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
I like the Italian way for coffee. I have a local bar across the bridge from my apartment where I go every morning. I love to watch the locals in action and I miss it when I am back in Australia.
Hi Debra! I love the Italian coffee experience too..I keep calling it “experience” because it really is! It is a whole package deal…and it is fun….even after all these years of living here and countless coffees….it is still a lively part of my day.
All true. However, more and more, you can find a similar atmosphere and even higher quality in cities like Cambridge Ma (http://tattebakery.com) and Paris (https://plus.google.com/+COUTUMECafeParis/about?gl=it&hl=it). Mahee Ferlini
Hi Mahee! Yes…totally agree. The world is becoming a smaller place. We are all influencing each other. Just as there are Italian style cafes in the States, there are places similar to Starbucks in Italy. (Although there are many Starbucks throughout Europe, they have yet to be found in Italy). Thanks for the comment!
I love this post so much. It reminds me of the times we used to meet at that cute little coffee place on Burnet! Remember??!! Of course I am sitting here and cannot remember the name of it! But it is still there!!! I loved those times with you!
Awwww Sheri! I KNOW!!! What fun!!!! Pacha was the place, right??? Well….we have PLENTY of coffee adventures waiting for us next time you come to visit here! 🙂
I still remember the face of my Latvian friend when I told her that back in Italy I used to go to the bar everyday before going to class! 🙂
I have read your article 4 times already and can’t get enough! It’s so sweet the way your are talking about our caffè that is almost touching! I have to admit I am definitely not the typical Italian someone expects to meet but moka is the very first thing I put in my suitcase every time I move out, because I just can’t get up from the bed if I know that my caffè is not there for me and I can’t smell its flavour…
What about all the other variants to those “normal” orders? What about all those long structured names, like un caffè macchiato freddo in tazza grande? 🙂 Sometimes I don’t even understand what people want to order 🙂
Hi Silvy!!!! Sei proprio carina….mi fai ridere! you packed the moka!! ha ha, ha…sei fantastica! Poi…hai ragione….I have a friend who always ordered: “caffe d’orzo – tazza grande” ha, ha, ha…..so, yes…for sure there are the crazy names here too…I guess just not used as often as at Starbucks. Buona Domenica!
Love Italian coffee bars – there is no better place to have a coffee!
Hi Joy! I know…..so satisfying – – every time!
Great guide! The only thing I would be sad about is the no milk after 11 and especially after a meal because I don’t like coffee without milk 😦
Hi Mani! I know…..I break the rules and order coffee with milk in the afternoons…especially when it is cold…so satisfying! Have a good Sunday!
Such a civilized way to live. Enjoying your coffee at the bar, not rushing out to drink it in your car.
And I stopped going to Starbucks years ago because I thought I would go postal if I had to stand behind someone ordering a half caf, extra hot, no foam, skinny, caramel mochaccino ever again.
Ha, ha, ha….I know Nancy…aren’t those names funny!??!?! I have to admit that coffee here is fun…you see friends, chat a bit, and really enjoy your coffee. Although lowered fat options are not available, you don’t even worry about calories because the serving sizes are all normal. Hubby and I drop the kids off at school every morning, then go to the bar for our coffee. It is a nice way to start the day.
It sounds like a wonderful way to enjoy coffee and there are so many possibilities!
Hi Meg….yes….love the “corrected” coffee….THAT options does not exist at Starbucks! 🙂 Have a good Sunday!
I don’t know if I could really get used to the Italian way! Even in the Netherlands, the custom is quite different from in Canada – no drip coffee, most coffees served in teeny tiny cups … but at least you can sit down with them. Like you, I really miss the 20 oz to-go coffees that accompany you all morning! They truly are like companions!!
Well….here you can sit down as well – – and many people do. But usually it is just to chat with friends (not to read or work), but about 70% of the people will just get a coffee at the bar.
I miss my coffee companion, but I also like getting a coffee at the bar. I am completely torn on this one because they are totally different experiences. I love the social aspect of getting a coffee anywhere in Italy. The bar is always a lively place where everyone is happy and feeling good. I admit the “fast-food” aspect of Starbucks kinda creeps me out (drive-thru and super sweet, fattening drinks).
Anyway….luckily I can appreciate both, so I am covered. 🙂
Wow! You really have said everything there is to say about coffee! And with such precision. Brava!
There are many Starbucks here in the UK but I never have any of those funny coffees as I hate those big mugs they serve their coffee in and their coffee is bland and boring.
It is so true Italians are basically obsessed with coffee and they love it really hot. If you go to Naples they can get it down even hotter.
I love going to bars but more in Italy than over here as the price for a cup of coffee is ridiculously expensive and the coffee is not that good either. That’s why I need to go to Italy regularly!! So I can charge up my batteries!
Che bell’articolo mi piace un sacco. Bacioni!
Hi Alida – – – prossima volta che sei in Italia, forse possiamo prendere un caffè insieme! Baci!
I also like both. Funny – in Dubai I always had to change the type of coffee I made depending on who was coming over and where they were from. One time I forgot and made drip coffee for a Jordanian woman and she was really shocked at the size of my coffee cup – just a normal sized cup?! She thought it was giant and of course was even more surprised when I told her I usually drink 2-3 of them each morning. 😉
I know….coffee is so different all over. Remember Greek place?? They used to serve real Greek coffee…with the grinds at the bottom. Did you ever have coffee there?? Anyway…I still miss my coffee companion even if the coffee is super delicious here.
You almost make me want to be a coffee drinker 😉 I like the Italian approach – everything is sociable. It can probably get a bit much when everyone knows your business but it’s nice that people take the time to stop and talk as well!
PS. Your ‘coffee’ Italian is excellent 🙂
Hi Linda!!! Yes….I admit that it is fun to go for a coffee anywhere in Italy…it is always lively. You see??? When there is actually a subject I have interest in, somehow I am able to speak Italian very well! I assume you are a tea drinker?
Yes, I am! The main reason I never go to Starbucks unless I’m really stuck 😉 I don’t think I’ll ever find it difficult to find another option in Berlin though!
“Coffee keeps me busy until it’s time to get drunk” – that’s one of the little postcards we have in our kitchen here – substitute tea and it fits me perfectly 😉
“Coffee keeps me busy until it’s time to get drunk” ha, ha, ha….perfect!!! And the tea version is perfect too!!!
Diana, this is such an informative post! It would be so valuable for any coffee drinker heading to Italy. Because I’m pretty shy and usually travel alone, I had the hardest time with drinking my caffe at the bar. But, arriving at Il Termini, I’ve finally become used to a quick espresso (with one sugar!) before heading to my hotel. Brava, mia amica! Renate
Ciao Renate! Thanks for the re-post…and I am shy too, so I know what you are talking about. Glad to see you enjoy your espresso…maybe one day we can meet and enjoy one together! Take care!
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Thank you Diana for the helpful information. Italian coffee bars are the best, and upon our many visits to Italy we still made a few faux pas and ordered Cappuccino after dinner. Lucky for us all the waiters were very forgiving. Can’t wait to move back to Europe and spend more time in beautiful Italy 🙂
Hi there! Thanks for the comment. Glad you found nice waiters during your visit! Now that you mention Europe, it would be interesting to collect coffee etiquette in each country. Anyway…thanks again for the comment…
Wonderful! An interesting cultural comparison. Do they go in for decaf there much, by the way?
Hi Graham! Yes….actually they will do decaf in the evenings. Usually after dinner. But there are still those who can drink a strong espresso and still go straight to sleep.
Italians definitely know their stuff with coffees! Thank you for sharing this useful post 🙂
Thanks for stopping by! Yes….they DO know and love their coffee…this is a fact! Have a good week! 🙂
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It is interesting to hear about Italian coffee culture, especially that there is no coffee to-go. When I was visiting a Nordic country, my hosts were confused when I said I wanted chai latte to-go because I was very cold (it was below -15 C). They asked why I would want to drink my tea while walking. Tea/coffee was to be consumed at home or a café while sitting down, they told me.
Yes…I guess the “drink while walking” is not a very European thing to do. Below -15!?!?!? YIKES!
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