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When In Roma

La Bella Figura or Brutta Figura? – Caffé Etiquette for You

 In 2000, Fiat Auto was collapsing and on the verge of being sold to the then German Daimler-Chrysler group, for 13 Billion USD.  This would have required Gianni Agnelli to admit his failure as the one who inherited the company from his grand-dad but selling would also have meant thousands of blue-collar jobs to be erased overnight in his home-town of Torino.

In other words, to sell the Company, would have been a terrible “Brutta Figura”, the classic term for just about the worst crime an Italian can commit (looking bad in the eyes of society).  Selling the 100-year-old Italian brand to Germans was practically treasonous. To keep the Company and save it together with thousands of jobs at home would have been  “La Bella Figura”, regardless of the price to be paid in order to achieve it.

Naturally, Gianni Agnelli opted not to sell “at all cost”.

The company shed 10 Billion USD of its value in the following 3 years. The Agnelli family’s stake in the company was virtually pulverized in order to save the company and the shareholders lost 75% of their investment. But, thanks to the Bella Figura, their face in front of society was saved and everyone was happy.


With this mountainous example in our face, perhaps it is time to understand Italy’s caffé etiquette and maintain Bella Figura.



Italians cringe at the thought of a milky drink after a meal. When in Roma, etc., only drink cappuccino, caffé latte, latte macchiato or any milky form of coffee in the morning (technically before 10:00).  Never after a meal.  If you’re going to break this basic Italian custom, at least apologise to the barman, “Sorry for the milk in my cafe, but It’s morning to me.” (Mi dispiace per il latte nel mio caffè ma è mattina per me).




Ordering a caramel brulee creme frappuccino in Italy (or even implying that Starbucks serves coffee) is like ordering a 24 year old Bruichladdich Black Art scotch and Coke in a Glasgow pub.

There are only two exceptions:  In Naples only, you may order un caffe’ alla nocciola (frothy espresso with hazelnut cream).  If you look good enough for Milan (la bella figura), you may be able to get away ordering un marocchino (sort of  Milan-only, upside-down cappuccino that is served in a cocoa-powdered glass then hit with frothed milk.  Its finished off with a shot of espresso).




Assuming you would never say “expresso”, don’t even use the word espresso.  Simply say un caffe’.  Espresso is not the everyday word when in Roma, etc.  It is a technical term in Italian.




Oh, you can order a double espresso (un caffe’ doppio) if you want, but you might as well put on a tourist hat (Yes, that one).  Italians drink coffee frequently, but they do so in small, steady doses.  And, you are not going to get any local advice from the crowd at the bar voi mendicante straniero (you foreign beggar).




Head confidently for the bar and call out your order even if the barista has his back to you.  If you are at a tourist bar, airport or rail station, pay before you drink.  If the barista screams pagare il conto “pay the bill”, you screwed up and the hat’s back on your head (Yes, that one).  At any other type of establishment, pay afterwards.




Don’t look around for a place to sit down unless you have a very good reason.  Un Caffe’ should be downed in one standing. This brings us to the next point.




Your un caffe’ will be delivered at a temperature at which it can be downed immediately. If you start blowing on your cup or the froth off your cappuccino, it will be assumed your typical coffee experience is at McDonalds.  If that’s you, and you like burning your lips and tongue, ask for un caffè bollente (a hot coffee).




You might get away with ordering caffè freddo or cappuccino freddo (iced espresso or cappuccino) – but beware, this usually comes pre-sugared. You can also try for un caffè lungo or un caffè ristretto if you want more or less water in your espresso, but carefully weigh the risks.

Those are the rules.  In the cafe, everything is all so simple.  Just remember la bella figura and avoid brutto figura.

However, almost everything else in Italy is just a suggestion and every single driving regulation is a vague suggestion rather than enforced law.  La Bella Figura – not vague.  Very specific and critical to life.

Just consider it the opposite of Italian driving regulations which are seriously vague.  Happy with the 130 kilometers an hour (80 MPH) on the Autostrada? Heck yes.  And with speed cameras blanketing the entire road network and carabinieri everywhere, I thought the speed limit here was the exception to the suggestion concept.  That was until I was passed by a tiny car that seemed fortunate to have even started let alone hitting well over 100 MPH. Every one but me was unconcerned about the speed law.

Oh, and I remember all those “no vehicles” and “resident vehicles only” signs lining the street as I drove up to my Oritigia hotel for the night.  Of course, the hotel proprietor instructed me to park, “Right there. Yes, right next to that sign.”  When I told him I couldn’t because I wasn’t a resident, he stared at me like my head had just morphed into a turnip.

There are, however, very specific driving rules for foreigners:

  1. Don’t drive in Italy.
  2. Don’t drive in Italy.
  3. Don’t drive in Italy.

Café Etiqutte?

Follow the rules.

Have the best espresso and experience of your life.


For me, travel means meeting and understanding other people and  cultures. Acknowledging customs and respecting what you may not  know go a long way to opening the door to local wonder.


  • Cafe Aficionado

    Great article and it offers an excellent view of the true Italian culture. La Bella Figura is one reason why I, and almost everyone else, loves Italy. The Italians are fantastic and your story may be considered part fiction to those who have not had the deep experience that can only be found once we sink into our cafe chairs and let Italy nourish us. I have paid €9.00 for a cappuccino but it was in on Via Condotti in Rome in a cafe that served coffee before the USA was born. The cafe was actually in financial difficulty and facing closure but you never felt it as they maintained their “good face.” And, as you accurately state, I could have paid about 70% less if I had chosen to stand at the counter but I was looking good.. Thanks to Lana and Billy Crystal for getting it.

    I have learned and experienced so much more in my travels just from showing an interest in the local culture because I learn basic greetings and conversational language even if it isn’t the best. It takes down walls in every country. Once, in Catania, Sicily for the Festival of Sant Agata , I was given the gift o fa good-sized box of Cassotella di Sant Agata (amazing Sicilian sweet) because I asked for them by their colloquial name, Minni di Verginia (look it up and you will know why I always remember the name.)

    Keep it coming Lana. You are making me itch also.

  • Meredith

    Ahhhh La Bella Figura….. or in the words of Billy Crystal, It’s better to look marvelous than to feel marvelous. Reading this article makes me itch even more to get back to italy and the wonderful people, coffee, history and beautiful scenery.

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