If you are planning a trip to Italy, no doubt you will be stopping for a caffè. In Italy, a cafe is called a bar. As an American, when I hear the word “bar,” I think of a place to order a whiskey, and while you can certainly have a drink, these bars are more geared towards coffee drinkers than those seeking a cocktail. (Although there will always be those who prefer Prosecco for breakfast).
Ordering and drinking coffee probably seem pretty straight forward, especially given the fact that the world is full of Starbucks and Starbucks was modeled after the cafes found in Italy right? Well I am here to tell you that Starbucks and the Italian bar have very little in common. So if you are planning a trip to the old country, let me help you navigate the world of Italian coffee.
For the Italians, going to the bar is all about pleasure. The pleasure of interacting with others. The pleasure of savoring a few sips of intense coffee. You will never, ever find a drive-through bar in Italy to get a coffee “to go” in a paper cup.
*Covid update: because of the pandemic and the on and off closures of bars, restaurants and cafes, Italians have been forced to take their coffees to go in the dreaded paper cup. I will be curious to see how the paper cup evolves in Italy as life starts to return to normal.
Bars are are social gathering places where people see neighbors, friends and coworkers. Italians usually have a specific bar they go to in their neighborhood and near their workplace. The Italian bar owner is going to know you, know your kids and know where you went on vacation. And he is not the only one; the people who frequent that bar are also going to know about your life. No one at Starbucks knew my name or where I worked or where I went on vacation. And certainly, none of the other customers knew anything about my personal life.
Not only is the social aspect of the bar different than that of Starbucks, but there are also differences in the drinks themselves. Don’t expect the Starbucks coffee language to always translate into the Italian coffee language. In Italy latte means milk. If you ask for a latte, you are going to get a glass of milk. The word espresso isn’t really used, and instead, if you want an espresso, you would order a caffè. Also, when ordering coffee in Italy, similar to their cuisine, it is all about simplicity. There are no options to order anything even remotely similar to a half-caff or a skinny or a tall, non-fat drink. In fact, there are no sizes and lowered fat options do not exist at all. (Again, it is all about pleasure).
So, as you can see, there are few similarities between the Starbucks coffee experience and that found in the typical Italian bar. This is where I am here to help. Below are some tips on the most common coffee choices in Italy as well as some pointers on ordering. Before that, a few pics to familiarize you with Italian coffees.
Typically you will go to the cashier and pay for what you want, then bring your receipt to the counter, leave the receipt on the counter and then tell the barista what you want. Of course this can vary and at times you can go straight to the bar and pay later, but paying first is the norm.
Why would I try to tell you how to drink your coffee? Well, you can drink your coffee how you want, but let me tell you what to expect. First of all, as mentioned above, there will never be coffee “to go.” Not going to happen (apart from Covid changes). Coffee is meant to consumed immediately after it is made, at the counter, standing up. Even if you order a croissant (called brioche in northern parts of Italy and cornetto in southern parts of Italy), you will eat that while standing too. Sitting down is okay, but it varies from bar to bar on what you can expect from a service and price perspective. In non-touristy areas, you can usually order your coffee, and if you find an empty table, take your coffee and go sit down (no extra charge). In the more touristy areas, there will usually be someone to take your order and bring it to your table. Expect to pay double for this type of service.
What to order
Below are some of the most common coffee drinks in Italy:
Caffè: The Classic. This will be an espresso served in a tiny cup.
Caffè lungo: This is still espresso in a tiny cup, but they let the water run longer so the cup will be filled to the top and the flavor will be a little less intense.
Caffè Americano: This is espresso prepared in a regular-sized cup, with hot water added to it.
Caffe’ Macchiato: This is espresso with a bit of milk. It will still come in the tiny cup but will be filled to the top with steamed milk – the kind of milk they use when making cappuccino.
Cappuccino: This is exactly the same thing you will find at Starbucks apart from the industrial-sized “to-go” cup. The average size of a cappuccino in Italy is 6-7 ounces.
Latte Macchiato: This might be served in a glass. This drink will consist of hot milk with a bit of coffee. It will be similar to a latte that you get a Starbucks. You can also ask for a caffè latte.
Crema di Caffè: Usually only found during warm months, this is exactly what it sounds like, a creamy coffee, almost like a shake. It could be compared to frappuccino, but instead the serving size is going to be about 3-4 ounces.
Caffè Corretto: This is espresso that has been “corrected” by adding a splash of liqueur. (“Corrected”…ha, ha, ha…love this one!) The liqueur is your choice but could be brandy, sambuca, etc…
If you order a cappuccino or a latte macchiato, it will come out warm, not hot. If you want it hot, ask for: “cappuccino, ben caldo” or “cappuccino bollente.”
Remember the food rules, number 1? Italians do not drink milk after 11AM. Ordering a coffee with milk added to it in the afternoon is a big no-no, and after a meal, it would be a complete sacrilege.
So there you have it. A crash course on the Italian coffee experience. If you were to ask me which one I prefer, I would have to admit I am torn. For as much as I love the Italian way of doing coffee and actually finding it entertaining at times, I also miss the American way as well. Not the crazy combos of drinks, or the drive-through. But I do miss being able to linger in a big comfy chair, listening to Billie Holiday while I work. And many times I viewed Starbucks as an escape from the daily life. A place where I did not have to see anyone I knew. A place for a little peace. And for the 20 oz boiling coffee “to go?” Well, I miss those too. I liked having my coffee with me for a good part of the day. It was like my companion. My friend. And even if I was having a hard day or a tough meeting, there was Mr. Coffee – always at my side supporting me with a jolt of caffeine and giving me a little comfort.
Ordering coffee in Italy, How to order coffee in Italy