Un bar, a bar in Italy does not always
imply where people go out clubbing and get drunk late at night (those are usually discoteche or discopubs). Bars can be all-encompassing: they serve breakfast in the morning, are open until lunchtime and serve food (panini, Italian sandwiches, already prepared salads, and even pasta or meat courses), and are open again at dinnertime where they may serve food, or just aperitivo, a pre- dinner drink with snacks. They may stay open late, they may close in the afternoon, or they may stay open the entire day.
Bars are meeting places, and the same bar may have three distinct faces during the day depending on where it is and how long it stays open: in the morning locals may get breakfast there on the way to work, lunch is filled with businessmen and other workers in the area wanting a quick bite, and dinner/aperitivo time may cater to a younger crowd looking for some social interaction with a cheap price tag, or locals wanting to avoid their stoves for an evening.
It’s good to note when you walk into a bar if someone is sitting at la cassa, the cash register, and is handling payments. Most bars like you to pay first (unless you’re sitting down at a table to drink, and there is usually a waiter or table service) and present lo scontrino, the receipt, when you go to the bar and order. It helps them keep track of who’s paid and also focus on just making the coffee while others handle the money. If you see “Munirsi dello scontrino prima di ordinare” or “Munirsi dello scontrino alla cassa” you know they want you to first pay and get the receipt before ordering. When in doubt, you can ask, “Si paga prima?” (Does one pay first?)
If you’re in a touristy area, there may be tables and chairs for people to sit and drink coffee. Note that there’s probably table service with a waiter, and often bars will post two sets of prices for those who want to drink standing at the bar (al banco) or sitting at a table a tavola. Expect to pay more to sit down than to drink at the bar. Most Italians drink their coffee quickly, standing at the bar, and move on, especially in areas where there are a lot of people. For many Italians, “prendere un caffè” (get a coffee) will take only a few minutes from payment to digestion. Bars charge more for table service usually to discourage tourists from sitting there all afternoon. Bars in non-touristy areas and full of locals will probably not have a table service charge and people will sit at tables (especially on the weekends).
Now that you’re inside, how do you order? If you have your scontrino, receipt, you can make your way over the bar and wait until the bartender is ready for you. I usually hold the receipt in my hand and rest my hand on the counter so they can see I’ve already paid and I know what I want. Be patient and make eye contact if possible. The barista might be very busy but luckily each coffee will only take a few seconds.
If he makes eye contact with you and is ready to take your order, he may say “Prego!” (basically, Please/I’m ready…tell me what you want) or “per Lei?” (for you? formal) or “Dimmi” (tell me, informal).
Thanks to this guide, you already know the name of the kind of coffee you’d like to order, and you want to be polite, but you’ll probably hear that most people don’t do a lot of speaking when ordering, and get straight to the details. I myself will order like this “un caffè, grazie.” or “un caffè” (and thank them when they give it to you). I think the impulse to add “per favore” at the end of every request is a good one but a bit out of place in the fast-paced breakfast crush.
Next…what to eat with that coffee?