Coming from Oregon where coffee and urban coffee culture reigns supreme, I found Italian coffee culture to be quite different. The first thing to learn is where a good bar is. In the U.S. we go to bars for alcohol. In Italy, the bar is where you go for coffee, oh and also for alcohol......even combined sometimes. Bars range from tiny local dives to Gran Caffes with gleaming wood bars, brass rails and suited waiters. In Oregon, we order giant size coffees and lounge around on couches while chatting or surfing the web on laptops using a coffee shop's wifi. In Italy, you belly up to the bar, knock back your coffee and go on your merry way.....several times a day.
In Oregon I always hear people making the craziest coffee orders......grande half-caf mocha no whip, tall soy latte with 1 pump hazelnut syrup, venti skinny latte no foam. ( Yech! I'm a purist myself.....give me all the caffeine, whole milk and nothing else.) In Italy, there are no sizes. Very rarely is there a choice of skim milk vs. whole. There are no flavorings to add. Don't ask them to hold the foam.....that's what it's all about! That and just plain old good coffee. The best part of all is that it ALWAYS come in a real cup and saucer. You're not expected to get it to go. Why would you when you're just going to quickly gulp it down, head back out and return in a few hours for another one?
Usually, you order at the cash register, get a receipt, find a spot at the bar, give the receipt to the barista and tell him what you want. He tears your receipt nearly in half and places it on the bar as a reminder that he's already taken your order. He slaps a saucer on the bar in front of you, places a tiny spoon on it and moments later, he returns with a luscious cup of joy; whether it be espresso, cappuccino or a caffe latte. Nearby there will be big bowls of sugar packets for you to choose from. Slurp it down, leave a €0.10 or €0.20 coin as tip next to your empty cup, head out the door, and start looking for the next bar.
In a local bar you can expect to get your coffee drink for as little as €0.80, the equivalant of just over a dollar IF you take it at the bar. At bigger, more touristy locations it will be more like 1 euro. If you decide to rest your weary feet and sit at a table for a while, then a waiter will serve you. You can then expect to pay at least twice, if not four times as much. I have gotten away in some places with ordering from the bar, carrying my coffee to a table myself, and returning my empty cup to the bar in a timely manner. You should never pick up your coffee from the bar, use a table, and leave your empty dishes there after paying bar price. Better to rest your weary feet over a nice long lunch.
As I mentioned earlier, the bar is also where alcohol is served. Usually, mid morning, you can find shopkeepers and other local workers stopping in for a caffe corretto, something I personally could never get used to. It's a shot of espresso with a shot of grappa.....something to reinvigorate those who have been up since the crack of dawn. Most Italians don't drink cappuccino after about 11am, but they will certainly make one for you if you order it. If espresso is not to your liking, try a caffe macchiato. It means "stained" and it's a shot of espresso with just a dab of milk to tame it down a little. Or you could order a caffe americano which is generally an espresso topped up with hot water, making it more like our version of drip coffee.
Regardless of your coffee tastes, if you go to Italy, get thyself to a bar right away and as often as possible. Scout out which ones have the best cornetti, the sweet croissants that are perfect for breakfast with your coffee. I love walking the streets of Rome listening for that telltale clink of coffee cups on saucers. Really. You can hear it from the streets and know that a bar is nearby.....sustenance is just over there.