You may find bars where the cashier directly passes orders to the barista. In those situations the barista will start making your coffee right away. Still, keep your receipt in handy in case they want to see it.
  • You may also find bars where both the barista and the cashier take orders, but only the cashier takes payments. In that case, when you go to the till you will have to specify whether you’re ordering a coffee (“Un caffè, grazie”) or you’re just paying for a coffee you already had (“Pago un caffè”).


Question #2. After I am given my coffee, can I go sit at a table?

Generally, no! Unless you are in one of the very few self-served bars with courtesy tables (you can recognize them from the lack of waiters in the room or menus on the tables), you shouldn’t take your order to the table. The reason is that the price of items at the table is often much higher than the price at the bar (however, no service tip is expected). So, unless you really want to be yelled at, don’t bring your coffee to a table, even if all tables are unoccupied. If you plan to use a table, just have a seat – a waiter will be right with you.


Question #3. What kind of coffee do I get after a meal?

At a bar, most Italians have a single espresso, which they order by simply saying: “Un caffè”. Some Italians may ask for a “lungo” – an espresso in which a bit more hot water is allowed to flow through the grounds for a slightly weaker flavor (albeit a higher caffeine content), or for a “ristretto” – a short espresso, stronger in flavor. Other Italians may ask for a “macchiato” – an espresso with a dollop of foamed milk. But hardly will you see an Italian asking for a “cappuccino” after a meal. A cappuccino is an espresso with steamed milk and foamed milk – most Italians consider it way too milky for the after-meal, pretty much reserving it to breakfast.


Question #4. Can I just order a “latte”?

Well, yes – but you’d be given a glass of cold milk – that’s what latte means. If you wish to order a caffè latte, don’t leave out the word “caffè”. A caffè latte, however, refers to the moka-style coffee and warm milk commonly had for breakfast at home or in some hotels. Bars, instead, serve their espresso and steamed-milk equivalent called: “latte macchiato”. Cappuccino and latte macchiato are the two most common breakfast drinks in Italian bars, and the difference lays in the larger amount of milk in the latter (no pun intended!)


*The reason why they are returning you the receipt is because all Italian stores are mandated by the revenue authority to issue a receipt for everything they sell, and give a copy to their customers.

Paolo RigiroliItalian born and raised, Paolo Rigiroli blogs on Quatro Fromaggio and Other Disgraces on the Menu about the differences between the popular Italian food of North America and the authentic cuisine of continental Italy.
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