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Italian Bars Are About a Lot More than the Drinks

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It's Italy Week! All week long, we're celebrating all things Italian. Stay tuned for more great recipes, stories, and travel tips.

In Italian, the “bar,” a word borrowed from English, is a versatile place. It usually describes a café, open from early in the morning till late in the evening, that sells pastries and small savory bites (like panini or pizzette) and coffee and drinks (both alcoholic and non) all day. It's the place to go for a typical Italian breakfast of a pastry and espresso, or a snack or pick-me-up at any time of the day. Sometimes a bar will even serve as a tabaccheria, selling cigarettes, gum, and even bus tickets. And after dinner, late in the evening, you might find people there for an amaro, a short, strong, bittersweet herbal liqueur that is traditionally believed to help you digest a big meal.

A bar in Turin.
A bar in Turin. Photo by Emiko Davies

The trusty bar on the corner of a main street is the place where people gather to chat or gossip, meet friends, or whirl past for a quick espresso, standing at the counter. In larger cities like Florence, Rome, Milan or Turin, you'll find these bars are often historic ones, complete with chandeliers and original dark wood furniture, in prime position in the city's most picturesque piazzas. The one we live next door to, in Tuscany, is on the other end of the scale—a tired, scruffy joint that serves the bare essentials, has a constant clientele of retired men who sit in plastic chairs lined up out the front, following the shade in the warm weather, and the sun when it's cold, for hours at a time. Both types of bars are an iconic part of the Italian culture.

Il Locale, an "American bar" in Florence.
Il Locale, an "American bar" in Florence. Photo by Emiko Davies

Then there's another type of bar, more like what you might think of as a bar, which is known in Italian, funnily enough, as an “American bar” (borrowing again from English). It's open till the early hours of the morning, hosts a menu full of pretty cocktails made by good-looking barmen and women, and is usually gleaming—even swanky.

Cocktails at a bar in Florence.
Cocktails at a bar in Florence. Photo by Emiko Davies

And there's also the bar that functions as both: During the day, you can find pastries, light lunches, and coffee, while at night it turns into a different creature, complete with music pumping and crowds trying to make their way to the counter to order a mojito. I met my husband, a barman at the time, at one of these, somewhere in between the day and evening change, closer to aperitivo time, which is possibly the best time to visit an Italian bar.

Aperitivo in Turin.
Aperitivo in Turin. Photo by Emiko Davies

It's that moment of the day, perhaps on your way home from work, when you meet up with friends for a drink (a spritz, a garibaldi, or even just a prosecco make ideal aperitivo drinks) and a nibble (it might just be some potato crisps and olives, or there might be a full-on buffet on offer). And if you're sitting in a bar right on a piazza, you can do some good people-watching, too.

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Tell us about your favorite bar. What's the scene like? What's your order?

Tags: Italian, Cocktail, Restaurants, Italy Week