As a Romanian coming to Italy, my concept of coffee was not as broad as I thought. I knew the mochas, Frappuccino’s, macchiatos, lattes and other varieties offered at the Starbucks stores and others like it (Caribou was my favorite) and that’s what I thought coffee should taste like. And don’t forget about the coffee made in the morning by our own ‘huge’ coffee machines with hot water; this was how I drank my coffee throughout the day in the States.
I thought the ‘cheap’ espresso on the menus in the coffee shops was just to add another espresso shot of coffee in your drink to make it stronger and I didn’t realize that drinking it by itself was a possibility or even a pleasure.
Drinking coffee where I am from (in a small town in Romania) is a social event that can take at least an hour – you order the Grande mocha with caramel or vanilla flavor and then you take a seat in the comfortable couches throughout the cafe and have a long chat with your friends. Little did I know that in Italy it’s a whole different world when it comes to coffee, among other things of course.
Italy is similar to the social event of drinking coffee and that’s about where it stops. Espresso is ordered and drank at the counter and you rarely find any seats in a cafe, let alone couches, to plop down for a conversation. Instead, you have your chat, or even a sweet or small sandwich, after which you have a ‘quick’ coffee and then go on with your day.
When you drink a coffee in Italy you find a cafe that is usually labeled ‘Bar’ on the outside of the building. When you see this along with a few other words referencing bits of food then you have found a good Italian coffee shop. These are usually frequented by only Italians and will not be the ‘famous’ ones found in the center of the big cities, like Rome, where the tourists will go for coffee or cafe.
Upon entering the ‘Bar’ order your coffee at the counter with the barista and you can pay after. Some places make you pay before but it’s traditional to order, drink it and then pay after you finish.
The barista makes the coffee and serves it to you at the counter.
It’s also customary to stand at the counter and drink your coffee where the barista puts it in front of you. If you want to sit at a table, providing one is to be found that is, then you will most likely be charged a ‘service fee’ for table service. Usually not a lot, but better to do it the Italian style at the counter since you are in Italy.
Certain types of coffee are customary to drink at certain times of the day, but a cafe, or espresso, is the traditional drink of choice throughout the day. There are of course variations, listed below, but to experience coffee in the true Italian way you should have an espresso at least once, add your sugar to taste and see if it suits you. If not, then try any of the other Italian style coffees found everywhere.
Italian Coffee – What and When? ☕
Here is a list of the styles of coffee in Italy and what time of day or where they are normally drank. We suggest trying some of these styles while you are in Italy, at least to say you have had a true Italian coffee:
What is it? – This literally means “coffee,” but in Italy, it’s an espresso. You don’t have to say “espresso” when you order, but if they can tell you’re a tourist, they might ask just to make sure. An ‘americano,’ which is the Italian word for the style of coffee tourists drink with a lot of hot water, is never ordered in Italy unless you are a tourist.
When to drink it? – any time of the day. Morning, afternoon or evening. Always drink it after a meal and not before as it is a digestive assistant and the custom is to order it after you eat something, even if it’s a croissant.
What is it? – espresso topped up with hot, foamed milk. It’s named after the Cappuccini, or Capuchin monks, because of the color of their hoods.
When to drink it – only in the mornings. Milk is seen as a breakfast drink in Italy and so any coffee with milk is rarely ordered after 11 AM. If you order the drink after your lunch or dinner be prepared to get a slightly ‘off-put’ reaction at first as it’s very uncommon, especially if you are dining in very Italian places or staying in small Italian towns. Blend in a little and experience Italy like the Italians, and drink caffè after your meals instead of a cappuccino.
What is it? – espresso “stained” with a drop of steamed milk, it is a small version of a cappuccino.
When to drink it – if an espresso has too strong of a taste for you then this would be your best alternative without ordering a full cappuccino and still blending in as an Italian at any time of the day or night. This version is rare because of the milk added to the espresso and changing the full taste of the beans, but it’s very acceptable as even Italians don’t always like to drink straight espressos.
· Latte or Mocha:
What is it? – hot milk mixed with coffee and served in a glass. The latte becomes a mocha when you add some powdered chocolate.
When to drink it – usually at home and for breakfast. It is rarely ordered in a caffè in Italy. Made at home as an alternative to cappuccinos because it is quicker and easier.
These are the most popular coffee styles traditionally found in Italy, but of course, western (and even Eastern) culture has contributed to the styles here and now there are so many to be found.
Here are some others you may hear being ordered at a caffè/bar in Italy:
Espresso with a dash of hot milk and chocolate powder, or in other words a macchiato/small cappuccino with chocolate powder.
Caffè con cremina:
This is a Napolitan way of preparing an espresso with a special cream. The ‘cremina’ is prepared with sugar and the first drop of the espresso by mixing them together until it creates a smooth cream that is then poured on top of a full espresso. A delicious alternative to a normal caffè.
A normal espresso served in a glass cup instead of the traditional ceramic cup. Many believe that the espresso has a different taste when served in different cups.
Caffè con panna:
Espresso with whipped cream instead of milk. Another tasty and ‘sweeter’ alternative to a normal espresso.
Cold or iced coffee. Normally only ordered in the summer on very hot days.
A double shot of espresso for those that need the extra boost, but be aware that a normal espresso is already fairly strong, so only try this option if a single espresso is just not doing it for you.