How to order and drink coffee in Italy

coffee culture italy how to drink coffee like an italian4

As a non coffee drinker, I do enjoy all the disappointed tourists trying to order latte in Italy and their frowns after receiving a plain cup of milk. Maybe that is my sarcastic nature, who knows. So after speaking with some Italians who answered all my coffee questions, I decided to gather them all together with my impressions and maybe help a poor lost soul venturing into their next trip to Italy.


Let’s start with the fact that there is no Starbucks in Italy. At least not yet. They announced the opening of their first coffee shop that is scheduled to arrive in 2017 in Milan. Did you know Starbucks’ founder was inspired for his successful business after visiting Italy? Italians have a strong and very old coffee tradition and habits, so a Starbucks sounds like having a Pizza Hut chain in the paradise of pizza. That is why now everyone is really curious to see how Starbucks will be accepted.
Actually there are not that many food chains in general especially in the smaller cities. In fact, a lot of the food chains are not international, but founded locally. Like the gelato shop Grom that can be found now even outside of Italy. Most coffee places are family owned or small independent ones, sometimes there are so many on the street you would wonder who needs that much coffee. From waking you up in the morning to a good finish of every meal, coffee is essential part of the daily routine.

Italians don’t sit for hours in cafes, reading or doing their job while drinking coffee. Espresso is usually drunk in less than five minutes standing at the bar, sometimes accompanied with a croissant for breakfast. Of course if the place has more tables and you really want to sit, you can do that. But keep in mind that the price for your coffee will probably be different. Sitting on a table apparently makes your coffee more expensive. The price can vary from 30 cents to pretty much double the price depending on how small is the city and how fancy is the bar. Of course at touristic places, you have to be extra careful. If the place offers lunch, you probably won’t be allowed to sit on the table and drink coffee at lunch time. They are usually reserved for people having lunch. Also, if you are used to taking your coffee to go, you might be surprised that most coffee places in Italy actually don’t do “to go”. As explained above, 5 minutes are enough to swallow your espresso shot so there is no point. Though the chances for take away might be slim, in big cities there are quite a few places that can accommodate your specific personal coffee habits.

If you feel lost at Starbucks sometimes with all the different types of coffee beverages, don’t think that espresso can be simple. It also have quite a few variations. Let’s see the most basic ones.

coffee culture italy how to drink coffee like an italianFirst things first – when you say coffee (in Italian Caffè ) this means espresso and that is how things work. Everything else you prefer or want to add, you have to specify. Espresso is a short and strong drink usually about 25 ml and served in a small cup that looks like a shot.

Caffè ristretto is even a shorter and more condensed version of the normal espresso (around 20ml or less).

Caffè doppio – would be for those that are really not a morning people as it has 2 shots of espresso in one cup.


coffee culture italy how to drink coffee like an italian 2
Caffè macchiato is the same shot of espresso, but with some milk in it. You can order it with steamed milk (macchiato caldo), with cold milk (macchiato freddo) or with froth milk (macchiato con schiuma di latte). Phew!
Caffè corretto – adding some liquor to the espresso. You can ask the bartender for a specific kind of liquor, but it is usually made with grappa, brandy or sambuca.
Caffè Americano can be your savior if you are not used to the strong taste of the espresso. Hot water has been added to the coffee after it is brewed. Not to be mistaken with double espresso or long espresso (Caffè lungo). In the last one there isn’t that much water and it has been added during the process of brewing.

coffee culture italy how to drink coffee like an italian 3

Latte is milk. Yes, plain milk, though if you are lucky you might get milk with foam.  The popular American drink latte is shortened from the word Caffè latte and you will need to specify that in order to get something similar.

Latte Macchiato is a layered drink (while Caffè latte is nicely mixed). Half a shot of espresso is added to the milk as well as a good amount of foam on top. Latte Macchiato is based on milk, while in Caffè latte the emphasis is on the coffee.

Cappuccino is made of equal parts espresso and steamed milk. At the end a generous amount of foam is added. Sometimes the ingredients are divided into 3 equal parts. You might have heard that cappuccino is not socially acceptable to be ordered after 11. While this rule is not that strict nowadays, it is still the norm, because cappuccino is considered a breakfast drink. Milk is bad for digestion, so ordering a cup of cappuccino after your lunch will earn you some weird looks.

Edit: A few more tips send by a lovely reader.

– Cinnamon isn’t usually added to cappuccino. Cocoa powder is more frequent, upon request, of course. And adding BOTH? Bleeeeh!
– Whiskey & cognac are other liquors added to “Caffè Corretto” more so than sambuca or anisette.
– Lastly, don’t forget to try an “Affogato di caffè” when you go to the gelateria. It’s gelato “drowned” with espresso. Yum!

coffee italy traditions