Many first time English-speaking visitors to Italy are surprised to learn that the best-selling drink in the bars is... coffee. Most bar signs even make a point of advertizing which brand they use, luring in visiting Italians who prefer one over the other.
Although there are some very beautiful historic bars in Italy (usually called caffès, though), many Italian bars have all the charm of a gas station. Which in a way makes sense: coffee is the fuel that runs Italians, who tend to pop into a bar for a java jolt of espresso or other kind of coffee several times a day for about two minutes, that will keep his or her battery charged for the next hour or two.
In the morning, the average bar will have a glass case with various pastries (cornetti are classic), which make for a quick breakfast or mid-morning snack with one’s cappuccino. The vast majority of Italians won't touch one (or any coffee with milk) after around 11am, or noon at the latest.
Besides the coffee machine and coffee grinder, a bar will have a choice of beers, soft drinks, juices, bottled water, an array of aperitivi and digestivi. People start into the former at around 11am; in winter, notably they may start the day with a boozy coffee.
Many bars sell sandwiches (panini) and snacks such as arancini or supplì and slices of pizza (which are rarely very good); many have a choice of gelati and granite as well. Some serve simple lunches, usually pasta and salads. Around 6pm, many bars lay out bowls of peanuts and other nibbles for the main aperitivi hour; in some cities, such as Turin, there are spectacular buffet spreads that you can dive into for a small fee.
By law all prices for drinks are posted on the Listino prezzi; many have several prices, depending on whether you have your drink al banco (at the bar, the cheapest), al tavolo (at a table) or alla terrazza (on the terrace, the most expensive).
In many bars, especially big busy ones in train stations and city centres, you'll have to go to someone in charge of la cassa (cashier), tell them what you want, and pay in advance to get uno scontrino (receipt) to present to the barista. This gets complicated when you see something that looks lovely but don't know its name (you'll have to ask 'come si chiama questo?'). Little coins (either a coin when you present the scontrino or when you leave) are appreciated.
Images by: Lisa Larsson