We all want to fit in when working or holidaying abroad, don’t we? And I’m sure you have read plenty of articles on the art of drinking coffee the Italian way. Too bad most of them look suspiciously like they were not written by Italian coffee enthusiasts (my personal favourite is the one that refers to milk as “la latte”). Since the main purpose of this blog is to give you a proper taste of Italy and to show you exactly why we are so passionate about our beautiful Country, we thought we’d offer you our own guide to ordering and drinking coffee in Italy like a pro.
Let’s get you to a bar…
You do know that by bar we mean cafe, right? Of course you do, because that’s what most guides to Italian-style-coffee-drinking tell you. I’ll try and break this to you gently: that is not completely right. By bar we mean a cafe AND a bar. Most premises will fall into both categories and serve hot drinks and pastries in the morning, sandwiches at lunchtime and alcoholic drinks and nibbles (what is commonly known as an aperitivo) in the evening. The best way to know what kind of place you are in is to use your eyes: if there are tables, it means this is the kind of place where people linger and chat, be it in the morning over cappuccino and a newspaper or after dinner, over cocktails and olives. If all you can see is a counter, then you are probably in the kind of pit-stop bar where punters go for a quick coffee or a shot of grappa.
Bonus tip: should this be the case, whatever you do, do not try to down a grappa like a vodka shot.
Why all the fuss about drinking cappuccino after noon?
No fuss at all. This, in fact, is where most guides get it quite spectacularly wrong. It is true that cappuccino, in Italy, is mostly a breakfast drink, but I have never seen anyone get a funny look for sitting down at a cafe table and ordering a cappuccino at 4 pm. In fact, I have done it myself hundreds of times. You will, however, get plenty of funny looks, various degrees of giggling and a library’s worth of silent judgment if you order cappuccino after a meal. Coffee, in the Italian tradition, is a digestive. It is meant to be the perfect conclusion to a delicious meal and to prevent you from falling asleep and losing an afternoon’s work because of the superb lasagna you had for lunch. If you add a cup of hot milk to the equation, that poor, tiny espresso will have one hell of a job keeping you awake while your body is trying to digest both the lasagna and the milk. To us, it basically looks like you are ordering a second meal on top of the first one, hence the staring and the big fluorescent “tourist” label you will be carrying around on your forehead for the rest of your stay. It’s just not done.
Bonus tip: if you order cappuccino after a seafood-based meal, you really are asking for it.
Cappuccino, macchiato, marocchino, corretto… what’s what and how to order coffee like a true Italian
Let’s make one thing clear: in Italy we favour coffee-flavoured coffee. You will not get any of that fancy vanilla and caramel nonsense, although you might occasionally have chocolate or hazelnut-chocolate (gianduja) added to your beverage. Here’s a complete list of what you will get, what you can’t get and what you should probably not ask for in your average Italian Bar.
Caffè: it’s what you would call an espresso and by far the most common and best loved caffeinated drink in Italy. If you ask for coffee, this is what you will get. If you ask for an espresso, you will get this and the aforementioned “tourist” label. This particular type of coffee is usually consumed standing at the bar. You will not find filter coffee in an Italian bar and if you do, you can be sure you have wandered into a tourist-trap and should back away quickly. If you find our espresso to be too strong or too bitter or if you fancy a longer chat over your hot beverage, you can ask for a caffè lungo (the machine is left running slightly longer, adding more water and stopping just short of a double espresso), a caffè americano (our idea of what passes for coffee elsewhere in the world: an espresso with enough hot water added to it to fill a teacup), a caffè macchiato (an espresso with a dash of milk in it. The milk might be hot, if you order a macchiato caldo or cold, if you order a macchiato freddo) or a caffè con panna (an espresso with fresh whipped cream).
Cappuccino: depending on where you live, you might be used to cappuccinos being substantially larger and foamier than they are in Italy. A classic cappuccino comes in a larger cup than a caffè and contains an espresso and about twice as much hot, foamy milk. An Italian cappuccino looks exactly like a flat white. In fact, I have no idea why flat whites are not just called cappuccinos and we don’t come up with a new fancy name for the dustbin-sized cups of vaguely coffee-flavoured foam that are all the rage in independent cafes all over the world. If your barista is feeling creative, they might ask if you’d like chocolate powder sprinkled on your cappuccino. Personally I don’t think it adds much to the taste, but it definitely makes the aroma richer and sweeter.
Latte: it means milk. If you order a latte, that’s exactly what you’ll get: a glass of hot or cold milk. And if you try to explain how it really means something with coffee in it and we look at you like you’ve got it completely wrong, it’s because… well, you have, really. If you are after the kind of tall drink that goes under the name of latte in most countries, you should ask for a latte macchiato, which is basically a caffè macchiato with an inverted ratio: an espresso added to a whole glass of milk. Your latte macchiato might be chiaro (literally: light) if you want it definitely on the milky side or scuro (literally: dark) if you want it darker and stronger and tasting more like a cafe au lait. If you want a skinny latte, a vanilla latte, a caramel macchiato or a chai latte, you should go to Milan and look for the only Starbucks store in the whole of Italy, because you have no hope of finding any of those anywhere else in the Country.
The fancy stuff: there’s plenty of it. We do like to experiment with our coffee. A national favourite is marocchino – which in some southern regions is called espressino – which is essentially an espresso with chocolate added in some form or other. Each bar has its own recipe, which might involve chocolate topping sauce at the bottom of the cup, chocolate powder on top of a layer of milk foam or possibly both. A marocchino always comes in an espresso-sized cup. If you are feeling adventurous, you might order a caffè corretto, which means that a small amount of liquor, usually grappa or sambuca, is added to your espresso. This mix is especially popular in Northern Italy and it is considered to be a perfectly acceptable morning beverage. Ginseng: it’s not coffee, it just looks like coffee and it is the acceptable alternative to coffee for those who want to steer clear of caffeinated drinks, but still want to share the social ritual and get a little extra energy boost. It tastes like liquorice (or, more likely, ginseng) and it will broadcast to the world that you are a healthy-eater and possibly a morning-runner.
If you are doing business in Italy or just visiting but hoping to skip the tourist trails and hang out with the locals, you should be aware that coffee, to us, is first and foremost a ritual. Inviting someone for a coffee is the universally acknowledged way of telling them that you want to be friends with them, fancy them, want to discuss business with them or that you have finally forgiven them for stealing your client, accidentally running into your new car or forgetting your birthday for the fifth year in a row.