If coffee has a spiritual home, this is Italy, viewed by many as the world capital of coffee. Wherever you turn, you see a café serving espresso, cappuccino or caffè macchiato. The café is the heart and soul of Italian daily life. It’s a slice of true Italian culture as genuine as a British pub.There are many (unspoken) rules and rituals surrounding Italy’s centuries-old coffee culture. Read on to find out all you need to know about the traditions of Italian coffee culture, and learn the vocabulary and phrases you will need to order coffee in Italy like a local.
Take a coffee break: Intro to Italian Coffee Culture
Italians have created an entire science around ordering and drinking coffee, and there is a huge protocol for how to order coffee in Italy.
First of all, it is essential to know that what in English is called a café is actually called a bar or caffetteria, with double t, in Italian. And, confusingly, a caffè, pronounced /kahf-feh/, actually means a coffee.Let’s start with the types of coffee in Italy. Knowing the differences between a caffè espresso, macchiato, corretto, ristretto and lungo before your next trip is crucial. Be aware that, abroad, not all of the translations have retained their original meaning.
Italian coffee vocabulary (and misnomers)
Compared to the stack of options you would find in most mass coffee shops, there is a relatively small choice of coffee types and coffee-based drinks to choose from in a traditional Italian bar. Here they are.
The terms caffè and espresso are used interchangeably in Italian and signify one single shot of black coffee served in a thimble-sized porcelain cup. Pronounced /eh-spreh-sow/, the word espresso is a technical term in Italy and isn’t used by Italians to order their coffee.If you want to order an espresso, the default coffee in Italy, simply say:
|Un caffè, per favore||A coffee, please|
|Un caffè, grazie||A coffee, please|
As simple as that. If you order un caffé, it is implicit that you are referring to an espresso. Most Italian coffee orders can be made by uttering just a couple of words. Un caffè is all you need to say.
Pronounced /kahf-feh dohp-peeoh/, a caffè doppio is a double espresso. Perfectly acceptable if you are sleep-deprived, tired or hungover, it consists of two shots of espresso.
Caffè ristretto is a shorter, extremely strong shot of espresso that uses half the amount of water. It isn’t much more than just a sip. Coffee connoisseurs claim a caffè ristretto, pronounced /kahf-feh rih-stret-toh/, reveals the skillfulness of the bartender who prepares it. If you like the thick, concentrated density of Italian coffee, give it a go.
Caffè lungo (luhn-goh) is, literally, a “long” coffee, with more water in it. This has been my long-time favorite, because it loosens the intensity of the traditional espresso, and I get to sip it a little bit longer.
When the espresso is being pulled at the coffee machine, the process is slowed down a bit so that there is twice as much water involved. In other words, coffee is brewed with more water.
Literally meaning “stained” coffee, caffè macchiato is a slightly milkier version of a simple, strong caffè. Pronounced /mahk-kee-ahtoh/, it is a caffè espresso with a dollop of hot, foamy milk on top. Conversely, latte macchiato is hot milk with a spot of coffee.
Pronounced /kahp-pooch-chee-noh/, cappuccino is equal parts espresso, hot milk and thick, creamy foam, with a final dusting of cocoa powder on top. Another big favorite is cappuccino scuro, made with less milk.
Although it is a longer drink compared to espresso, don’t expect a pint-sized mug of coffee when you order it. In Italy, the standard cappuccino comes in a 180 ml porcelain cup. Yes, it is definitely smaller in volume than elsewhere in the world.Cappuccino is first and foremost a breakfast beverage, usually served with a little pastry. It is totally acceptable (and outwardly delicious) to dip your pastry into the cappuccino.
Not a common drink in Italy, caffelatte, pronounced /kahf-feh lath-the/, is simply a glass or large porcelain cup of warm milk with a tiny droplet of coffee in it, just like a “latte” in English. But don’t forget to specify the caffe- part, because latte in Italian just means milk. I’ve seen so many foreign tourists ordering a “latte” and being served a glass of cold milk!
A favorite of Italian workmen, a boozy caffè corretto (cohr-reht-toh) is a caffè espresso “corrected” with a slug of liquor, usually cognac, sambuca or grappa, a very strong, fragrant Italian brandy. Ask the bartenders which regional liquor they recommend.
Popular on hot summer days, a caffè shakerato (shah-kehr-ahtoh), is an espresso mixed with sugar and ice cubes, shaken vigorously until it develops a slightly frothy head, and poured into a chilled glass.
A great drink for autumn and winter, bicerin is a specialty of the Piedmont region, in north-western Italy. Pronounced /bee-cheh-reen/, it consists of layered espresso, creamy milk and hot chocolate.
Usually served in a little glass, bicerin actually means small glass in the local dialect.
Popular with Italian teenagers, marocchino (mahr-ohk-kee-noh) is a delicious mix of espresso, milk foam and cocoa powder. It is made by dusting a small glass with cocoa powder and adding espresso and a dash of milk froth.
If you are looking for American-style filter coffee, this is the closest you’ll get in boot-shaped Italy. Probably still a bit stronger than what you are used to, caffè americano, pronounced /am-ehr-ee-cah-noh/, is basically espresso diluted with hot water.
Pronounced /kahf-feh dort-zoh/, a caffè d’orzo looks like a simple espresso, but is actually an organic alternative brewed from roasted barley. I personally like its delicate, earthy flavor a lot.
Orzo is naturally caffeine free, and can replace espresso in most Italian coffee drinks. If you want to order an orzo alternative, all you have to do is add “d’orzo” to the end of your order. For example:
|Un cappuccino d’orzo, per favore||A barley cappuccino, please|
|Un macchiato d’orzo, per favore||A barley macchiato, please|
If you can’t consume caffeine, order any coffee you like but go for decaf coffee beans. It’s un decaffeinato (deh-cahf-fehyee-nah-toh) in Italian. You may also hear people call it caffè hag.
As much as we like our pasta al dente, we like our coffee to have a heavily roasted, bittersweet flavor. Coffee drinks in Italy tend to be quite traditional. Coffee doesn’t come with caramel sauce, hazelnut syrup, cinnamon, fruity taste notes, vanilla and other such artificial flavors.
Despite the Italian-sounding names, exotic versions served in branded coffee chains, like iced cinnamon lattes, vanilla frappuccino, caramel macchiato and mocha-choca-frappa-latte with mountains of whipped cream on top, are anathemas to most Italians.
What coffee to drink when during the day
You might think that, equipped with your list of Italian coffees, you are now ready to order. You are actually only half way there.
WHAT to drink is only part of the equation. If you want to order coffee in Italy like a local, you also need to understand WHEN to drink it. Italians drink certain beverages at certain times of the day.
Espresso can be taken anytime, and especially after lunch or dinner to aid with digestion and avoid post-meal lethargy.
As mentioned previously, cappuccino is traditionally to be taken in the morning, before or during breakfast. In Italy, if you want to fit in, don’t order a cappuccino after 11:00am. Because of the high volume of milk, cappuccino is seen as too heavy for the afternoon, and you will never in a million years see an Italian ordering a frothy cappuccino after a meal.Caffè corretto is usually taken later in the day, while caffè macchiato, halfway between an espresso and a cappuccino, is traditionally enjoyed as a bit of an afternoon pick-me-up during a pausa caffè, or coffee break.
What to do in an Italian coffee bar
And then there’s the actual ordering process. When you enter an Italian coffee bar, the first step is to locate the cashier. In most Italian cafés, you must pay for your coffee upfront at a till, and then present your receipt, or scontrino, to the barista.
The whole routine is very quick:
Apart from a brief chat with the bartender, Italians don’t linger inside the café for more than a couple of minutes.
Italian coffee-phrases you might hear from the bartender
|Come lo desidera?||How would you like it?|
|Lo vuole macchiato?||Do you want it “stained” with a drop of milk?|
|Basta così?||Is that it? (meaning, is your order finished?)|
|Ecco a Lei||Here you go|
|Dimmi||Informal: tell me|
How to drink your coffee
And finally, it’s time to sit down and sip your drink, right?
Unless they are in a restaurant and already seated, Italians drink their coffee fast, standing at the bar counter. Very rarely would an Italian sit down and order an espresso, not only because most Italian cafés charge extra to bring it to your table.
Coffee drinkers in Italy pop into local bars up to four or five times a day for a quick cup, downed quickly at the counter (three gulps maximum) and without ceremony.
Espresso needs to be drunk while the aromatic creamy emulsion of the coffee’s oils is still on top. This brownish, creamy foam disappears so rapidly that ordering a caffè anywhere that is not the counter means you are likely to get it when the delicious, aromatic foam on top is already gone.
So, for an authentic experience, join the masses standing at the bar.
A few final tips
- 1Coffee in Italy is often served alongside a little glass of water to cleanse your palate before and after.
- 2Except for caffè shakerato, coffee in Italy doesn’t usually come with any sugar in it. It is up to you to add white or brown sugar, usually found in either packets or jars on the counter.
- 3There are no size differentials in Italy. There is no small, medium, tall or large sizes. Requests for a grande or a venti frappuccino will be met with ‘duhh’ looks of mirth and confusion. In general, Italian coffees are small, VERY small. The amount is often a small shot of espresso that fills about a third of a small porcelain cup and takes less than three seconds to drink.
- 4Stay away from ordering a coffee to-go in Italy. The concept of take-away is not part of Italian coffee culture. Except in airports and big city train stations, Italian coffee bars don’t have disposable take-out paper cups.
- 5In 90% of Italian cafes, your only option is whole milk, so don’t ask for soy, low-fat, non-fat or skinny versions of milky drinks. If you are lactose intolerant, on a diet or simply don’t like milk, go for black coffee.
- 6It’s not common to tip for coffee in Italy. As mentioned previously, for table service you are usually charged a service fee for sitting down, and tipping is not necessary. If you are having your coffee at the counter, just leave behind the extra change for the baristas. A 10- or 20-cent Euro coin is enough.
Now you’ll know how to enjoy your pausa caffè in Italy like a true native. Enjoy!
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