Food /
Food culture

Summer Days in Italy Should Start With a Shakerato

“There isn’t much to the shakerato to shout about from the rooftops: it’s as simple as can be.”

There are certain things you miss when being away from Italy for too long. Usually, they are personal and otherwise irrational should you explain them to someone else. Off the top of my head, I miss the sight and sound of weaving motorini (scooters) at lunch-time; the bluish tone of the cobbled streets at dusk; the fashionable students hanging out on ancient steps with a cold Menabrea, and the first shakerato of a hot morning. 

The shakerato in particular has become very much a part of my Italian routine. I first tried the drink in Chiavari in Liguria, where it was introduced to me by my friend Andrea, who took it upon himself to turn me into an Italian that summer (a task that is best remembered by the fade and tram-lines he asked a barber to give me, as it was very much the thing). But on our first breakfast together in his hometown, I had not expected him to order us an iced coffee. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the large and gruff gentleman at the counter to frantically slap two aluminium shakers together as though he were beating heads, and then gently pour out the remains into a cocktail glass (and garnish it ever so carefully with tiny beans, as though grooming a Bonsai tree). Most of all, I was surprised at how much I liked the shakerato. It was an alchemic reaction—although, at its most basic, it’s just a shot of espresso shaken with sugar and ice. A split-second that snapped at my neurons, widened my eyes, and produced the words, “What the hell, this is amazing you b**tard” in Andrea’s direction. 

Because of our weather, iced coffee is more of a novelty in England–a rancid, diluted frosty soup in which the flavour is watered-down by industrial sized ice cubes that push aggressively against the plastic cup. At Costa or Caffe Nero, they try to hide the flavour of the cheap beans with 19 layers of syrup and whipped-cream, and then stick a paper straw through its heart so that the drinker bypasses the coffee. Give it a blockbuster name (HAZELNUT VANILLA BLAST), charge five pounds, and that noise the customer hears as they exit the cafe? It’s the barista laughing. So, you can understand my pessimism that fateful Ligurian morning. And now I cannot order an iced coffee unless I am in Italy, and unless it is a shakerato, and Andrea still reminds me that it was him who started this strange love-affair, and that one day—should all else fail in our careers—we should open a stall in London that sells them. Because, although homesick Italians can get imported delicacies from Calabria and Abruzzo, not a single one from the 131,000 who live in the city has thought to sell the shakerato yet. 

If you think I’m fawning too much over cold coffee, I will share the story of the time I introduced it to my brother on a road trip from London to Florence. We sat at one of those old tabacchi/cafes in Rapallo, suffering the August heat, bloated and tired from nights in Paris and Nice and Genoa and familial tensions and the infinite highways, with the sea always nearby but the road granting no time for rest. I ordered two shakeratos. He had the same reaction I did a few miles away in Chiavari: “Iced-coffee? Nope. Why? It comes in a martini glass? Go on then. If you’re paying for it.” But after his first sip, the expression changed (“Yeah, it’s not bad” translates to “Bloody amazing” in England) and our spirits were lifted and bodies rejuvenated. By the time we arrived in Florence, we had both ordered enough shakeratos to carve an igloo the size of the Duomo from the ice. In that marvellous city, our local stop would put a shot of grappa inside, and being a pair of lovingly competitive brothers, we insisted that the stronger, the better, until the morning became a hot blur and our second shakerato corretto made us silly and brave. If I remember correctly, he did not drink another espresso until I left.

Oddly enough, grappa isn’t the only thing I’ve seen added to my shakerato. In Liguria, the small pasticcerias ask if you want vanilla syrup instead of sugar—particularly the spots which have that 1950s neon-and-white-jacket Cafe American vibe. Ask for vanilla syrup anywhere else and you may as well have insulted the waiter’s mother. 

In Naples, a very famous coffee shop (the Gran Caffè Gambrinus if I remember correctly) offers hazelnut, and the staff are unfazed by your preferences as long as you drink the glass of water first, not after. A very nice woman named Giada California (the last part is a nickname I have given her, and I hope she reads this as we became good friends) at the Bar Ludovisi in Rome insisted I try it with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream. If I need a little kick, I think that’s my favourite way to drink a shakerato in the morning. It is much smoother than the grappa version the Calcio Storico athletes in Florence suggested to us. 

In all of these places, I have been able to indulge in the same theatre. The act of making a shakerato is a physical spectacle; the shakers and stirrers are brought out to play, and the barista waves their arms above either shoulder in an up-and-down motion, while the cracked ice makes a sound like a maraca. Finally, they smack the shakers together—the routine’s thundering crescendo—and pour the coffee into the cocktail glass. It can sometimes be an awkward performance, depending on the barista’s mood that morning. It becomes the act of an unwilling artist, dancing out a routine for the customer, the phrase “shakerato per favore” filling them with dread as their eyes try to avoid yours. But because this is Italy, and because things must be done in a certain way, they never falter on the effort. Of course, I am most happy when I meet an enthusiastic barista, and their morning Shakerato performance becomes a moment of fun between two strangers. It is more often this way, and it certainly breaks the ice (pardon the pun). 

Just before catching my flight from Rome last month, I drank one on a terrace with a very good friend. An espresso takes only a few seconds, but the Shakerato gives an excuse to take our time. On that trip to Italy, I was thinking about how balance is very important in life and how I’m looking for moderation in everything these days–a symptom of my approaching 30. Not too much, not too little. Nothing too bitter, nothing too sweet. Just that perfect, familiar in-between. A shakerato always compliments that mood. The iced coffee has defined most of my mornings in Italy ever since Andrea introduced me to one in Chiavari; homesick while studying in London, he resumed his usual coffee routine in his hometown as though he had never left. I’ve started to feel the same way. There isn’t much to the shakerato to shout about from the rooftops: it’s as simple as can be. But it is perhaps the one thing I miss the most about Italy this morning. 

Photography by Mokaflor