Five Things You Should Know Before Ordering Coffee in Italy

Adventure in life is good; consistency in coffee even better.”
~ Justina Chen

My mother was always a big coffee drinker.  She would brew an entire pot in the morning, drink a cup or two and drink the rest sometime during the day.  I hated coffee and didn’t touch the stuff until I hit 40.  I used to say she drank enough caffeine during her pregnancy to last me the rest of my life.

The first time Mike and I came to Italy, we brought Mom to celebrate her 75th birthday.  We sat down for lunch the first day, and she ordered coffee.  She looked at the small cup, took one sip, and almost spit it out on me.  The next morning, she ordered coffee with breakfast, and when another small cup arrived, she refused to even try it.  “I’ll have some tea,” she announced, and for the remaining eight days, she refused to drink anything but water or tea.

The problem was that none of us realized at the time, that coffee in Italy is different.  Here are a few tips to help you the first time you walk into a bar in Italy.

Espresso is to Italy what
champagne is to France.
~ Anonymous

1.  If you order caffé, (aka coffee), you will get what Americans call “espresso.”  At the end of dinner, the waiter may ask you if you want caffé, and he means espresso.  Caffé is not something over which Italians linger.  Throw your head back and suck it down.  If you want a weaker caffé, you can order caffé lungo which is espresso with about a double pull of water.  If you want what Americans consider coffee, you need to order a caffé americano, and what you’ll usually get is caffé and a pot of hot water so you can make the coffee how you like it.

Caffe…aka espresso

Two things to note here: A-Italians don’t order “espresso.”  They order “caffé.”  B-Italians call caffé americano “dirty water.”

2. If you order a latte in Italy, you’re going to get a glass of milk. (I made this mistake the second time  we came to Italy after I’d started drinking coffee. I’ve not made that mistake again.)  Many American coffee bars call a cup of espresso and steamed milk a latte, but latte is actually the word for milk in Italian.  A caffé latte is steamed milk (no foam) and espresso, and it usually comes in a glass and not a cup.  A latte macchiato is steamed milk stained with espresso.

I like cappuccino, actually…
~ David Lynch

3.  If you order cappuccino, you should do it in the morning (before 12:00).  Seriously.  Italians drink coffee with milk only before lunch as they don’t think milk on a full stomach is a good idea.  I had an interview with someone from the Bologna Tourism Board two years ago, and we agreed to meet at 3:00 pm for caffé.  She told me in no uncertain terms, that I could not order cappuccino. Seriously.  A cappuccino has a nice, creamy foam on the top, by the way.  You can have it with or without cocoa, usually.


4. If you ask for a non-fat, no whip pumpkin spice latte in an Italian bar, you’re going to get a strange look.  Coffee in Italy is sacred and simple. I actually have a few friends who will not even add milk or sugar to it, and I’ve never seen flavored coffee (although I’m sure it exists somewhere to please the tourists’ tastes).  There are a few regional exceptions to this rule, though.  You can get a marrochino in Umbria and Lombardy (a cup layered with ground cocoa, milk foam, and espresso), a caffé nocciola in Napoli (caffé with hazelnut cream), and a bicerin in Torino (a carefully layered drink consisting of drinking chocolate, espresso, and thick cream served in a wine glass).  (I just gained 10 pounds thinking of that drink.)  You can also have a caffé corretto which is caffé with a spot of liquor.


5. If you order a caffé and pastry and sit down to enjoy them, in many cities (aka tourist areas), you will pay extra.  Italians are, as I said, serious about coffee, and they don’t dawdle over one cup all day (which, as I noted, would be pretty difficult given the fact that they get so little in one cup… but I digress). I know I have mentioned this before, but Mike and I stopped in a bar in Venezia in 2010 and ordered two cappuccini (spelled correctly….. That’s the plural in Italian.) and two brioche.  The barman asked us if we were going to sit, and we said we would.  We ended up with a 17-18 euro bill (the equivalent of about $20 at that time) for sitting.  At the bar, we would have paid 5 euro.  Lesson learned.

As a side note, I do not find that in Sulmona or Bologna, for the most part.  There are places on the tourist route (Strada Maggiore) that will charge a euro or two more if you sit, but it’s rare.

Cappuccino and brioche

Now, if you will excuse me, it’s my last night in Bologna for a bit, so I’m going to make the barman’s hair turn grey and order a cappuccino (It’s 7 pm here.)

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