When Italians walk into their favorite bar and order un caffe' (pronounced oon cahf-FEH) they will automatically get an espresso, served in a porcelain demitasse cup (tazzina) with its own saucer and little stirring spoon. Most will add a packet or two of sugar, stir it in, and drink the sweet delicious coffee in a quick sip or two.
As a tourist, you will probably have to specifically order un espresso to get the same thing.
Order un caffe' and you will most likely get an "American coffee" which is similar to Starbucks' Americano--a shot of espresso with hot water added and served in a large coffee cup.
That is, unless you stop in the same bar for your drink for a few days in a row. In that case, the barman will most likely begin to remember you and your drink of choice.
Remember, a bar in Italy is quite different from one in America. It's not strictly for consuming alcoholic drinks. It's a social center for regulars who may stop in several times during the day for coffee, and again in the evening for an apertivo before dinner. Everyone has their local favorite bar.
Pastries are available in the morning and often panini and other snacks can be purchased throughout the day. Of course, anyone is welcome to stop in for a drink and a bite.
One of the things I long for most when I am home between tours, is a perfect cup of espresso. The memory of the delicious aroma and deep rich flavor of un caffe' (I like mine with a little less than one packet of sugar) can instantly transport me back to my favorite bar in Florence--at least in my mind.
The word espresso has two sources. It's derived from the Italian verb esprimere which means "pressed out." And, it also come from the fact that coffee was sold to commuters as they boarded the express train in Milan.
However, coffee came to Italy long before trains. It came from the Ottoman Empire via Venice in about 1600.
There's a story that Pope Clement VIII was urged to ban the drink as Satanic because it was the favorite beverage of Muslims. Instead, after tasting a cup, the Pope enjoyed it so much that he decided to 'baptize' it-- thus making it Christian and removing any taint of the infidel.
True or not? I don't know.
I do know that the first coffeehouse opened in Venice in 1654. And also that I am glad that the Italians accepted and perfected this fragrant pick-me-up.
Mmmm. Just thinking about a breakfast espresso and a flaky cornetto (an Italian croissant) makes me want to hop on a plane tonight...