Italian bars explained

Italian Bars: What To Expect When You Go to A Bar in Italy



Bar it’s a universal word. It stays the same in many languages from Italian to English, German, and even Spanish. That doesn’t help, though; it makes it more confusing.

Even if the word per se doesn’t change, that doesn’t mean its meaning is the same everywhere.

The word “bar” originated in England during the reign of King George IV. Originally, Brits used it to refer to the counter or surface where bartenders served up spirits and socializing, usually in a pub. Yet when the word “bar” arrived in Italy in the early 1900s, it took on a life of its own.

Rather than Italianize the new foreign term, Italians kept it to refer to a specific establishment, and since the 1920’s it’s been one of the most used words in the Italian language.

Let’s uncover the establishment mostly associated with the term and what sets Italian bars apart.

Inside Caffe Ditta Artigianale - Italian bar

What is an Italian Bar?

Even though sources like Wikipedia confirm the English origin of the word bar, we Italians like to believe in this story that it was an Italian who coined it.

That story says that an entrepreneur named Alessandro Manaresi coined the term when he opened his Florence cafe “Banco a Ristoro” in the early 1900s. The name formed the acronym “BAR” and the concept caught on across Italy.

Whether fabricated folklore or factual, this anecdote gives insight into what Italians intend with the word “bar.” For Italians, a bar first and foremost refers to a cafe – a place to stop early in the morning for a quick espresso and perhaps a croissant or pastry. The counters and tables facilitate commuters fueling up before work and catching up with neighbors.

Beyond the morning rush, Italian bars host social gatherings, serve wine and aperitivo in the evenings, supply quick lunches, and provide an ever-buzzing public plaza for the locals. With their efficient focus on stand-up counter service, they populate towns on seemingly every corner.

Types of Italian Bars in Italy

The common coffee shop, which in Italian we call a bar, comes in two main types: bar tradizionale and bar bianco

The first serves breakfast drinks, food, savory food, and also alcoholic drinks. Most historic bars but also newer ones are of this type, and that’s why you can also enjoy an aperitivo there. On the other hand, the bar bianco is a bar that only serves non-alcoholic drinks, likely because the owner has chosen not to apply for an alcoholic license. 

Even though the bar caffè is the main type of bar in Italy, with around 150k coffee bars as per the research carried out by Federazione Italiana Publici Esercizi, other establishments might also be referred to as bar.

These include:

A more recent type of bar is the bar latteria, which only serves milk-based drinks and sometimes food. These include lattes and milkshakes.

However, even if their full name might include the word bar, Italians only really call bar 2 things:

The others I mentioned above are called gelateria, enoteca, birreria, or using the general word locale.

Locale is a very broad word that has multiple meanings in the Italian language. The two main ones are:

So if you hear someone say “andiamo al locale”, they are likely referring to a bar, a cocktail bar, a piano bar, or a restaurant.

Caffe Gilli pastry selection
The first time we went to Caffè Gilli, we’ve ordered at the counter and told them we were going to sit at the table. The food was then brought to us, and we later asked for the bill.

Coffee Bars in Italy – Useful Things To Know

How to Order at an Italian Bar?

There are two common ways to order at an Italian bar. However, not every bar uses both ways. I’ll explain that in a minute.

  1. Order at the bar (ordinare al bancone): This is common in every bar, and involves ordering at the counter. So when you enter the cafe, you go straight to the counter, look at the options, and then order. 

Once you’ve ordered you have 2 options: stand to drink & eat or go sit down at a table. 

  1. Order at your table (ordinare al tavolo): Here’s how it works. When you enter the bar, you choose a table, sit down, and then the waiter comes to take your order.

In many bars, sitting at a table even after you order at the bar involves paying a fee for the service of being served (servizio al tavolo). That’s automatically included when the order is taken directly at your table.

In more modern and casual bars, you don’t pay a fee when you order at the bar and go sit down. Many times, you are the one who takes the food and drinks to the table. The waiter will just come to collect the glasses and plates after you’re finished or have left.

Galleria Iginio Massari interiors
Our experience was different at Iginio Massari. We ordered at the bar and forgot to mention we wanted to sit down. Later, when we were not allowed to pay extra to enjoy our food at the table. So you better make your intentions clear before ordering.

Can You Sit at an Italian Bar?

Based on what I told you already, you know the answer to this. Yes, of course, you can sit at an Italian bar, provided it comes with tables and chairs, which most do.

The main question is this: How do you know when sitting will involve an extra fee?

Look for a note on the wall or at the counter that mentions whether the bar charges an extra fee for sitting and being served at the table. By law, all bars must have this information. If you can’t see it, and you want to know before choosing what to do, ask before you order. 

How to Pay at an Italian Bar?

Similarly to ordering, there are also 2 main ways to pay at an Italian bar:

  1. Pay at the cashier. When you order at the counter, the person who takes your order gives you a paper – which is often just a list of the items you ordered on a piece of plain paper. You are then asked to go near the cashier, show him/her that paper, and pay for your order. 

If the bar charges for the servizio al tavolo, when you order and pay right away, that usually implies you have chosen to enjoy your drink/food standing.

If you want to sit down, make sure to tell the cashier that, so he can charge you extra, and then you can go sit down. Your food will be brought to your table.

  1. Pay at your table. If you opted to sit down immediately and your order was taken at the table, it means you still have to pay. In that case, you can ask the waiter to bring you the bill.

You could of course go to the cashier and pay there but you’ll need to mention everything you ordered plus the fact that you were sitting at the table.

If you are wondering, you don’t need to tip at an Italian bar, that’s even more so if you are sitting at a table and paying the service fee. However, feel free to round the total to the nearest number.

What Do Italian Bars Sell?

We’ve already distinguished between traditional and white bars, saying that the first can sell alcohol while the second can’t. However, in many cases, Italian coffee bars also function as a tabaccheria.

In that case, they sell stamps, bus tickets, and in some smaller towns even train tickets and mobile top-up cards.

Italian bars etiquette

Italian Bars Etiquette

Considering that what we Italians call a bar it’s not always the same in other countries, having in mind the silent rules that exist around the Italian coffee bar will help you feel more confident when ordering and enjoying a drink or food at an Italian bar. Here are 5 rules you should try to remember.

  1. Water first. When the bar provides a glass of water with your coffee, the etiquette says that you should drink the water first to cleanse your palate and then move to your coffee. Drinking it after it is like diluting your coffee.
  1. Call it by its name. Use the correct name for your drink. If you ask for a latte, the Italian barista will need to know if you want a caffe latte or a latte macchiato. You can learn about the differences and all the types of breakfast drinks here.
  1. Mix properly. When using the teaspoon to mix your coffee, do it delicately without making too much noise. When you are ready, put it back on the side of the plate under your cup.
  1. Don’t ask for it. No need to ask for sugar with your coffee. You can add that yourself after it’s served. Both tables and bar counters come with containers where you can get different types of sugar, from regular to brown, and even a sort of stevia.
  1. Please, wipe it off. Women should remove their lipsticks before drinking to avoid staining the cup. That’s especially so if you are wearing a lot and you know it will leave a large stain.

Italian bars most common food and drink

What Do You Eat/Drink in Italian Bars (Aka Coffee Shops)?

What you eat and drink at an Italian bar is determined by the type of bar but also the time of the day, so let’s discuss the two common types at different hours.

Italian Bar Drinks

Regardless of whether you are at a bar that serves alcohol or not, in the morning you are likely to order an espresso, a cappuccino, a latte of some sort, or any other breakfast drink you’d like.

With their casual lunch, like a sandwich or a savory pastry, Italians usually order water or a soft drink.

After lunch, the majority of Italians only order an espresso.

For aperitivo, the most common choice is an Aperol Spritz.

Italian Bar Food & What To Order

When it comes to choosing the type of food, here are the most common things Italians order at the bar:

aperitivo and alcohol at an Italian bar

Final Thoughts

From the morning espresso to the evening Spritz, Italian bars form the backdrop for daily life. Yet they remain mysteries to many visitors, who enter expecting a pub rather than a cafe. As you explore Italy’s iconic plazas and side streets, consider ducking into one of these community pillars.

Observe the standing espresso drinkers at the counter, read the pastry labels dazzling behind glass, and soak up a scene hardly changed in decades.

Read These Next:

Italian bars can be great for both breakfast and aperitivo. Read about these here.
Breakfast In Italy
Italian Aperitivo
Breakfast in Florence

Italian Bars FAQ

What are Italian bars called?

Italian bars are most commonly referred to as “bar”. Specifically, the Italian that word refers to a coffee shop.

What do Italians drink at a bar?

Italians often drink espresso drinks like cappuccinos or caffè lattes at a bar in the morning. Later in the day, popular bar choices are wine, cocktails like Aperol Spritzes, or beer.

What are alcohol bars called in Italy?

Bars that serve alcoholic drinks may specifically be called a “wine bar” (enoteca), “cocktail bar” (cocktail bar), or pub (birreria). Traditional Italian bars (bar tradizionale) also typically serve alcohol.

What to expect when you go to a bar in Italy?

Expect a cafe-style environment where you stand at the counter to order espresso drinks in the morning, or wine and small bites later on. Most offer little tables for drinking and socializing too. Don’t expect a traditional sit-down pub – it’s more fast-paced.

Do you tip in bars in Italy?

Tipping is not strictly required in Italian bars since a servizio al tavolo fee often applies for table service. However, it’s polite to tip around 10% or round up the bill.

What are bars in Italy?

Bars in Italy are essentially coffee shops or cafes, primarily serving espresso drinks, pastries, sandwiches and light fare. They function as quick places to stop in the morning and also social community hubs.

Can you smoke in bars in Italy?

No, smoking is prohibited inside Italian bars and restaurants. Outdoor seating areas allow smoking.

What time do bars open in Italy?

Italian bars are typically open from early in the morning, around 7 AM, until late evening, sometimes midnight or 1 AM depending on the day. 

What to wear to bars in Italy?

Dress at Italian bars is generally casual. But restaurants or wine bars at night may expect more formal attire. When in doubt, smart casual is advised.

How late are bars open in Italy?

Most bars are open late into the evening, especially on weekends – some until midnight or even 2 AM. Traditional cafes may close earlier by 9 or 10 PM.

What were bars called in Ancient Rome?

Bars as watering holes and taverns were referred to as tabernae (singular taberna) in Ancient Rome. The terminology is still reflected in some Italian bars called a tabaccheria.

How do you pay at a bar in Italy?

Order first at the counter, pay the cashier, then take a numbered paper receipt to the counter to collect your drinks. Or you can be seated and pay your waiter directly. Cash is commonly used.

What should I order at a bar in Italy?

Order espresso drinks like a cappuccino in the morning. Later in the day, popular options are wine, cocktails like Negronis or Aperol Spritz, Campari-based cocktails, or beer especially during aperitivo (happy hour).

What is served at an Italian bar?

Italian bars primarily serve coffee, espresso drinks like cappuccinos, and pastries in the morning. Wine, cocktails, beer, and small savory dishes are also common later on.

What can be purchased at an Italian bar?

Beyond food and drinks, Italian bars frequently function as cafes plus convenience stores. So you can also buy tobacco products, stamps, lottery tickets, newspapers, and prepaid phone cards.

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