The elements of Italian that no textbook teaches students
During the Summer I occasionally receive inquiries from people who would like to learn some Italian or improve their conversational skills ahead of a trip/vacation to Italy. Basically, what they would like is to blend in a little and not look like the proverbial tourist. I tell them that some knowledge of "calcio" (soccer) goes a long way, but the truth is that there is nothing like coffee that can tell an Italian that someone is the infamous proverbial tourist unless some conventions are respected. Personally, I think that the list below represents the bare minimum of facts and unofficial rules one has to be aware:
1) DO NOT drink cappuccino, caffe' latte, latte macchiato or any milky form of coffee after a meal! Only in the morning! And, by the way, do not order a "latte" instead of "caffe' latte" or you will receive hot milk and strange looks!
2) DO NOT ask for mint frappuccino or the other concoctions that can be found at Starbuck's, Peete's, etc... They taste good, and I like them too, but they do not have a place in the Italian culture of caffe', not yet at least. Ehi, you would not ask for single malt whisky and lemonade in Scottish pubs, or for wine and coke in France, would you?
3) There is NO NEED to specify a SINGLE espresso when ordering. Espresso is the default measure when ordering coffee. "Un caffe'" is all one has to say and the barista will not let you down. You can order a double espresso if you like by asking for a "caffe' doppio", but this is not an Italian habit. A triple espresso might earn you a junkie status. It is perhaps just my opinion, but I believe that Italians are partial to single espressos so that they can take more breaks during the day and have an excuse to leave their desks/offices more often!
4) Coffee in Italy is consumed standing up, unless you have it with your breakfast in the morning or some form of lunch during the other times of the day.
5) Knowing about CAFFE' CORRETTO.. a "pick-me-up" version of espresso "corrected" with a slug of brandy,grappa, cognac, or sambuca will earn you a lot of points among Italians. But do not ask for it in the morning or you might end up looking like the proverbial drunkard instead of the proverbial tourist! It is more than fine after a meal instead and it reveals an honest effort to blend in! Actually, among old friends it is not unusual to keep pouring liquor in the cup after the caffe' corretto has already been consumed.
6) There is about AS MUCH CAFFEINE in an espresso or in a regular coffee (caffe' americano, in Italian) so do not enter in vain disquisitions about how strong espresso is. True, espresso servings are smaller so the concentration of caffeine is much higher than with a regular brew, but the overall amount is roughly the same. Italians get irritated by this issue as they cannot understand (and rightly so) how someone used to drinking "buckets" of coffee each day worries so much about caffeine intake.