Italian Bars Are About a Lot More than the Drinks

July 19, 2016

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Shop the Story

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I say '' our'' because I too live in Italy in the Veneto region.I'm Canadian-born married to an Italian and have been living in Italy for 34 years. Modestly, I've become an excellent cook, my real passion, over the years,always hungry to improve myself and my skills. I love following Food52 blog. It's the best!”
— Jackie D.

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • S
  • Hannah Wilken
    Hannah Wilken
  • Christine Beveridge
    Christine Beveridge
  • Allison
  • Phillie Filly
    Phillie Filly
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


S August 2, 2016
I love Le Volpi e L'Uva as well.

There was a small place called Caffè Amerini on Via della Vigna Nuova in the Santa Maria Novella neighborhood; it looks like it's still there. Brings back great memories.
Hannah W. July 27, 2016
One of my favorite things when I lived in Madrid were the bars that also doubled as coffee shops during the day. I remember staying late at night at my favorite bar and seeing the bartender set out cups and saucers for the morning café con leche rush. These bar/coffee shops also tended to be much more intergenerational, something I barely see here in New York!
Christine B. July 25, 2016
Ditto! I love aperitivo in Italy. Such a sophisticated custom.
Author Comment
Emiko July 27, 2016
Really one of my very favourite things!
Allison July 21, 2016
Le Volpi e L'Uva has always been my and my husband's favorite spot for an aperetivo in Florence. We've made many wonderful memories at this small wine bar nestled around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio. The sausage and cheese crostone with truffle is our go-to with a prosecco or smooth Chianti.
Author Comment
Emiko July 27, 2016
That's run by one of my closest (and oldest) friends in Florence! Clearly a favourite of mine too :)
Phillie F. July 21, 2016
I need to go to Italy right this very minute!
Jackie D. July 21, 2016
My compliments on how you described ''our italian bars''. I say '' our'' because I too live in Italy in the Veneto region.I'm Canadian-born married to an Italian and have been living in Italy for 34 years. Modestly, I've become an excellent cook, my real passion, over the years,always hungry to improve myself and my skills. I love following Food52 blog. It's the best!
Author Comment
Emiko July 27, 2016
Thanks Jackie!
PHIL July 19, 2016
7 years ago in Milan. I don't remember the name but near the Duomo , sitting outside , espresso and a few mini croissants with jelly. Emiko, you have to stop posting these articles , first the Piperno now this. I need to book a flight soon.
Caroline L. July 19, 2016
That's how this made me feel too, Phil! Wanted to get right on a plane.