Cafes in Italy: Travel tips on how to behave like a local

An Italian cafe is all about rattling white cups and gurgling espresso machines, trays of almond biscuits and pyramids of lurid gelato, and the happy atmosphere of life and love and indolent lingering. And about the coffee, of course. Italian espressos are dark, strong and not for the uninitiated, knocked back in almost a single gulp from tiny cups as if taking medicine.

Anything more than a macchiato will provoke the barman's scorn, especially after breakfast time. Only children and faint-of-heart foreigners ask for frothed milk to be added. Italians generally have an espresso in two gulps, standing at the counter as the barista engages in a careful choreography of levers, steam and conversational shrugs.

Come back in the evening. Things aren't so purposeful then. That's when locals settle in for a meet-and-greet, and you can observe a great national pastime. Cafes in Italy aren't just for coffee drinking but for socialising, romancing and arguing over politics. Even discussions of the latest football results seem to have gravitas in the cafe setting. Men – the art of the cafe is mostly a male preserve – have been nattering in cafes for centuries.

Caffe Florian​ under the arches of St Mark's Square in Venice claims to be the world's oldest coffeehouse. It was founded in 1720, and reputedly described by Napoleon as the drawing room of Europe. By the 19th century, Italian cafes had become the haunt of artists and revolutionaries. Caffe Greco in Rome and Caffe Michelangelo in Florence were among meeting places for advocates of Italian unification. Caffe Pedrocchi​ in Padua, Europe's largest cafe when it opened in 1831, became famously linked to politicians and writers.

An Italian cafe is just the place to be if you have something to arm-wave and argue about. The government. Your neighbours. The latest scandal. The piazza of even the smallest village boasts tables where dapper old men sit out under flamboyant church facades for a pre-dinner lamentation at the state of the world.

In larger towns across the country locals sit at marble-topped tables, stoking their outrage with a rummage through the newspapers. University students discuss philosophy, businessmen their tax evasions. In big cities, barmen are as sleek as Armani models. Skinny, silk-clad customers look as if they haven't eaten a pastry for years. But the conversations are the same, and the espresso machine is always rumbling and hissing like a dragon in the corner.