A definitive guide on how to order coffee in Italy.
Ordering an Italian coffee is something non-Italians get apparently confused about, at least counting the number of posts written on this topic. There’s even a book called “How to order an Italian coffee in Italy” and comments on Amazon say it’s a must-have for travellers.
Speaking about coffee, or food in general, Italians are often religiously bound to their traditions. We have one of the best cuisines, we tend to consider all the rest rubbish, we want to teach to the world how a perfect drink or meal is supposed to be. The same is for coffee. So I understand you don’t feel comfortable in ordering a coffee in an Italian bar.
There are a lot of blog posts listing what’s allowed and forbidden about coffee in Italy. Allowed, forbidden…wouldn’t it be we are too rigid? Anyway, there are things about ordering coffee in Italy you should know, because some coffee styles are simply not available. But there are also points to be debunked, because they’re not so strict.
Ready to enjoy your Italian coffee?
As a general rule, in the bigger or more touristic cities and in the North, nobody will care about your order. Italy has many differences and the coffee culture in Milan is completely different than in Naples. (Warning 1: I’m from Milan!) The most you go South, the most they get religious about coffee. Well, apparently the coffee gets better and better going South and it’s a pity to blend it with milk or something else.
1. Just say “caffe”, don’t say “espresso”: true.
It’s true in Italy we don’t use the word espresso, because there’s no other coffee to differentiate it from. If you say “caffè” you will have an espresso. If you say “espresso” you will have an espresso too, but it will be clear you’re not local. Anyway, are you sure you will be taken for a local even if you don’t talk at all? Since there are other espresso-based types of coffee, like macchiato (an espresso with frothed milk, I’ll come back later to the issue of milk), you can say normale or liscio if you want a plain espresso.
2. No milk in the afternoon: false.
Most of the posts about how to order Italian coffee in Italy recommend you don’t order anything with milk after lunch and in the afternoon. I’ve even read a reccomendation about not ordering cappuccino after 11 o’clock. Well, it’s still weird for us to see people drinking a cappuccino after dinner – I still remember the chorus of “Noooo!” after a British colleague ordered a cappuccino after pizza. Cappuccino is something we link to cookies and pastries in the morning. Anyway it’s not unusual to see Italian ladies drinking cappuccino in a winter afternoon. And don’t be afraid to order macchiato after lunch. I do it. Many Italians do it. I don’t add sugar and I like the level of bitterness it gets with milk. (Warning 2: I’m not a purist). It’s more a Northern Italian and girlish thing (yeah, the real men is supposed to drink black coffee), but you can do it. The barista will not frown too much.
3. No large size: true.
It’s still unusual to find different formats. Normally Italian coffee and cappuccino are served in standard size ceramic cups. There are rumors about Starbucks opening soon in Italy, but at the moment if you ask big or medium or small coffee you simply won’t have it. I’ve seen different formats lately only at the “Autogrill” service station on the motorway (..oops, Autogrill and Starbucks have a partnership in Europe). Probably what you are looking for is something similar to filtered coffee and you should ask “caffè americano“, that I don’t recommend. Italian caffè americano is just an espresso with additional hot water and it’s not as good as a good drip coffee.
4. No Starbucks-like blends: true.
Don’t try to find things like “hot caramel vanilla latte with frozen cinnamon”. There are variations to standard Italian coffee (I’ll tell you below), but only limited in number and all based on espresso.
5. Only “moka” at home: false.
Moka or caffettiera is the coffee pot most Italians have at home. Here’s a tutorial to use it. All you have to do is fill the water tank, water should arrive at the level of the valve. Then fill the funnel with ground coffee, don’t press, close it all up, put on the stove and wait. In a few minutes a wonderful smell of fresh coffee will spread all over the kitchen. The smell is really the plus of this way of brewing coffee. There’s no better way to wake up: with the smell of coffee that someone made for you on Sunday morning. Moka was invented in 1933 for the company Bialetti, which still commercializes it. It’s an icon of Italian design. Of course you can’t find it in bars. At least at the moment: I’ve always dreamt to open a moka bar selling only moka coffee, wouldn’t it be great? But I’m digressing now. Coming back to the point, the assumption that Italians use only moka at home is not completely true. Home espresso machines, a small version of the bar’s machines are common. Market share of home coffee machine holding coffee capsules, like Nespresso, is also increasing. In Italy people using coffee capsules increased from 1,5 to 2,6 millions in 2012-2014 with the higher marketshare among under 35 years families, single and couples without children.
6. No take away: true.
In Italy you’ll hardly see people walking around with a hot cup of cappuccino. People normally enters the bar, orders and drink coffee by standing next to the counter or sitting at the bar table. They sit just the time to have a drink; it’s still uncommon to see people sitting with a computer to a bar for a long time. Normally when you finish you are supposed to leave, or to order something else. The point is that the espresso is so small you’ll takes 5 seconds to finish it! I’m always amused by people, normally in business suit and sunglasses, that drink espresso in one sip, like a shot of whiskey. Actually you can buy take-away coffee, just spot if next to the coffe machine there are cardboard cups. Some bars offer the service to take coffee to the offices in the surroundings, that’s these cups are normally used for.
7. Latte is not what you mean: true
If you ask a “latte” meaning steamed milk with a shot of coffee, you will probably be asked for clarification of you will receive a glass of…milk. Latte in Italian means literally milk. You have to ask a cappuccino or a latte macchiato to have something like that. (I have never understood the difference between “latte” and “cappuccino” at Starbucks). In any case you will hardly find syrups like vanilla or caramel flavour in Italian bars.
And now let’s come to the point: which types of coffee you can order in Italy, other than espresso.
There’s not so much to say about this worldwide famous comfort drink. Here’s the typical breakfast you eat at a bar: cappuccino and croissant. Well, I call it croissant to be clear, but It’s actually a pastry not as buttery as the French croissants. In some regions they call them cornetti, in others brioches or paste. They can be filled with jam, chocolate or cream. An alternative to cappuccino is latte macchiato. Lately you can also ask cappuccino with soy milk in most of the bars.
It’s an espresso with a shot of warm frothed milk on the top. You can also have macchiato freddo (cold macchiato). In this case they serve you some cold milk in a separate jug.
Marocchino means literally Moroccan, but I don’t have any guess why it’s called like this. I’m sure it has nothing to do with Morocco. This is a little treat and also esthetically nice: in an espresso-like glass cup they put chocolate on the bottom, then an espresso shot, a thick layer of foamed milk and powder cocoa on the top. It’s not spread everywhere: the espresso enthusiasts hate it. Actually, I never dare to order it Southern of Rome. If you are not sure, just look around, bars always have a price list hanging on the wall, where you can also read what’s available.
This kind of coffee is supposed to be an energetic blend with ginseng. At the end of the day I find it has a caramel flavour and it’s not more energetic than a normal coffee. Again you might not find it everywhere, but bars have a separate machine to brew it that you can spot on the counter. Generally you are asked if you want it small (in an espresso cup) or large (in a cappuccino cup). I know it contradicts my statement that you can’t find Italian coffee in different formats, but it’s the only example I have at the moment. And you never know, things change.
It’s an espresso with a shot of liquor, normally grappa or sambuca. You are supposed to ask which liquor you want in, so you have to say “un caffè corretto grappa” or “un caffè corretto sambuca”. It’s normally ordered after dinner, in the morning you would be taken for an alcoholic. Another habit, at dinner, is to offer a liquor after coffee. It’s called in a funny way: ammazzacaffè, which can be translated as “the coffee killer”.
And now, the definitive rule.
The main difference I see between Italian and U.K. or U.S. coffee culture is about time and socialization. In U.K .and U.S. coffee is something you can drink in every moment, while you are doing other things: walking, working, reading. In Italy, even if you are alone, you take a real break: you stop and enjoy the flavour and the smell of your coffee for a moment.
For British and Americans I guess coffee is more a solitary moment of peace. For an Italian coffee is connected to social moments: you have a coffee together with family and friends at the end of the meal or you offer it to colleagues and partners to build relations.
Here’s the rule: let the coffee time be a pleasent and relaxing moment. What you find pleasant is a matter of taste. So, don’t worry too much, just enter a bar and order your preferred Italian coffee.
If you liked this post share it! If you are interested to buy a moka coffee pot on Amazon, please click on my link. I will get a small commission (no surcharge for you) to help me keeping this blog running.