Coffee and Italy

Cup of coffee with coffee beans

Anyone visiting Italy for the first time has likely heard one of these lines. In Italy, coffee culture is sacred. It has rules, customs, etiquette, and a tried-and-true menu–but why? 

How did coffee get to Italy?

Coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia and later introduced to Europe through the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire recognized that coffee’s rich flavor and energizing properties would make it a profitable industry, and increased cultivation in Yemen for the European market. Venice, a port city, became one of the first European cities to regularly trade for coffee.

According to The Great Italian Cafe, when coffee first arrived in Italy, it was regarded as being sinful due to its association with the Islamic religion through the Ottoman Empire. In 1600, Pope Clement VIII was asked to publicly denounce coffee to discourage its consumption. To form a fair verdict, he asked to taste it. In a moment of clarity that has come to be known as the baptism of coffee, the Pope said, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” With the Pope’s approval, Italian coffee culture was not only born, but blessed.

The birth of the Italian bar

In pre-unified Italy, coffee brought with it new social opportunities in the form of coffee houses. Coffee was best consumed hot and fresh, so Italy began establishing coffee houses, or cafes–today’s Italian bar. The tradition of coffee houses as social spaces had originated in the Ottoman Empire, but in Italy, it took on a life of its own.

The first Italian coffee houses opened in Venice around the end of the 17th century. According to the Great Italian Cafe, “[they] soon became synonymous with comfortable atmosphere, conversation, and good food, this adding romance and sophistication to the coffee experience.” While coffee houses usually welcomed aristocrats, one Venetian coffee house had a reputation for breaking social boundaries. READ MORE

DC Sister Cities - Podcast