Coffee culture is sacred in Italy.
There are coffee rules, rituals, menus, customs and etiquette, which can be unfathomable to the visitor. Italians take this very seriously, and learning how to order coffee in Italy can feel like navigating a cultural minefield.
Don’t be marked out as a tourist. Learn how to order a coffee like a local with my three-step guide plus all you need to know about the different types of Italian coffee.
History of Coffee in Italy
Italy is responsible for introducing coffee to the rest of Europe.
Despite an appeal to Pope Clement VII to ban coffee – instead, he sanctified coffee in order to banish the devil from it – Venice started trading in coffee in 1624. Appetite for the drink grew and the first Italian coffee house opened in the port city around 50 years later.
By 1763, there were 218 coffee shops in Venice.
Coffee houses soon became synonymous with a comfortable atmosphere and lively conversation. Today, coffee culture is one of the things for which Italy is best known.
Modern Coffee Culture in Italy
Watch this two-minute video for an excellent insight into modern-day Italian coffee culture.
Ordering Coffee in Italy
To make sure that you don’t fall foul of the cultural rulebook, follow these three easy steps to order coffee in Italy like a local.
Step 1: Find a Bar
Let’s clear up a potential source of confusion first. In Italy, coffee is not served in a café (il caffè) but in a bar (il bar).
A bar in Italy is not like the bars you may be used to at home. Although an Italian bar will also sell sandwiches, pastries and alcohol, coffee is their main trade.
Reflecting their importance in Italian culture, bars are liberally sprinkled throughout Italian cities, towns and villages. Trust me; you will have no problem finding one.
Step 2: Choose your coffee
Before you approach the barista you will need to decide which type of coffee to order.
If you ask for “un caffè (oon caf-EH) per favore ” you will get an espresso in return.
In touristy spots, there’s sometimes an assumption that you will be after a weaker coffee. If you want to make it clear that you really do want an espresso you can also ask for a caffè normale.
Personally, I loathe American-style drip coffee. But if that’s your preferred caffeinated drink, then you’re out of luck. It just isn’t on the menu in Italy.
The closest to a drip coffee in Italy is a caffè Americano or caffè lungo which is a shot of espresso topped up with hot water.
I usually opt for an espresso or a caffè macchiato.
Step 3: Order your coffee at the bar (al banca)
Now that you’ve chosen your caffeinated nectar, you need to know how to order coffee in Italy.
I can understand if you find this a little daunting, particularly if you’re jostling for space in a bar packed with locals and haven’t yet honed your Italian language skills. But just follow these tips for ordering coffee and you’ll be fine.
A heads-up first.
Italians rarely linger over a coffee. Instead, they line the bar, chug down their coffee in two or three sips, and then they’re on their way. An espresso is a quick caffeine refuel.
Although it is not immediately obvious, in some busy Italian bars you pay first at the cash register (cassa). Ask for the coffee that you want and hand over your money in exchange for a receipt. Don’t lose this!
However, in other Italian bars, you order first and pay later. When you have finished your coffee, hand over your receipt and pay the cashier or the barista.
If you are not sure which ordering system is operating, hang back for a minute or so and watch a local order. Then you copy him or her. Easy.
What you don’t want to do is to succeed in ordering your coffee only to be told that you need to pay first.
Next, shuffle your way to the counter (bancone). Don’t expect this to be like ordering coffee in your local Starbucks back home.
If you stand patiently waiting, you may never get served. If it’s busy, wait for a gap to open up at the front.
Although it may not give the appearance of it, there is some order. Therefore, don’t push in front of people.
When you get to the front of the counter, place your receipt in front of you. Make eye contact, smile at the barista and repeat your order. A cheery “buongiorno” (bwon-JOR-noh), or “buona sera” (BWON-ah SAY-rah) if it’s after lunch, goes a long way.
You will know that your coffee is on its way when the saucer and a spoon is placed on the counter in front of you. When your coffee arrives, drink it as quickly as you can to make room for the next person.
Sitting down to drink coffee in Italy (al tavolo)
Although you may be able to find a bar with seating in Italy, especially in the more touristy areas, it’s not how the locals drink their coffee. Also, you will pay a surcharge to take a seat in an Italian bar.
Popular Types of Coffee in Italy
So, now that you have learnt how to order a coffee in Italy, let’s take a closer look at the types of coffee that are guaranteed to perk up your day.
This is a short, very strong, single espresso, served in a small cup with sugar to hand if you need it. The existence of crema, foam made by the oils in the coffee beans, on its surface is a good indicator of its quality.
2. Caffè lungo
Confusingly, this is not a long coffee as you might expect, but has around double the water of a regular espresso.
I usually plump for a caffè or a caffè lungo when I am in Italy.
3. Caffè Americano
Although shorter and stronger than American drip coffee, this is more dilute than a caffè lungo. In some bars, I have been given an espresso in a larger cup, and hot water in a small jug for me to dilute the coffee to the desired strength.
Familiar to most people, this hot drink is a combination of espresso and full-fat milk, is finished off with steamed milk froth. The ratio of the three ingredients is more or less equal.
Although a cappuccino will be a longer drink compared with a caffè, caffè lungo or caffè Americano, don’t expect anything approaching the vat-sized measures that you get at home. Because of this, a cappuccino in Italy has much more flavour than you would get from drinking one in a coffee chain back home.
For this reason, I never drink a cappuccino at home but I will happily order one at the bar in Italy.
5. Caffè latte
A caffè latte doesn’t have the same popularity in Italy as it does in other countries. A weaker coffee drink than a cappuccino, a caffè latte is essentially one part espresso to two parts hot milk, topped with just a little bit of milk foam.
Whatever you do, don’t ask for a latte. This translates as milk and you are likely to be handed a glass of the white stuff.
6. Caffé macchiato
A caffé macchiato is a far more common coffee in Italy. Broadly speaking, there are two variants:
- Caffè macchiato – This is an espresso that is stained (macchiato) with milk
- Latte macchiato – The reverse of caffè macchiato, this is warm milk stained a shot of espresso.
As macchiato is an adjective in Italian you need to be specific. If you just ask for a macchiato, the barista will not know if you wish to order a caffè macchiato or a latte macchiato.
7. Caffé macchiatone
Think of the macchiatone as a cousin of the caffè macchiato, having the same amount of coffee but a little more milk.
Served in a cappuccino cup, this is made up of espresso and foamed milk. It is a popular type of coffee in the north of Italy, particularly in the Veneto region.
8. Caffè ristretto
Is an espresso not strong enough for you? Then try a ristretto, also known as caffè corto. Short of sucking on a coffee bean, this is the closest that you will get to ordering pure coffee.
You’ll be bouncing off the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon.
9. Caffè marrochino
This is the closest thing to a Cafe Mocha in your local coffee shop.
Created in Alessandria in Piedmont, caffè marrochino consists of a shot of espresso, cocoa powder and milk froth. In some regions of northern Italy, thick cocoa or Nutella is added.
These layers of deliciousness are served in a glass.
10. Caffè cioccolato
This is my new caffeinated crush in Italy.
Caffè cioccolato is simply a shot of espresso mixed with cocoa, the taste of which should linger long after you have taken your last sip.
11. Caffè corretto
Welcome to the Italian equivalent of Irish Coffee, minus the cream.
This caffeinated taste of heaven consists of a shot of espresso with a small amount of alcohol. This is usually grappa, but can also be sambuca or brandy.
Usually, you will be served a ready-made caffè corretto simply with the alcohol already added to the espresso shot. In some cases, a shot glass of alcohol is served separate from the coffee to allow you to add the amount that you want.
If you are very lucky, you’ll be presented with a bottle of booze. However, that privilege tends to be reserved for regular customers.
12. Caffé shakerato
I love the name of this Italian coffee. If this doesn’t describe how it is made, I don’t know what does.
A typical summer drink in Italy, caffè shakerato is made by vigorously shaking together a shot of espresso and ice. This light drink is served in a tall glass and is topped by a cloud of foamy froth.
The barista will ask if you would like your caffè shakerato dolce or zuccherato (in which case sugar will be added) or amaro (bitter). You can make it more special by adding whipped cream, chocolate or a shot of sweet alcohol.
13. Caffé freddo
Caffé freddo is pretty much your bog-standard iced coffee. This drink is simply espresso shaken with ice and sugar until it has a slightly frothy head.
14. Caffè affogato
I do love a caffè affogato.
Part coffee, part dessert, this is made by adding a shot of freshly made espresso to a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass. Caffè affogato translates to drowned coffee in English.
15. Caffè con panna
For another decadent coffee, ask for a caffè con panna.
This is a shot of espresso topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream. You can also order it in an Italian patisserie (pasticceria).
Ordering decaffeinated coffee in Italy
Do you want to cut down on caffeine? If you want a decaf coffee, ask for any of the varieties above adding decaffeinato (day-caff-een-AH-toe). Except for ristretto that is.
16. Caffè d’orzo
Are you looking for a caffeine-free drink that isn’t your usual decaffeinated coffee?
Caffè d’orzo made from barley (orzo) is naturally caffeine-free and a popular type of coffee in Italy. You can order it just like you would order regular coffee: for example; espresso, cappuccino and macchiato.
17. Caffè al ginseng
For something a little bit different, and more than a little bit trendy, try caffè al ginseng. But be warned; this tastes nothing like coffee.
Caffè al ginseng is prepared with ginseng root extract mixed with coffee. Typically twice the volume of an espresso, it has a (very) sweet and nutty flavour.
It’s also reputed to be an aphrodisiac.
18. Caffè doppio
At the opposite end of the caffeine scale, there’s the caffè doppio, or double espresso.
It’s the equivalent of a turbo-boost for the day.
Regional Coffees in Italy
If you really want to blend in, bone up on your regional coffee cultures. Although espresso is ubiquitous, there are many regional twists as you travel across Italy.
For example; Neopolitans enjoy their coffee with hazelnut flavouring. Travel to Padua for a 19th Century coffee tradition called patavina, combining espresso with cream, then finished with a dash of mint syrup and a dusting of cocoa.
Bicerin is the speciality of Turn, comprising layers of coffee, chocolate and cream in a glass.
And that’s your list of choices people.
“But what about my flat white?” I hear you cry. Sorry, it’s not available in Italian bars.
However, you may be able to buy one in big cities. Here, they are sold in the type of coffee shops that you may be more used to outside of Italy.
Vocabulary for Ordering Coffee in Italy
Now you know more about the different types of Italian coffee, what other vocabulary will be useful in an Italian café? Download, print or share this handy infographic as a quick reference guide.
Ordering Coffee in Italy: FAQs
What is the price of a coffee in Italy?
Reckon on paying around €1 for an espresso in Italy.
This cost can double or triple if you choose to sit down, especially in very touristy areas. Always check beforehand how much you will pay to drink your coffee sitting down.
In Rome, coffee prices are regulated by the local government and are kept low for the Romans, provided they drink it standing up at the bar.
Bringing home coffee from Rome
To bring a taste of Italy back to your own kitchen, pick up coffee beans or ground coffee at Castroni. They also sell other edible goodies. Branches across the city.
Do you need to leave a tip when ordering coffee in Italy?
This is likely to bring many North Americans out in a rash.
Tipping is not common practice in Italian bars. The exception is the south of Italy – in Naples for example – when a glass of water is provided.
If you feel compelled to leave a tip, 10 to 20 cents is more than enough.
What is Italy’s most popular type of coffee?
Known the world over, cappuccino is probably Italy’s most famous coffee.
Why is coffee in Italy so good?
Make no mistake; coffee in Italy is in a whole different league. Bars use high-quality beans and their machines have brewed thousands of cups of coffee, the taste of which is infused into each new cup.
Is coffee in Italy strong?
Yes; Italian coffee is very strong. However, it is rarely bitter and, instead, is very fragrant.
What brand of coffee is popular in Italy?
The most popular brands of coffee in Italy are Lavazza and Illy.
Illy’s Arabica coffees are more popular in the north of the country.
Southern Italians tend to prefer the stronger flavour of Lavazza’s Arabica-Robusta blends. There are three Lavazza manufacturing plants in Italy: in Turin, Gattinara and in Pozzilli.
Ordering Coffee in Italy With Confidence
This post was originally published on The Flashpacker