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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paris, on the flip side, has beautiful, cozy cafés that serve up less-than delicious, and very expensive, coffee. Once I see the Cafés 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.
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 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.
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.
- Find out how to order coffee in France.
- Here is where to find some of the best Italian restaurants in Paris.
- Love Italian coffee? Find out where to find craft coffee in Florence.
Written by Bryan Pirolli for HIP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.