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  • Joanne Herd

The Italian Cup: Exploring Coffee in Italy

Last updated January 26, 2024

If you're planning a trip to Italy you've probably pictured yourself leisurely sipping a cappuccino or espresso in a bustling piazza, watching the world pass by in an elegant Italian blur.

But there's more to coffee in Italy than just a quick caffeine fix. It's an art, a ritual, and a cultural staple, with its own nuances cultural norms to navigate. Who knew that a simple cup of coffee could be so complex?

While there are American chain coffee shops in Italy now, you won't find Italian coffee in them.

Much like fettuccini alfredo, chicken parmigiana, and Italian dressing, these are American versions of Italian products that simply don't exist in traditional Italian culture.

For the authentic Italy coffee experience, head to a local coffee shop, usually called a bar, and enjoy the coffee that the locals drink.

Whether it's the robust shot of espresso that kick-starts the day or the delicate balance of milk and coffee in a morning cappuccino, it will be excellent! So let's make sure you know exactly how to navigate the Italian bar.

One quick note - you may have heard that it's not acceptable to order a milky coffee, like a cappuccino or caffe latte outside of breakfast time in Italy.

While that is technically true, it doesn't mean that you can't buy one in a bar. You may get some funny looks, but they'll probably serve it to you.

However, if you try ordering a cappuccino or caffe latte in a restaurant to follow a meal, it may be refused or you may simply receive a shot of espresso. Italians view heavy, milk-based coffee drinks as too rich to follow a meal, so a simple espresso is the normal order in a restaurant.

A brief history of coffee in Italy

Did you know that coffee first arrived in Europe through Italy?

The story begins with the rise of the coffee trade in the 16th century. That’s when the coffee bean made its grand entrance into Europe through the bustling ports of Venice.

It wasn't an immediate success. It was initially met with skepticism, and even labeled as the "bitter invention of Satan" by the local clergy, who asked the Pope to intervene. 

When Pope Clement VIII tried it he was enchanted by its aroma and taste, and gave it his blessing. From then on, coffee became a symbol of hospitality and sophistication across Italy.

The birth of the coffee house

The first coffee houses began appearing in the 17th century. These were more than just a place to enjoy this new exotic drink. They became vibrant social centers for intellectuals, artists and the elite to meet and discuss the affairs of the day.

One of the oldest of these establishments is Venice's historic Caffè Florian, which can still be found in Piazza San Marco. If you're planning a trip to Venice, make sure to add it to your list of places to visit.

Italian espresso: Italy's gift to the world

Fast forward to the 20th century, and Italy gave the world a gift that forever changed coffee culture: the espresso.

In 1901, Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera developed a machine that forced hot water through finely-ground coffee, producing the concentrated, flavorful shot that we know as espresso.

This innovation was more than a technological feat. It was a cultural milestone that set the foundation for modern Italian coffee culture.

Making Italian coffee at home

A Moka is key for making Italian coffee at home. A mint-green moka pot sitting on a trivet. The lid is open and you can see the strong, dark coffee ready to be poured.

At the heart of Italian home-brewed coffee is the Moka pot, an icon of Italian households. This stovetop espresso maker brews coffee by passing boiling water pressurized by steam through ground coffee.

If you’d like to enjoy true Italian coffee at home, you’ll want to buy yourself a Moka. They come in all sizes, and they make very strong, delicious espresso.

A guide to Italian coffee drinks

Venture into any Italian café, or bar as they're normally called, and you'll discover a variety of coffee-based drinks, each with its unique character and charm. Understanding these drinks and what makes each unique is key to appreciating the full spectrum of Italian coffee culture.

If your regular coffee drink is something with flavored syrup, don't expect to find that type of specialty coffee at a bar. In Italy coffee is meant to be enjoyed for the flavor of the coffee, with only milk and sugar to complement it.

Espresso (ehs-PRESS-oh)

Never call it an “expresso”, there's no “x” in the word! This is the quintessential Italian coffee drink, a concentrated shot of black coffee, brewed under high pressure.

Espresso coffee, referred to as “caffè” or “caffè normale”, is served in a small cup with a saucer, and normally comes with a glass of water. It is customary to drink some of the water first to cleanse the palette and allow you to taste all the flavors of the coffee.

Caffè can be enjoyed any time, from first thing in the morning to an after dinner shot to close out the day. To order, simply ask for “un caffè” and you'll get a single shot of espresso.

If you like your caffè even stronger, order a “ristretto” (rees-TREH-toh), or restricted shot, with less water and more concentrated flavor.

On the other hand, if a regular caffè is too strong but you want something a bit bolder than an americano, order a "lungo" (LOON-goh), or a long shot that puts more water through the ground coffee.

Cappuccino (kap-poo-CHEE-no)

A cappuccino is made up of equal parts espresso, steamed hot milk, and frothed milk foam. Sometimes it's finished with a dusting of cocoa powder or cinnamon.

Italians only drink cappuccinos in the morning, so don't plan to order one after about 11am if you want to follow the Italian cultural norms.

Caffè Latte (kah-FEH LAH-teh)

If you order a latte in Italy, you'll get a glass of milk, or “latte”. And possibly a strange look, since milk isn't something that Italians normally drink on its own.

If you're looking for a latte like you order at your local coffee shop, you'll want to order a caffè latte, or coffee with milk. Similar to a cappuccino, it is one third coffee and two thirds steamed milk.

This is another drink that you'll want to only order in the morning, and goes wonderfully with a cornetto or pastry.

Caffè Macchiato (kah-FEH mak-KYA-toh)

If you need a bit of milk in your coffee after 11am, consider ordering a caffè macchiato, a shot of espresso “stained” with warm milk and served in an espresso cup.

Unlike a cappuccino or caffe latte, a macchiato is an afternoon drink, perfect for a mid-day pause.

You can also order a latte macchiato (LAH-teh mak-KYA-toh). It's similar to a caffè macchiato, but instead of a shot of espresso stained with steamed milk, it's steamed milk stained with coffee. It's creamier and less strong than a caffè macchiato.

Caffè Americano (kah-FEH ah-meh-ree-KAH-no)

Since drip coffee isn't something you'll find in Italy, the closest you’ll get is a caffè americano. It's a shot of espresso diluted with hot water, making it similar in strength to American-style coffee.

But I’ll be honest, I don't think watered down espresso is all that great. Before you order an americano, try a caffè lungo. This longer shot of espresso will give you more flavor than an americano, but is less strong than standard espresso.

Plus, you’ll probably never see an Italian ordering an americano, so a caffè lungo is a great choice if you want to order like a local.

Caffè Corretto (kah-FEH koh-REH-toh)

A sprited drink to enjoy before or after dinner, a caffè corretto is a shot of espresso “corrected” with a splash of grappa, brandy or sambuca. You may get some funny looks if you order this one too early in the day, but it’s great around dinner time.

Marocchino (mah-rohk-KEE-no)

A marocchino in a clear glass. You can see the layers of espresso and milk foam, with cocoa powder dusted on top.

For a bit of a treat, and the closest thing you'll find to an American mocha, go for a marocchino. It’s made with a shot of espresso, cocoa powder, and frothed milk in a small glass cup.

The cocoa powder is unsweetened, so don’t a sweet drink like you get at home. You’ll want to add some sugar to really bring out the flavor of the cocoa and coffee.

Caffè Freddo (kah-FEH FREH-doh)

A caffè freddo is cold coffee similar to an iced coffee. It's hot espresso mixed with sugar and cooled to room temperature before being refrigerated. It's normally poured from a bottle in the fridge instead of being made at the time you order it.

Caffè Shakerato (kah-FEH shake-eh-RAH-toh)

A shakerato in a wine glass. The rich espresso sits under a thick layer of foam from the shaking with the ice.

While a caffè freddo is stored in the refrigerator and then served, a caffe shakerato is a true iced espresso.

A fresh espresso shot is pulled and poured into a cocktail shaker with ice and sugar. It's shaken until well chilled, then poured into a stemmed glass.

Caffè con Panna (kah-FEH con PAH-nah)

If you're looking for a richer coffee treat, try a caffè or espresso con panna. A simple shot of espresso with whipped cream, it is a bit rich but a very nice treat.

Cioccolata Calda (chah-koh-LAH-tah KAHL-dah)

An Italian hot chocolate from Rivoire in Florence. The whipped cream almost covers the rich, dark hot chocolate in the cup. Hot chocolate is a great alternative to coffee in Italy for non-coffee drinkers.

If you're not up for an italian coffee drink, consider a cioccolata calda, or Italian hot chocolate. This won't be your average hot chocolate!

Instead, expect something rich, dark, and similar in texture to a thin pudding. It's served with a spoon (you'll need it!) and normally topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

How to order (and drink) your coffee

Navigating an Italian café menu and ordering coffee can be an art form in itself. To help you blend in with the locals and enjoy the true Italian coffee experience, here are a few tips.

How to order your coffee

Ordering coffee is a great way to practice your Italian, even if you barely speak any. Simply ask for what you want, such as “un caffè” (one espresso) or “un caffè latte” (one espresso with milk).

If you need to order more than one, substitute the “un” with “due” (two), “tres” (three), and so on.

Always include a “per favore” (please, pronounced pehr fah-VOH-reh) and “grazie” (thank you, pronounced GRAH-tzee-eh) to be polite.

When the barista tells you the amount to pay, it's ok if you don't understand. Simply hold out a couple of bills or some coins, and they'll take the correct amount and give you change if needed.

They'll know you aren't Italian simply from your accent, but the effort to speak the local language and follow local customs goes a long way.

When to pay

Most advice will tell you that you pay the cashier first, then give your receipt to the barista. But what I've found is that it varies based on where you are.

In the tourist center of a city, with a busy bar and multiple employees, it's quite likely that you'll pay first. But when you go to the local coffee shops, the person at the register and the person making the coffee are often one and the same.

Take a minute to watch and see what the locals are doing. It's been much more common in my experience to order, drink your coffee, and then pay on the way out the door.

Plan to pay in cash, it's a great way to get rid of some of those €1 and €2 coins that will weigh down your pocket or purse! You'll also find that a quick espresso isn't very expensive, often €1-2, and the barista probably won't want to run a credit card for such a small amount.

Drink at the bar

One of the most iconic images of Italian coffee culture is the scene of locals standing at the bar, sipping espresso. When you drink coffee at the bar, it's known as “al banco”.

Normally coffee is enjoyed “al banco”, but that doesn't mean you pound your espresso like you would a shot of alcohol. You want to savor it, but since it's small it will probably only take you 3-5 minutes.

When you look at a menu, which is required by law to be posted with prices and can normally be found somewhere around the cash register, you'll often see two prices for each item. The lower price is for having your drink “al banco”, the higher is for having it “al tavolo”, or at the table.

Don't expect to order your coffee, pay, and then sit down if you pay the lower price. Instead, order it “al tavolo” and they'll charge you the higher price. Then you can sit down with your coffee beverage of choice.

The typical Italian breakfast

A cappuccino sitting next to a plate with an oval italian pastry dusted with a bit of powdered sugar.
A typical Italian breakfast

If you'd like to experience a typical Italian breakfast, order a cornetto or pastry from the case at the bar to enjoy while drinking coffee. It’s delicious and surprisingly filling.

Pastries in Italy are much less sweet than they are in America, so while I'm not much of a sweet breakfast type of gal I do love to get a pastry in the mornings when I'm in Italy.

Various parts of Italy have different specialties, from cornettos in the central and south to brioche in the north. Just point to something that looks interesting and the barista will serve it.

Or, if the barista speaks English, ask them if there’s something local that they’d recommend. At one bar I tried a pastry made with rice that was recommended. I’ve never had anything like it and have no idea what it was, but it was delicious!

The bottom line

Coffee is the perfect place to start experiencing Italy like a local. It's simple, quite easy to order, and is always good.

So as you're planning a trip to Italy, make sure to take the time to stop at a bar in the morning for breakfast, and again later in the day when it's time for a pick me up. You won't regret it.

Want to check out more posts like this? Find all of our food and drink blog posts here.

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