Parisian Living

Café or Caffè? French vs. Italian Coffee Culture

by Bryan Pirolli
Paris coffee culture is all about sitting out on a terrace and watching the world go by.Mobil Kamera

On paper, the difference is just one “f” between coffee in Italy and in France — caffè and café. OK, the accent switches, too, but let’s ditch the minutia. In practice, however, the two coffee cultures have much more to argue about with wild, caffeinated hand gestures.

Paris coffee culture is slowly expanding outside of traditional cafes and into more American-style coffee shops (left) sometimes with design features like neon-lit signs inside that say things like 'Capuccino' (right).Daniel Gonzalez / Miguel Bruna

Born in America, I knew little about coffee. I grew up with Folgers and Maxwell House. Having lived in France and Italy it has been entertaining to study the contrasts between the two countries.

It’s not a competition, and I’m not awarding points. Yet. Instead, I’ve come to appreciate what distinguishes both styles, and I’m willing to oscillate between the two in my regular coffee routine.

In a Paris coffee shop, a shot of steaming coffee in a white cup on a wooden counter.Janko Ferlic

The space

Let’s look at what France does right. Paris, in particular, excels when it comes to coffee shops. The café is an institution, having boomed with Haussmann’s renovations of the city. The sweeping terraces and the cozy interiors are home to roving waiters flitting among  locals who come each day. The French café is a space, a true environment, a destination for tourist and local alike.

Bring your laptop. Bring a book. Bring a newspaper. Bring a friend. You can sit and wax the day away sipping your coffee and no one will pressure you to leave.

Paris cafes are very charming, and almost all have a neon-lit sign outside (left). And you can have coffee at a table or at the counter (right).Oliver Cole / Rachel Lees

In Italy, cafés aren’t as engrained in the culture. Not like in France. Instead, there are bars where locals gather to down their morning espresso quickly before heading to work. After months in Naples, I couldn’t find one place to sit with my laptop and write while lounging about with my Caffè Americano.

Cafés in France usually have croissants and pains au chocolat for breakfast (left). A red neon 'café' sign in Paris (right).Nathan Dumlao / Alexandre Godreau

The coffee

Where Italy might lack in convivial, calm, carefree spaces, it makes up with in superior coffee. Thick, rich espresso and silky cappuccinos are the norm. From Naples to Torino to Rome to Bari and everywhere in between you’ll find consistently good, and very reasonably priced, coffee.

HiP Paris Blog explores the difference between French and Italian coffee cultureTyler Nix / Chris Barbalis

Paris, on the flip side, has beautiful, cozy cafés that serve up less-than delicious, and very expensive, coffee. Once I see the Café Richard logo anywhere — a disappointing brand of French coffee — I prepare myself psychologically. An espresso in France is never quite as rich. A cappuccino never quite as silky. Head to one of the hipster coffee shops and you can find excellent brew, but you’ll have lost the terraces and tranquility of the true Parisian café. You might as well head to Italy.

A cup of coffee at a cafe in Paris with a spoon in it, sitting on a wooden counter.Asoggetti

The community

While the spaces and coffee differ, so does the community vibe. Neither country will feel quite like an episode of Cheers, but Italian coffee bars, perhaps due to their generally smaller size, are more intimate. Servers give you that knowing look that says, “Hey, I know you!” Everyone is welcomed into the conversation and it’s not rare for someone to strike up a conversation with you.

A top shot of a cup of coffee sitting on a wooden counter (left). And an empty of coffee sitting on a wooden table at a café in Paris (right).Nathan Dumlao / Ian Keefe

A Parisian café, on the other hand, takes longer to become a friendly place. It feels more like a test. After coming for a few times, servers will start to warm up to you, one day resulting in a firm handshake or maybe even a bise if you are a true, trusted patron. But it’s not as instant as in Italy, which foregrounds sociability while Paris facilitates anonymity. But then again, maybe you just want be left alone while sipping your coffee, in which case, Parisian cafés aren’t as bleak as some make them out to be. I’ll be the first to celebrate a morning of tranquility without the constant chatter of strangers.

The main difference between French and Italian coffee culture is the café terraces of Paris where everyone loves to sit and watch the world go by.Henrik Berger Jørgensen

France and Italy have been compared culturally for centuries, and far be it from me to draw any worthwhile conclusions. All I know, after living in both countries, is that café culture is engrained, deeply, no matter how different the two might be, and I love them both in their own way. It’s real love, but complicated. While I’m in France gulping my Café Richard, I pine for the Kimbo brand coffee of Naples, and while standing at an Italian bar, I long for the Parisian terraces.

Love is a funny thing like that.

Related Links

  • Love Italian coffee? Find out where to find craft coffee in Florence.
  • Get your coffee fix in Paris at The Hood.
  • Eataly provides a guide to Italian coffee culture.
  • The Telegraph tells you how to order a coffee in Italy.

Written by Bryan Pirolli for HiP Paris. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, Tuscany, Umbria or Liguria? Check out Haven In.

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Written By

Bryan Pirolli

Bryan Pirolli is a travel journalist whose byline has appeared in CNN Travel, Time Out Paris, and Travel+Leisure. He also teaches media studies at the university level. In his spare time, he managed to create The Gay Locals (www.thegaylocals.com), Paris' first LGBT tour guide provider, offering travel services for and by the LGBT community. View Website

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