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I was in Italy recently, and whenever I ordered hot chocolate, it came with a small shot-glass of water. The water appeared to be normal tap water, and wasn't particularly hot or cold. What is one meant to do with the water? Often there wasn't space in the hot chocolate to add water, so I assume it should be drunk, but I'm not sure if you drink it after every sip of hot chocolate to cool your mouth down, or at the end to "clear your palette".

I'm sad that I didn't take a picture of it, because I can't find any pictures of this online, although I ordered hot chocolate 10-12 times and got water with it every time, without exception. The one instance when I didn't, the server appeared with it a few minutes later, while apologizing. I'm not sure if it's limited to Italy, but I did experience this everywhere from Venice, to Florence to Rome.

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    I experienced it in Paris at a cafe did ask the barista what that was for and at this cafe, she said it was to either clean my palate before my espresso or to clean my palate to remove any after taste if I so please. So I suppose she meant "I don't think there is a rule to how to use the water". – dearN May 15 '15 at 13:05
  • Personally I find that after the drink is finished that my mouth is lined with sugary chocolate. I find this irritating and therefore flush it out with water quickly afterwards. Same thing with iced cream. And coffee. – easymoden00b May 15 '15 at 18:53
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The practice of accompanying an espresso with a glass of water is typical in southern Italy, and in particular in Naples in which coffee is something of a mystical ritual. Recently other establishments across Italy (and worldwide) have begun following this practice. High-end places might serve you a glass of water as an implicit statement saying that their coffee is so good that it requires you to clean your mouth to properly taste it.

The purpose of the glass of water is twofold.

  1. It cleans the palate before drinking the coffee, allowing you to better enjoy its taste.
  2. It also helps compensate for the thirst that usually comes after drinking the coffee (a preemptive measure, if you will).

This barista handbook (in Italian) explicitly mentions this:

Un ottimo servizio prevede che l’espresso venga accompagnato da un bicchiere con acqua (poca, non occorre pieno). Se l’acqua dell’acquedotto è buona, va benissimo. Perché l’acqua? Perché il caffè fa venire sete e desiderio di bere. Quando berla? Un vero intenditore la beve sempre prima di bere il caffè, affinché rimangano a lungo in bocca il gusto e gli aromi.

There's a chance that the bar you visited serves a glass of water with hot chocolate, for similar purposes as outlined above.

Of course, nothing stops you from drinking the water after finishing your hot beverage. You might see a few frowned faces around you, but all in all should you really care? I believe you're free to consume your purchased drinks in whichever order you prefer, regardless of unwritten rules and traditions.

  • It's common as far as the South of France - the closer to Italy, the more common. – Vince May 15 '15 at 18:39
  • It is not a new thing, in western European countries the expensive hotels have served water with the coffee for at least a century, maybe longer. Cheaper places never used to but some might now as the fashion comes around again. – Willeke May 15 '15 at 20:10
  • a glass of water is served with ice cream too in high end estabilishments. I think it's because these things can make you thirsty and/or leave too much residue in the mouth so washing down the tongue helps. – Formagella Jul 8 '15 at 20:25
  • This translates something like: "The best service calls for the espresso to be accompanied by a glass of water (small, no need to be full). If the tap water is good, that's fine to use. Why water? Because coffee makes you thirsty and want to drink. When do you drink it? A true connoisseur always drinks water before drinking coffee, so that the taste and aromas remain in the mouth for a long time." – imallett Jul 9 '17 at 19:32
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What is one meant to do with the water? Simply drink it after your coffee (hot chocolate) or if you prefer at the middle of it - it does not have any specific rule: instead it's for your pleasure. Although to my experience they generally come with a sparkling (frizzante /frɪtˈzante/) shot of water rather than normal ones.

Beside the points @JoErNanO mentioned in his answer, sparkling water reduces the unpleasant (at least for others) coffee (chocolate) smell from mouth - so is a good idea to drink it at the end -, or as some say protect the esophagus from the acidity of the espresso, it also gives you a fresh feeling.

You may also find this article interesting.

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