Italian Coffee: What You Really Need to Know

Italian Coffee: What You Really Need to Know

There are some benefits to the pervasiveness of Italian culture around the world. Most of us are familiar with food words like “ragu” and “spaghetti,” even if we’ve anglicized the pronunciation or usage. 

“Ciao” is a greeting that transcends languages – it’s used all over the world – even though in Italy “ciao” should be used with caution.

With coffee, however, our familiarity with the likes of Starbucks-esque coffee shops actually puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to Italian coffee culture. It’s a bit like the differences between American English and British English – it’s really easy to presume you know what someone from across the pond is saying, because you understand each word, but the connotations of those words can be very, very different on opposite sides of the ocean.

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FLORENCE CHIANTI TUSCANY ITALY

Italian coffee language will probably sound a little familiar, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you understand it without a little background information.

Let’s get you on the road to Italian coffee fluency, shall we?

Where to Get Coffee in Italy

Barista || creative commons photo by brunifia
Barista || creative commons photo by brunifia

The word in Italian for coffee is “caffè.” Which looks like “café,” as in the place you’d go to get said coffee, but that’s not what Italians call coffee shops. Italians go to a bar to get coffee in the mornings.

Sometimes that bar has coffee and pastries in the morning, followed by sandwiches and coffee at lunch, and then is closed by mid-afternoon. Sometimes that bar switches over to cocktails and pretzels for aperitivo.

The important thing is that when you want coffee in Italy, you’re on the lookout for a bar.

Italy’s Morning Coffee Ritual

Caffe e cornetto || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved, may not be used without permission
Caffe e cornetto || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved, may not be used without permission

And speaking of getting coffee in the mornings, this is when you’ll see the biggest crowds of Italians at the bar – when they pop into their local for a few minutes to throw back a quick caffè and eat a cornetto on their way to work. That’s breakfast, Italian-style.

Italian bars get really, really busy during the morning rush, so you may need to (gently) push your way into a spot at the counter to get service. The policy on paying at each bar will differ – you might pay a cashier first and take your receipt to the counter so the barista knows what you want, or pay the barista directly, or pay a cashier after you’ve finished – so watch what others are doing.

It can be nice to leave a coin (nothing big, maybe 10 or 20 cents) on the counter for the barista, especially if it’s busy.

Don’t Bother Sitting Down

At the bar || creative commons photo by Kmfougere
At the bar || creative commons photo by Kmfougere

A typical Italian coffee is a single shot of espresso served in what might look like a doll’s tea cup if you’re accustomed to getting coffee in a 20-oz paper cup. It doesn’t take long to drink, though, which is part of the reason most Italians just belly up to the bar, swallow their coffee (as they munch on a pastry), and skedaddle off to work.

The other reason? Many bars will charge more for whatever you order if you sit at a table instead of drinking and eating standing up. Keep that in mind if you’re on a budget.

Espresso vs. Drip Coffee

Espresso machine || creative commons photo by Jimmy G
Espresso machine || creative commons photo by Jimmy G

Espresso might taste stronger to some palates, but the amount of caffeine in a coffee drink has everything to do with how long the water spends in the coffee grounds. In other words, drip coffee is far more caffeinated than espresso, and French press is more caffeinated still.

This, coupled with the small size of a typical Italian caffè, means you should feel free to follow the Italian lead and pop into a bar a few times a day for a quick jolt to keep you energized.

That Famous 11am Cappuccino Rule

Cappuccino || creative commons photo by Billy Wirawan
Cappuccino || creative commons photo by Billy Wirawan

So, your neighbor heard from her cousin who heard from his best friend, etc. etc., that you shouldn’t drink cappuccino after 11am in Italy, and when she hears you’re taking an Italy trip she passes that tidbit on to you. Well-meaning people do this all the time, passing on what feels like insider information but turns out to be gossip, rumor, or – worst – something based in truth but delivered in a way that’s misleading.

I’d put the whole 11am cappuccino rule in the latter category.

I wrote a whole article about why you think you shouldn’t order cappuccino in Italy after 11am, including some history of the name of the drink, so I’d encourage you to read that for the full story (Go ahead, I’ll wait).

For this abbreviated version, suffice it to say that it’s a belief that milk causes indigestion that keeps Italians from drinking milk-based beverages after meals. You might get some funny looks from waiters when you order a cappuccino after dinner, but in most cases you’ll get what you order.

Coffee Vocabulary You Need to Know

Caffe corretto || creative commons photo by Takumi Yoshida
Caffe corretto || creative commons photo by Takumi Yoshida

You could order a caffè every time you set foot in an Italian bar during your vacation and have a delightful Italian coffee experience. And, if you want to expand your coffee repertoire at all, you’ll need some additional vocabulary.

  • americano (ah|mehr|ee|KAH|noh) – A shot of espresso with a bit of hot water added, a caffè americano is sort of a midway point between an Italian caffè and American drip coffee, though still served in a small cup.
  • caffè (kah|FEH) – This word means “coffee” in Italy, and is the term for a straight shot of espresso. You wouldn’t order “un espresso” at the bar, you’d order “un caffè.”
  • cappuccino (kah|poo|CHEE|noh) – The perfect cappuccino is supposed to be equal thirds of coffee, steamed milk, and foam. Learn more about where the cappuccino gets its name.
  • corretto (kohr|REH|toh) – The word means “correct,” and in the context of coffee it means putting a shot of liquor in with a shot of espresso. It’s a common after-dinner drink, usually with something sweet like Sambuca or Baileys, but Grappa is a common “correction,” too.
  • Dietor (dee|eh|TOR) – This is basically Italy’s Sweet’n’Low, a saccharin sugar replacement. It’s usually in little packets with the sugar on the counter. It’s a brand name, hence the capital D.
  • doppio (DOHP|yoh) – The word means “double,” so if you want a stronger drink (albeit still small) ask for “un caffè doppio.”
  • espresso (ehs|PRESS|oh) – While you’re probably familiar with this word, it’s not the one you’ll use to order a shot of coffee in Italy. That word, listed above, is caffè.
  • freddo (FREH|doh) – The word means “cold,” so keep this term handy for a caffeinated summer drink. It’s not an iced coffee, though – “un caffè freddo” is just a shot of espresso that’s cooled down from simply sitting at room temperature or by spending a short amount of time in the fridge.
  • granita (grah|NEE|tah) – Granita is a combination of some flavoring with crushed ice. It’s not quite a Slurpee or SnoCone, but those ideas will at least get you in the right direction. These come in lots of flavors, usually fruits mixed with ice, but there’s a coffee granita – “una granita di caffè” – that’ll knock your socks off. 
  • Hag (ahg) – This is a brand of decaffeinated coffee that’s become the general term for decaf almost everywhere. The actual Italian word for decaffeinated is “deca,” if you aren’t getting anywhere with “un Hag.”
  • latte (LAH|teh) – In Italian, this word means milk, nothing more. Forget what Starbucks taught you, ordering a latte in Italy won’t get you a coffee drink. The rough equivalent in Italy is “un caffè con latte,” though (again) that’s a small drink. Asking for “un caffè latte” means you’ll get a tall glass of steamed milk with a small shot of espresso in it.
  • lungo (LOON|goh) – The word means “long,” and refers to the amount of time taken to pull a shot of espresso. A long shot, in this case, means a slightly bigger coffee than a normal Italian caffè. It’s not as big of a coffee drink as an americano, but it’s all been pushed through the espresso grounds as opposed to water being added to a single shot.
  • macchiato (mah|KYAH|toh) – The word means “stained,” and in this case it’s referring to the “stain” of milk in a shot of espresso. It’s usually just a little bit of milk, mostly coffee, but it can take the edge off the bitterness if strong coffee isn’t your favorite.
  • marocchino (mah|roh|KEE|noh) – The word means “little Moroccan,” which, yes, sounds more than a little weird. (I don’t know the origin of the name, but I sort of think it’s not good.) In some parts of Italy, this drink may be called an “espressino” instead. It’s made up of a shot of espresso, a layer of milk foam, and a sprinkle of cacao powder, and it’s often served in glass cups with metal handles. This, incidentally, is my favorite coffee drink in Italy.
  • panna (PAH|nah) – The word means “cream,” which you may remember if you read my article on ordering gelato, since you might be asked if you want your gelato con panna. You might want a bit of whipped cream on your Italian coffee, too.
  • ristretto (ree|STREH|toh) – Whereas “un caffè lungo” is a shot of espresso with a little more water in it than a standard shot, “un caffè ristretto” has a little less water in it than usual.
  • shakerato (shay|keh|RAH|toh) – This is another hot-weather coffee treat to look out for. It’s a combination of a shot of espresso, sugar, milk, and ice that gets shaken in a cocktail shaker until everything is mixed and cold. It’s poured into a glass, but without the ice.
  • zucchero (TSOO|keh|roh) – The word means “sugar,” and in most bars it’s in little packets in bowls on the counter. Italians like sugar in their coffee.

Non-Coffee Drinks to Order

Cioccolata calda || creative commons photo by Herrick
Cioccolata calda || creative commons photo by Herrick

  • caffè d’orzo (KAH|feh DOR|tzoh) – Despite the word “orzo,” this coffee substitute is made with barley. You can get any of the coffee drinks listed above made with caffè d’orzo, provided the bar has it. I’ve not tried it, though I hear from friends that no, it doesn’t taste like coffee at all. It’s not bad, it’s just not coffee.
  • cioccolata calda (cho|koh|LAH|tah KAHL|dah) – The phrase means “hot chocolate,” and it is, honestly, more like a dessert than a beverage most of the time. It can be thick and pudding-like, or it can just be a rich, chocolate liquid. Either way, it’s an awesome cold weather treat. Learn more about Italian hot chocolate.
  • (teh) – This means “tea.”

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