We Italians know, that coffee is an integral part of our culture and an essential part of the Italian way of life. Caffè is more than just a drink in Italy, it is a ritual that is savored. As part of la dolce vita, the sweet life, it is enjoying the simple things in life, like a tiny cup of coffee endowed with a variety of connotations: sharing, relax (il dolce far niente) and affection. Joyous.

In this Article

Introduced in the 1500s to Italy, coffee has developed its own culture and has a place on the Mediterranean dining table ever since.

Having a coffee in Italy can be a moment of serenity, slowly sipping the coffee while watching the world go by, il dolce far niente.

Italian dolce vita

Having a coffee in Italy has a social element to it, no matter the time of day or night. Whether with a friend or family, chatting to the barista, or alone, there’s a pleasant, solitary well-being that is, in a strange way, a sociable moment.

Coffee is the balm of the heart and spirit

Composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

The Italians know that everything in their country is … imbued with their spirit. They know that there is no need, really, to distinguish or to choose between the smile on the face of a cameriere and Donatello’s San Giorgio… They are all works of art, the ‘great art of being happy’ and of making other people happy, an art which embraces and inspires all others in Italy, the only art worth learning, but which can never be really mastered, the art of inhabiting the earth.

Riccardo Pazzaglia (1926 – 2006)

Riccardo Pazzaglia was an Italian actor, film director, screenwriter, songwriter, TV and radio personality.

La dolce vita, is an expression used to describe the Italian sweet life. The Italian loan phrase was made popular due to the 1960s Italian Movie Masterpiece by filmmaker Federico Fellini with the same name. La dolce vita is starring Marcello Mastroianni as a gossip journalist (paparazzo) traveling through Rome in search for love, happiness and a life of pleasure. La a dolce vita involves pleasure of varying degrees, sometimes, it is used in a way that is considered hedonistic, shallow and materialistic.

It describes also a life full of beauty, pleasures, and entertaining events – of love, food and celebrating the art of being together. In Italy, family gatherings are frequent, like saint’s days and festivals, centered around food and the extended networks of families.

The merry moments of coffee

Italian coffee is often drunk according to the culture of the 3 Cs –
caldo, comodo e in compagnia

(hot, comfortable and in company)

Enjoying the pleasures of the table, the connection between the land and the taste buds, and the art of the meal, is sharing the good life, la dolce vita. In Italy and our travels showed us, everywhere else, commensality tastes like a warm embrace of friendship that feeds the soul.

We are coffee lovers in Italy, isn’t it? If you ask my family, we are. And we invite friends for coffee obviously. Shall we have coffee – that is a sentence we live by.

Across cultures, offering coffee to guests is a gesture of hospitality and respect. Coffee rituals often involve elaborate preparation and serving methods, reflecting the care and consideration given to guests. In Arab cultures, serving coffee symbolizes friendship and goodwill, while in Turkish tradition, it represents hospitality and acceptance. These coffee rituals embody the Italian values of warmth, community, and generosity.

In Italy also, the Moka pot or Naploetana and home espresso machines, would always be there in the kitchens, on the stove, ready to gurgle when expected, and unexpected guests would come by, be it neighbors, friends or friends of friends. To offer guests something is good manners.

Coffee would be served, rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, and comforting.

The Mediterranean lifestyle plays a vital role in cultural spaces, like festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. La dolce vita is also sitting down with family and friends to a meal made with love, allowing the world to slow for a bit; enjoying the simple magic of each other – la dolce vita.

The Mediterranean table
The Mediterranean table Source.

Convivial family gatherings take so many hours and coffees, post-meal cigarettes and alcohol, that at the end you’re feeling hungry again.

There’s peace in a strong cup of black coffee – il dolce far niente – the sweet do nothing

Drinking caffè brings happy memories of seasons, of loved ones, of events. We drink so much caffè – so many days in our lives – that each tiny tazzina (cup), is viewed as another opportunity for enjoyment. A coffee after a meal gives that feeling of happiness despite the tragedy of the meal’s end.

Don’t rush through your coffee, sit down, take your time and enjoy!

Habits, customs and inclinations of how we Italians celebrate the art of the table are individual and diverse, there is no real culinary rules, but there is codes, like passion, celebration and culture – savoring what is truly important.

a tavola non s’invecchia”,

“at the table you do not age”.

Substance, circumstance and coffee

Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University,and scholar in Food studies, Massimo Montanari in his book “Il sugo della storia”, cites the French semiologist Roland Barthes essay on “Psycho-sociology of contemporary nutrition” from 1961. Barthes posed the accent on two terms, substance and circumstance, observing how food and drinks are not just ‘nutrition’, or substances that are ingested, but also ‘circumstances’.

This vehicles of communication carry social, ritual and symbolic values linked to the occasion of their consumption. To be clear: Christmas biscuits is not just a mixture of flour butter, sugar, etc., but also a ‘sign’ of Christmas.

Barthes also pointed out, how – in certain cases, the two functions can paradoxically, oppose one to another, and he named coffee as the example. From a nutritional point of view, coffee is an energizing substance: a stimulant, keeping us awake, making us feel less sleepy.

But from the point of view of the ‘circumstance’ the coffee is connected to ideas that recall relaxation and rest.

Sure, the coffee break is also a way to revive work and productivity, but, in the perception that we have in Italy, it is above all a space of relaxation, having a chat with friends or colleagues. This is – concluded Barthes – how circumstance can win over substance.

Drinking macchiato.
Drinking macchiato. rodfp80 CC BY 4.0

As a romantic, I reluctantly admit that in addition to being an art, espresso is also a science. Coffee can relax us simply because it’s part of our routine, a daily ritual and we find comfort in preparing our espresso using a Moka pot, a Neapolitan cuccumella or modern espresso machines. A coffee prepared at home: is an indispensable pleasure, an encouragement, a cuddle and a gesture of love – a sensory journey of Italian coffee beyond taste.

Another reason coffee make us feel relaxed is the relationship between caffeine and dopamine. Scientists have known for many years that coffee stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It produces the euphoria and pleasant feelings that we often associate with our first cup of coffee in the morning. Unfortunately some call it also an addiction… too late… go ahead and have another tiny cup. I am going to.

Ozio e il dolce far niente

“Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.

It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.

Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)

Gertrude Stein was an American novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector.

Coffee represents also a moment of serenity, slowly sipping the coffee while watching the world go by. Oziare means to laze around, For the ancient Romans, otium had a variety of meanings, including leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, relaxing, contemplation and academic endeavors. It meant taking care of oneself with inactivity referring to the fact of not working and enjoying the time to study and dedicate oneself to one’s person.

On the contrary, the negotium was work and indicated the activities necessary for survival, which were however reserved for the working people. Today, otium and negotium have developed into opposite meanings. The value of idleness has been almost totally eliminated in favor of work and continuous commitments, at the fastest pace possible.

Laurette"s head with a coffee cup.1917. Henri Matisse
Laurette”s head with a coffee cup.1917. Henri Matisse CC0 US

Having a cup of coffee, switching off to contemplate, to enjoy the time and experience a few moments of absolute rest is also part of dolce vita in Italy we call il dolce far niente. Literally the sweet do – nothing, or sweet idleness, making time to do nothing and embracing all that life should be.

The sweet life is not just pleasure of the senses but an idea of taking every hour of the day and savoring it. Slowing down and practicing what some call mindfulness. In other words, “stop and smell the coffee” has become a common saying for a reason. It is enjoyable to take a break, rest, and enjoy the simple things in life, like a hot cup of espresso.

It is a way for people to get away from the stresses of everyday life and have some time to themselves.

Dolce far niente can also mean “to feel peaceful.”

Just holding a warm cup of coffee provides many with a sense of comfort – especially when cradling porcelain or glass. A private moment of calm in a busy world: a space where we can pause to think, linger, and oftentimes, create – right there all of it is there, in the little demitasse of coffee.

Elke Kip artwork Coffee-time.
Elke Kip artwork, Coffee time.

That is, what we call la dolce vita, the sweet life; full of beauty, pleasures, entertaining events – a life of love, food, coffee and celebrating the art of being together and alone.

~ ○ ~

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Works Cited & Multimedia Sources

The history of coffee is an extraordinary study. If you would like to learn more about it, I heartily recommend the book, All About Coffee, by William Ukers. Written in 1928, it will delight you with detail.