Everywhere you look on the Internet, you’ll find the supposed holy commandment of the Italian coffee culture: never drink cappuccino after 11 am. But is there such a rule in real life or is it just a slogan born on the Internet where messages must be concise and catchy? The truth, as always, is in between.
When I started to read about the infamous “11 am rule”, I must confess it, I began to question my own existence. It looked such a truth set in stone for everybody that I started to doubt what I was actually seeing around me (which was almost the opposite). Was I living in an alternative universe, perhaps?!
Almost hopelessly, I began searching the Internet thoroughly to understand if there was, somewhere, a dissenting voice. I remember that at a certain point I found a long thread focused on Italian coffee culture and “the rule”, where a couple of tourists stated that they actually saw Italians having cappuccino in the afternoon (OMG!!) and that it was clear my compatriots were fundamentally hypocrites “secretly enjoying breaking the rule” (LOL). This specific conversation continued with tourists contributing with their own personal experiences, until a couple of Italians joined telling it was actually ridicule for them thinking about people checking the watch in order to understand if they were “allowed” to have a cappuccino or not (yay, finally!)
After then I remember having a conversation with some of my local friends – all agreeing with me that “the rule” was nonsense – and then forgetting about it. Until three/four weeks ago, when I posted about milk-based drinks on Instagram and having a couple of people from Southern Italy telling me that “the rule” has a part of truth in their corner of the world. A doubt popped into my mind: was it a “regional” thing, perhaps? So I decided: it was time to discover the truth!
What I did was running a survey to finally understand the habits concerning this beverage all over the country. I used various social media – in the specific Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr – to ask Italian people if they “follow the rule” or do what they want, asking them to specify their region when possible. I was able to interview just a cross-section of course, but the people were from all over the country and I consider these results quite telling (and probably very surprising for many of you).
69% of Italians declares that they don’t have cappuccino just in the morning.
Before delving into the question and better understand these results and as consequence the local customs, it’s necessary to explain some ground rules, with the help of the words of some interviewees.
Rather than a question of time, it’s a question of purpose
As several people who took this survey pointed out, it looks like foreign people seem not to understand that, in Italy, the different coffee-based drinks have a different function according to the time of the day.
There are three moments of the day, in which coffe-based beverages are drunk:
- The Breakfast: other than “waking up” the person, it must guarantee a certain amount of calories and this is when cappuccino plays an important role. The milk contained in the beverage, along with pastries, fette biscottate or biscuits, gives the supply of nutrients one needs to start the day.
- The Coffee Break: it can take place in the morning, between breakfast and lunch, and in the afternoon. It has the purpose to give you a flap of energy or “darsi una svegliata” as we say in Italian, so an espresso or a macchiato are usually the chosen beverages;
- At the End of the Meal: the drink of choice is, again, an espresso, which has both the purpose of waking up the person deterring the effects of the abbiocco, typical of a rich Italian meal and to “help the digestion” by stimulating the gastric secretion.
As Sofia from Milan points out, the coffee at the end of the meal does not correspond to the cappuccino: “The two things are not interchangeable, since they have two different functions”. In fact, as previously stated, coffee is supposed to give you a flap of energy, whereas the cappuccino has a nutrient function the first lacks.
Sofia, as a matter of fact, continues stating that for her “a milk-based beverage containing coffee corresponds to a small meal”, a statement that, I feel, represents well what most Italians think. That’s also where this sort of misunderstanding about the 11 am rule comes from: being cappuccino “a meal for itself”, it functions greatly as breakfast and it doesn’t make much sense drinking it from, let’s say, 11 am till 3 pm, a time slot so close to, or coinciding with, the lunch. Several interviewees do in fact mention 11 am – 3 pm as a “grey area” for cappuccino.
An absolute NO-NO is drinking it during the actual meal (lunch and dinner) and many point it out as the “real rule”. This does not mean, though, that the cappuccino is not to be ordered in the afternoon as a snack ( “small meal”, remember?) and this seems to be an habit especially in Northern Italy.
When explaining Italian customs to foreign people, Italians are sometimes the first to incorrectly assume that a behaviour typical in one’s area is to be considered “Italian”. We should know better, given the diversity of our country, but sometimes we do fall into that trap. According to this survey, if we consider only those who declared their location, the cappuccino drunk only during breakfast seems to be a Southern practice. In Northern Italy it’s not uncommon to also have it in the afternoon as a “snack”, whereas Central Italy seems to be some sort of “limbo” concerning this matter.
Several people, especially from Veneto and Piedmont, mentioned it can be consumed with something sweet, like a slice of cake. An interviewee reported that in Liguria it can be consumed with baked goods, and even salty products like fugassa are allowed.
As a factor influencing the decision when ordering a cappuccino, the climate seems to play an important role. Several people from Northern Italy say that it depends on how cold it is outside and that cappuccino sounds like a good remedy against the freezing temperatures. Even if in her area it’s uncommon for customers to order cappuccino in the afternoon, Giulia from Sardinia admits that she would gladly drink it, especially during the winter, for “the sheer pleasure of sipping a good hot cappuccino”.
Italians and their Issue with Digestion
As you could understand from what previously stated, cappuccino is often perceived as a small meal for itself. Many tourists also report being told by Italians that it’s not good to drink it during or after a meal, because “it messes up with the digestion as it contains milk”. This statement often creates confusion among foreigners and there are even those who dismiss it as a quirk or even as hypocrisy, as they’ve seen us having gelato (which contains milk) after lunch or dinner.
First of all, let’s explain this thing about the gelato. Along with sorbetto, it is especially used during long, traditional meals between primi piatti and secondi piatti or just before dessert to help the digestion because it is cold. It’s true they both contain milk, but their cold temperature stimulates the stomach’s contractions and the gastric secretion. The consumed quantities are usually limited (1/2 scoops, you’ll never see people having an entire ice cream sundae at the end of a meal) and the recommended flavours are fruit-based (fruit-flavoured gelato contains no or less milk).
Now, let’s go back to the Italians’s issue with digestion. What’s wrong with Italians and milk, are we just drama queens? In this specific instance and almost always when talking about food, it seems like we have a point.
Thanks to the book “Le Bugie nel Carrello” of the chemist, science writer and popular Italian youtuber Dario Bressanini, I made an interesting discovery. I found out that only 35% of the adults are able to digest lactose. Thanks to a genetic alteration happened to their ancestors, this part of humankind was able to obtain the so-called persistence of the lactase, the enzyme that allows infants and children to convert the lactose into simple sugars. According to a study, lactase persistence is very common in the Northern part of Europe (Scandinavia and UK reach even 96%) and it tends to diminish as you move South, reaching just the 15% in Sardinia. That’s quite the difference.
So, is this why we complain we can’t digest milk? Most probably. Concerning cappuccino, things get even trickier. I’ve not found scientific articles focused on it, but, apparently, the combination of coffee and steaming milk produces caseine tannate, a mix very hard to digest. So yeah guys, have pity of our poor Italian stomachs, we are not paranoid.
So, let’s sum up all we have said:
- There’s no such “fixed time rule” concerning cappuccino, but 11am – 3pm does seem like “a grey area”;
- If in Southern Italy people seem to drink cappuccino only during breakfast, in Northern Italy people can have it as a “snack” in the afternoon. Central Italy seems to be some sort of “limbo” between the two;
- Cappuccino in the afternoon is the chosen beverage depending on how cold it is outside. It’s uncommon to consume it during the summer;
- The “real” rule seems to be “never drink cappuccino during lunch or dinner”.
Having said that, people, you can listen to these “suggestions”, but, in the end, just do what you want. If you order a cappuccino with your pasta, I will probably cringe, but I swear I won’t call the police.