Coffee. It’s deeply engrained in Italian culture as a social-second, a little piece of la dolce vita, and an absolute necessity for everyday life. Americans definitely have a thing or two to learn. Coffee is a ritual. Espresso may or may not be one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about Italy, but there’s lots to know about it before you come to this beautiful country.
When I first moved here, I didn’t know there was so much to learn about coffee and the many differences between American coffee culture and Italian coffee culture. Even though I had more knowledge than the average American about espresso since I worked as a barista for a time at small, snobby coffee shops in LA, there were still things to learn about the way the Italians did it.
I started writing about the basics of ordering a coffee in a blog post meant to help first time travelers of Italy, when I quickly noticed there was a lot more to say on the topic. I knew I had to dedicate an entire post to Italian coffee culture for all you enthusiasts out there, so here it is.
Bar = Coffee Shop
First of all, Italians get coffee from a bar. As strange as it may be, in Italy, bars serve coffee and pastries in the morning, sandwiches at lunch, and alcohol in the evenings. They are usually small places, with a large counter for coffee pit stops for all the Italians rushing through for their hourly fix (ok, not literally, but I’m sure there are people on that level). It’s a great place for a cheap lunch (be aware the panini- sandwiches- don’t have many ingredients in Italy and no condiments).
Coffee or Espresso?
Italians only drink espresso, not our American brewed coffee, even though both come from . They call espresso caffé, so if an English speaking Italian asks if you want a coffee, they mean espresso. Furthermore, Italians generally take their coffee in one of four ways; normale, macchiato, cappuccino, or caffé latte. There are plenty of other options, but for the sake of assisting you with travel basics, I’ll focus on these four…er, five.
“Buongiorno, posso avere un caffé, per favore?” Good morning, can I have an espresso, please?
Caffé normale is the most common coffee order in Italy and most people shoot back as it is. It’s a single shot of espresso served in a mini ceramic mug that looks like it’s made for a little girl’s tea set, with or without sugar, whatever you prefer. Some fancier places will also give you a shot of water (sometimes it’s carbonated, called frizzante) with your coffee. You can drink it before or after, but I personally like to take it after to clean my teeth and try to lessen coffee breath.
A macchiato is a shot of espresso with a splash of steamed milk, traditionally, but some baristas will ask you caldo o freddo (hot or cold) referring to your preference of milk. If they don’t ask, you’re getting steamed milk. This is served in the same size cup as a caffé normale. A macchiato in Italy is not what you get when you order one at Starbucks. Actually, Starbucks shouldn’t even call their drink that in my opinion, but I digress. This is what a realy macchiato looks like.
A cappuccino is largely the same in the US; a single shot of espresso with creamy foamed milk served in a mug larger than the usual size in Italy. Be aware, that to Italians, cappuccino time stops at 11:00am. It is considered a breakfast drink and you might get funny looks or even an eye roll if you order one in the afternoon. You’ll also have big sign on your forehead that says “I’m American”. Though, I will admit, I do sometimes want one in the late afternoon when I’m sitting at writing, so I bear the looks and move on with my life.
Lastly, there’s the caffé latte, which is still not how you would imagine it. In Italy it is one shot of espresso (remember, they take coffee breaks multiple times a day, so one shot at a time) served in a tall, clear glass, filled almost to the brim with steamed milk. No, there are no “pumps”, no flavors, and no sweeteners. White sugar or raw sugar are your general options with all coffee in Italy, with the occasional place offering a white packet that says Diet on it, meaning it’s a sugar substitute like Sweet’n’Low or something similar. Espresso and more milk than a cappuccino, that’s it.
In the summer, you could also order a caffé shakerato, their version of an iced coffee, but don’t expect much. It’s a double shot of espresso, shaken with ice like a cocktail, and then strained into a stem glass of the bar’s choice.
Also, speaking of glasses, it is not normal in Italian culture to take coffee to go like we do in America. Since it’s usually a single shot with a varying amount of milk, they kick it back quickly at the bar, and they’re on their way with caffeine running through their veins ready to take on the day.
If you’re having a pastry with your coffee in the morning, remember that croissants are only in France, so Italians call them a brioche, or more correctly, cornetto, and they’re to be eaten before your coffee, so the sweetness can be washed down with the bitterness of the espresso to balance the flavors. A pasticceria is a bakery where you can also find coffee, of course!
Most bars in the morning are packed full of people and very fast paced. Don’t get overwhelmed. As long as you know the routine, you should be fine. First, you pay at the register (cassa in Italian) for your order, preferably cash since it’s only a few Euros and not worth the fee from the card processing company for the business. Once you pay, they’ll give you your receipt (scontrino), which you then take to the bar. If you order a pastry, get that first from the person on the bakery side. Then head to the bar and don’t be shy! Locals will be pushing their way to the front, there is no organized line, like in most of Italy. When you get to the bar, say your order out loud with your receipt on the counter when they are near you or make eye contact. Most of the time they won’t have time to ask you what you’re having, so be prepared and don’t take it personally. While you’re waiting, enjoy your pastry and then your Italian coffee. The best start to any day. When you’re done, head out, and don’t forget to say “Ciao, grazie!” before you leave. Rush hour in the morning sure is different than in LA!
My first experience at an Italian bar in the morning was overwhelming and I got elbowed by an old lady because I was standing in the crowded bar like a confused tourist holding up the flow. I learned fast after that.
It is also traditional, or should I say ritualistic, to have un caffé after meals. After lunch and dinner, your server will ask you if you’d like a coffee or anything else. It is said that coffee helps with digestion, but really I think it’s just an excuse to have another! As if Italians need a reason! I have grown accustomed to having a coffee after lunch and dinner, and it has gotten to the point where my meal feels incomplete without one. If you are not used to having coffee at night, but still want to follow the customs, you can always order caffé deka, decaffeinated coffee.
Coffee in an Italian Home
The coffee Italians drink at home is another story. They don’t brew coffee like we do at home, although they do have things similar to Keurig machines here with different brands and different capsules. And no, Italians don’t have big fancy espresso machines in their kitchens. They use what is called a Moka, the typical method to brew espresso at home. No, that’s not the chocolate sauce you get in your Starbucks drink. It’s the brewing machine for a weaker form of espresso ground specifically for it. This little steel pot can be found in every home Italy, with variations of size, color and brand. It is used on the stovetop and brews in a few minutes. I’ll write another post soon about how to use it. If you’re staying at an Air BnB or renting an apartment, there is most likely a Moka in the kitchen, so you’ll need to be familiar with it! More on that in another post soon.
Back home, I was an iced vanilla latte kinda girl, triple shot, with the occasional craving for an iced white chocolate latte when I had a sweet tooth. I would take my to go cup and sip on it wherever I was going. Normal, right? Now, after living here and adjusting to Italian coffee culture, I can’t imagine drinking something so big and so sweet that covers the flavor of the coffee beans. I really enjoy espresso now and appreciate the flavor, aroma, and bitterness. Maybe it’s the fact that my pallet has been trained with all the wine I’ve been drinking, but I can taste the differences in variations of coffee now. I can understand coffee connoisseurs now and am getting more into it myself. Italians typically prefer 100% arabica coffee, which is what you’ll find at most bars.
If you’re really craving a good ol’ cup of American Joe, there are more touristy places that carry it, likely including your hotel if you ask. American coffee will be advertised outside of some bars and easy to find if you keep your eyes open in the tourist parts of town.
Embrace trying new things and you might actually like the way Italians do coffee. You’ll feel like part of the culture and before you know it, you’ll be stopping in to a few bars throughout the day for your fix, just like the locals!