Coffee in Italy is a serious thing. There are various kinds of Italian coffee you can drink – either at home or at a “bar” (AKA, an Italian café). And there is a certain – though unspoken – etiquette to drinking coffee, which establishes what to drink when, how to order coffee, how to drink it, the amount of time and even personal space you take to drink it, and so on.
Italians consume copious amounts of coffee. Italians see coffee as a pick me up as well as a social thing. There is no better excuse to meet than coffee – especially when the weather is nice and you can sit outside.
If you are traveling to Italy and want to get your Italian coffee facts right before your trip, you are in the right place. I am coffeeaholic (is that even a word?) and I will share all my knowledge.
Let’s start with kinds of coffee you can expect to taste.
Coffee In Italy: 15 Different Kinds Of Italian Coffee
Caffé literally means coffee. It is the generic word we use to refer to coffee when it comes plain, with no milk. At home, coffee is usually made with a “moka” – the Italian coffee pot. If you go to a café and ask for a coffee (or a caffé in Italian), you will get an espresso.
Espresso is the most famous kind of Italian coffee. We normally just say caffè to refer to espresso – nobody really orders an espresso. It’s such a popular coffee drink that Italy is seeking UNESCO status for it.
There is no such thing as a double espresso in Italy. If you want a longer shot, just order a “caffé lungo.” You will probably get a dirty look by your barista!
If you want your espresso with a drop of milk, make sure to order a caffé macchiato (pronounced mah-kyah-toh). Macchiato caldo comes with a drop of hot frothy / foamed milk; whereas macchiato freddo has a drop of cold milk.
Caffé al vetro
The only difference between a regular espresso and a caffé al vetro is the cup it is served in. Vetro in Italian means glass, so this kind of coffee is served in a small glass cup. Personally I don’t think there’s any difference between this and a regular espresso, but lovers of caffé al vetro will disagree.
As the material is different, coffee served in a glass cup cools down quicker. If you put sugar in it, this won’t entirely melt so your coffee will have a bit more of a bitter taste. There’s also the psychological factor of actually seeing the coffee through your cup that to many is particularly enticing.
A shot of espresso, spiked with your choice of liquor – it usually is either grappa or sambuca. The idea of adding liquor to coffee comes from the need of warming up against the winter cold – the liquor gives the coffee and even more warming feeling.
Decaffeinato literally means decaf – you can pair the word with cappuccino, macchiato, etc. But if you just say “un decaffeinato” you will get an espresso in its caffeine free version.
One of the strongest tasting coffee you can get; it is like a super short espresso.
Contrary to common misconception, ristretto or espresso don’t have more caffeine than other kinds of coffee. In fact, it’s the opposite. Caffeine dissolves in water, so the more you leave a coffee to brew, the more caffeine you get. A French Press, where coffee infuses for 4 minutes, has way more caffeine than an espresso.
Together with espresso, it’s the most famous coffee drink in the country. Italians will have it for breakfast, together with cornetto (this post explains about Italian cornetto e cappuccino breakfast). It’s made with espresso, steamed whole milk and milk froth. It only comes in one size – unless you are at an airport. The foam is just enough to get to the brim of the cup.
In recent years, it’s become more common to find lactose free milk or soya milk at bars in Italy, so even vegans or lactose intolerant people can enjoy a cappuccino.
Make sure to read my post What To Have For Breakfast In Italy.
Pronounced mah-row-keen-oh, this is similar to an American mocha, but in a much smaller cup, and usually glass. It is made with espresso, steamed milk and cocoa powder, with an added sprinkle of cocoa powder on the foam – but no whipped cream.
Also called caffé latte, it’s what most Italians would have at home for breakfast (and surely what I had growing up). It literally is a combination of hot milk with coffee.
If you order caffellatte at a bar, however, you will get a large glass of steamed milk with some froth on top, and an added espresso shot. The main difference between a cappuccino and a caffellatte is the proportion of the ingredients (caffellatte has way more milk) and the size (caffellatte is larger). Also, caffellatte doesn’t have foam.
Latte in Italian means milk. If you order a latte at a bar in Italy, you will get a glass of milk, either hot or cold.
Steamed frothy milk served in a glass with literally a drop of espresso. It’s a pretty white drink actually, and only slightly resembling a coffee flavor.
Americano in Italy is a shot of espresso in a large (usually a cappuccino) cup, served with a small pot of hot water on the side, which you can add to taste. If you want a big of a stronger drink, you can ask to have it “doppio” which means your barista will put two doses of coffee powder in your espresso.
Caffé shakerato or freddo
One of the best ways to enjoy Italian coffee in the summer is to have it cold (freddo). A good caffé shakerato or freddo is prepared by pouring cold espresso over ice cubes in a shaker, and giving it a good shake until it becomes frothy.
Caffé al ginseng
Espresso prepared with ginseng extract and a good dose of cream, it normally is sugared so it ends up being very milky and sweet. It is not lactose free, so not a good option if you are lactose intolerant or vegan.
Roasted barley apparently has a very similar flavor to coffee, so if you want something mild that is 100% caffeine free you should opt for a caffé d’orzo (ohr-zow) instead. Italian mothers give it to children as they grow up, to get them accustomed to the flavor of coffee.
I have fond memories of my mom melting “orzoro” (the caffé d’orzo powder) in my hot milk for breakfast, so that I could dunk my cookies in it.
How To Order Coffee In Italy
Now that we are all clear on the Italian coffee department, here’s a bit of coffee etiquette.
What to drink when
Most Italians see cappuccino as strictly a breakfast drink. Having it up until 11:00 am is perfectly fine. Drink it in the afternoon and people will think you are weird (I admit to being weird).
Order cappuccino after lunch, and you’ll be frowned at. Order it with a meal, and most likely the waiter will pretend he didn’t understand and – if you insist – he’ll tell you that you are making a big mistake. Italians think drinking anything milky with or after a big meal is gross, and it doesn’t help digestion.
If you don’t like straight espresso, which is what we’d have after lunch, order a macchiato. That is perfectly acceptable, though not common.
Don’t expect to see a menu
There’s no such thing as a menu at a proper old-fashioned bar here in Italy – not unless you go to an upscale one and ask for table service. So, memorize your favorite Italian coffee from the list above and be prepared to place your order.
The average cost of a coffee in Italy is €1 euro for an espresso and €1,30 for a cappuccino. Prices vary slightly between north and south, large city vs. village and even within a city, depending on the location, so you will occasionally find places that ask for just €0,80 cents for a coffee and others that charge way more (my brother in law paid €12 for a coffee at a Michelin starred restaurant!)
Pay for your coffee first
Unless you are having your coffee at the table, in which case a waiter or waitress will come to take your order, you usually need to pay before you drink your coffee. This means lining up in front of the cashier to place your order and get the credit slip.
It would seem easy enough – except, Italy! There are lines, and there are Italian lines. If you are on the short side and / or a woman people may try to pass in front of you, pretending they didn’t see you, or that they didn’t understand you were in line.
Stand your ground, watch intently in front of you, with purpose, and look around to make sure that nobody arrives to pass in front of you. If they do, be prepared to let them know that you are in line indeed.
Once you pay for your coffee, you will be give a credit slip – we call it “scontrino.” This is your proof of payment. Hold on to that and go to the counter, and make yourself very visible to the barista to place your order again.
Counter or table service?
Most Italians drink coffee at the counter in the morning because they are in a rush to get to work, and an espresso is literally only two sips anyways.
However, if you want to take your time just find yourself a table and make sure the waiter comes to take your order – in this case, you don’t need to pay for your coffee before you sit. Be advised that coffee at the table is slightly more expensive.
To sugar or not to sugar
You normally find tiny sugar bags – white, brown and sweetener – either at the counter or at the table. Most people in Italy do put a little bit of sugar in the coffee – usually a small spoonful, which is the equivalent of a sugar bag.
Tipping for coffee
Tipping is not really a thing in Italy – at most, we round the bill up and leave the change. That goes for coffee too.
Check out my post Tipping In Italy: When To Tip And How Much.
I think the only place where I see coffee-to-go in Italy is at the beach, where kiosks would serve it in tiny plastic or paper cups you can take with you to your umbrella. Some places are now offering coffee to go – this is a common service in city center where people buy coffee for the office. I am hardly a fan of it – by the time coffee arrives, it’s cold already!
Making Italian Coffee At Home
If you enjoyed your coffee in Italy so much that you want to make it at home, you will need the following items:
- A good espresso machine like this one. There are many on sale for various prices, but the cheap ones tend to break easily. The best coffee comes from machines that have been used for a while, so keep making it for best results.
- For home-made Italian coffee, get a good Bialetti Moka like this one. They come in different sizes.
- Good ground coffee or coffee beans, if you have a coffee grinder. Illy is the best coffee in Italy and you can easily buy it online here.
- A set of espresso coffee cups. The best ones have truly thick ceramic, so that they hold the heat of the coffee for longer. You may opt for these ones.
If you are planning a trip to Italy, make sure to read the following posts:
- What To Do And What To Avoid When Planning A Trip To Italy
- 67 Extremely Useful Travel Tips For Italy
- The 19 Best Movies About Italy You Need To Watch
- 17 Reasons To Visit Italy As Soon As Possible
- 30 Unmissable, Fun And Cheap Things To Do In Rome
- A Wonderful Itinerary For 5 Days In Rome
- A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia
- An Excellent Guide To The Best Beaches In Sardinia
- 5 Excellent Reasons To Go On A Day Trip From Florence To Cinque Terre
- 13 Fantastic Day Trips From Milan
- Seventeen Incredible Things To Do In Venice
- Ten Reasons To Visit Trentino In The Summer
- A Fantastic 8 Days Sicily Itinerary
- A Great Guide To The Things To Do In Catania, Italy