What could be better than enjoying a coffee… in Italy? Knowing what to order, and how (and when) to drink coffee like an Italian!
That’s because Italian coffee isn’t like coffee in the United States or anywhere else. Even the names don’t mean what you might expect. Take a story we heard from one traveler to Italy. Since she was familiar with the “Italian” lingo of coffee from Starbucks, she thought she was all set when she arrived in Italy and, proudly, ordered a “latte.” The server looked at her funny. “Latte? Caldo o freddo?” (Hot or cold?). She spoke a little Italian, so it was her turn to look at him funny: “Caldo, of course!” she said.
He disappeared for a moment, came back, and handed her a cup of exactly what she’d asked for—hot milk.
Don’t want that to be you? Then it’s worth knowing a little bit about coffee in Italy! Here are some starting tips.
A “bar” is really a “cafe”
The number of places labeled “bar” in your average Italian city would make you think all Italians have a drinking problem. They do: a coffee drinking problem! That’s because a “bar” is actually what we would call a “cafe.” (And, confusingly, a caffè actually means a “coffee”… but more on that later).
Most Italians drink coffee standing at the bar
This was a tip from our post on how not to get ripped off eating in Italy: Unless you really need to rest those feet, make like an Italian and order, and drink, your coffee at the bar. It’s often half or a third the price of sitting at a table, especially near a tourist site. And it’s where all the locals hang out!
At the bar, you usually have to pay for your coffee before ordering it
Not every cafe actually enforces this rule. But as a rule of thumb, it’s better to go to the cash register first and say what you’re going to get—”due caffè,” “un cornetto,” etc.—and pay first. Take the receipt you’re given and don’t throw it out; that’s what you bring to the bar with you, and hand to the server, to get served. (There’s more on this in our post on how to order a coffee, gelato, and slice of pizza in Italy!).
Don’t order a cappuccino after noon…
…if you want to “fit in” in Italy, that is. Especially at local cafes that aren’t used to tourists, you might just get a very funny look! Italians have a thing about drinking cappuccino after noon. It’s just not done (some say it’s because the milk and foam makes it a replacement for a meal, and all that dairy upsets the digestion). And you’ll never see an Italian ordering a cappuccino after dinner.
Know what coffee is what
Obviously, a latte in an American or British Starbucks isn’t the same as a latte in Italy. (Since the word is Italian and does mean “milk,” of course, Italians might have the edge on saying that the Starbucks version is plain old wrong).
Instead, here are the most popular Italian coffee phrases you should know:
- Caffè: This literally means “coffee,” but folks—in Italy, it’s an espresso! You don’t have to say “espresso” when you order (although if they know you’re a tourist, they might ask just to make sure). Just two days ago, we saw a family react with shock when the “caffè” they ordered came—as espresso, rather than filtered coffee. Oops!
- Cappuccino: Espresso topped up with hot, foamed milk. It’s named after the Cappuccini, or Capuchin monks, because of the color of their hoods.
- Caffè macchiato: This means a “spotted” or “stained” coffee, and in this case, it’s spotted with a splash of hot milk.
- Latte macchiato: Guess what this means? “Spotted milk”—in this case, a lot of milk with a spot of coffee.
- Caffè americano: American-style filter coffee doesn’t exist here. Instead, if you order an “American coffee,” you’ll get Italy’s best approximate: espresso with hot water added.
- Caffè lungo: A “long” coffee, i.e. with more water. It’s different than an americano because the difference actually happens at the espresso machine: when the espresso is actually being pulled, the process is slowed down so there’s twice as much water involved.
Help yourself to the cremina
Except for icy, summery drinks like caffè shakerato (coffee “shaken up” with ice and sugar), coffee doesn’t usually come with any sugar in it. Instead, it’s up to you to add sugar, usually found in either jars or packets there on the counter. Some places also will have tubs of cremina, which is foam whipped with sugar. If you want (and aren’t grossed out by the communal tub), you can spoon some right into your coffee to give it a sweet little kick.
You’re experiencing coffee in Italy… like an Italian! It’s one of the best, most authentic food experiences you can have. Not to mention one of the cheapest: across the country, a caffè taken at the bar costs about 80 (euro) cents. So drink up, and enjoy!
This post first appeared on Walks of Italy. Walks is an organization of dedicated travelers offers small group walking tours in Italy, New York, and Paris. Their ethos is based around connecting guests with local expert guides who take them way beyond typical the tourist sights to experience the authentic thrills of culture uncut.