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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Caffe: Survival Tips For The Caffeine-Deprived While In Italy

Click to enlarge this wonderful infographic of different Italian coffee variations

True story: Italian coffee almost killed me. Okay, not really. I exaggerate. But what good true story doesn't make use of a slight exaggeration for some emphasis now and then? In any case, true story, Italian coffee made me very, very ill. Because my problem with Italian coffee, by which I mean those small cups filled with cappuccino, or espresso, or mokaccino, all of which I love as much as any card-carrying Italophile, is not cappuccino vs. espresso, or mokaccino vs. macchiato; my Problem no. 1 with caffe in Italy is this: I simply cannot get enough of it. And I mean that in the literal sense, not the figurative.

Yes, that's me.                              (   continued...   )

We all know that every blog about Italy seems required to have at least one post about Italian caffe. The different types, the rules for drinking which, when, the etiquette of sitting inside or outside. And we've touched on those topics here, with posts about what makes for a perfect cappuccino, a few favorite places per prendere un caffeto take a coffeehere in Stresa, and a few mentions of some of the more fun variations, such as the Shakerato. But now I'd like to focus on another aspect of coffee in Italy: Survival techniques for us caffeine-addicted travelers.

A perfect cappuccino, like the one above from Gigi Bar in Stresa, is always good... but...

It's not the Caffe; it's the Caffeine.
Recently it happened that I found myself curled up in a corner of a couch, unable to move for the pounding, pounding, pounding inside my skull, and wondering what, what? horrible disease I could have caught on the cruise I had returned from just two days prior. All that emphasis on sterilizing hands every 10 seconds on the cruise ship, and I still seemed to have come down with the plague. (Exaggeration. But I felt horrible.) Giuseppe was kind, " What can I do? Did you take aspirin? Do you want some soup?" That last question was a bit of a joke, intended to cheer me up, because there was no easy way to get soup. So I attempted to answer in kind, with an understood inside joke response, "Yes, please," I whispered, attempting to move my lips as little as possible to speak, "Run over to Wawa and bring me a chicken noodle soup." (Wawa being the beyond wonderful convenience store chain found every couple of miles around my home in the U.S. but 5000 miles from that couch I was on in Italy.)

Silence. Then, a "Hmmm..." from Giuseppe. Then silence. I know this combination of silence and Hmmm. Usually it's not good. "Cosa?," I barely audibly muttered. "I just had a thought," he said. This phrase could preface good or bad, but considering the preceding "Hmmm" and the silence and the way he was struggling now not to laugh I wasn't optimistic.  "Wawa reminded me of coffee...," he began hesitatingly, "And... well... don't be angry... but I think you've been drinking decaf coffee here in the house."


More silence.

"Are you trying to KILL me?!" I managed, somewhere between laughter and pain, "Are you insane?!? Go find me some coffee!"

These leads to Problem no. 2: No takeaway coffee. And since we had just determined that there was no real coffee in the house, this meant I had to somehow crawl to the nearest bar, which I did, eyes reduced to slits because of the shocking brightness of the light outside. And I had not one, but two espresso.

It's Scientifically Proven.

Click to enlarge.

Here's Problem no. 3: Look at the above chart. Even two espresso come far short of the caffeine that I am accustomed to in one of my takeaway coffees in the U.S. But at least it took the initial edge off that headache.

This now reminds me of my very first trip to Italy, when I quickly discovered that I was going to have this ongoing problem with Italian caffeine. It was the second day of the tour. Headache wasn't too bad yet, but I was taking aspirin and suspected it was from caffeine deprivation. We were at a planned late lunch at a restaurant in Siena. Espresso arrived on a platter for all 14 of us. Some didn't want espresso, due to the late hour of the afternoon, or just not having learned to like it yet. "Umm..," I sheepishly asked, as I didn't know all these people well yet, "Are you not going to drink that espresso?" And so I was able to score five of them, which if you pour them into a cup together is now close to the amount of caffeine in my 16 ounce coffee from Wawa.  And I felt great. Better than great. And slept like a baby.

Yep, that's me too. But look here: 

If you order a Caffe Americano, you are not getting an American cup of coffee. You are still receiving the same amount of caffeine as in a shot of espresso.  So this is what everyone thinks I should do when in Italy:

 But this is really what I need:

The Solution.
This led me to the development of what I call my Coffee Survival Strategies. I employed them during the remainder of that tour, and on other occasions in Italy since. They are:

1. The "Do you want yours?" technique: Already described above. Drink coffee at any and all opportunities. That was not the last time that I asked other people for their coffee. 

2. The "I'll be right back" technique: Whenever possible, excuse yourself by saying you are going to the rest room, and go buy a quick double espresso instead. This is when the fast Italian practice of gulping one down in mere seconds works in my favor.

3. The "Uncouth Tourist" technique: In this one I horrify Italians by ordering more than one cappuccino at the same time.

4. The "Don't Be Proud" technique: If you happen to be in a hotel that offers American coffee in the morning, take it. Take the whole pot.

5. And when all else fails, have a Coke. I'm not usually a fan, but the mix of caffeine and sugar helps.

There you have it. My survival guide to caffeine in Italy. If you are anything like me, I hope you'll find this as helpful as any guide about which caffe to order. If I follow these directions carefully, I'm able to stay fully caffeinated and headache free, enough so to enjoy the delicious Italian cappuccino, espresso, and Shakerato.  Just don't try to convince me they are coffee. And don't ever serve me decaf.

And don't get me wrong! When in Italy I always suggest to adapt to the culture and enjoy the Italian caffe experience. But still, when I return to the States, one of the first things I usually do is stop for a large, hot, takeaway coffee, put it into the cup holder in my car, and enjoy it, for a long, long time. 

photo credits from top: infographic: Charming Italy; ecard:; How Much Caffeine chart:; A Couple More Espressos:; cup chart:; man drinking espresso:; Wawa coffee cups: Wawa; remaining photos property of stresa sights.

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