Coffee culture is an essential part of Italian life, akin to an art-form and nigh on a religion. There’s a myriad of coffees on the menu from Espresso to Caffé Shakerato – then there are the two, three or four different ways they’re served. Coffee is a serious past-time in Italy and comes with its own etiquettes and customs. Let’s get to grips with the ground rules – just so we don’t commit any Italian coffee faux pas.
Where to drink your caffé
In Italy a bar is not a bar, at least not like the bars we’re familiar with in the UK or USA. In Italy it’s actually a café (caffé) and sells snacks, pastries and alcohol but mainly it sells coffee. Fast coffee. Coffee on the go.
Un Caffé (Espresso / Caffé Normale / Short Black)
Italians drink lots of coffee – they drink it small and they drink it fast. A pick-me-up and a quick caffeine kick. ‘Caffe’ is what we’d call an Espresso – it’s served, not too hot, in a petite cup and saucer – thick, dark and without milk. It’s ordered at the till and downed, like you’d slam down a shot, whilst standing at the counter (al banca). This all takes less than five minutes at a cost of under €1.
In Italy it’s not usual to sit at a table (al tavolo) and linger over un caffé unless you’re in a tourist area where it’s accepted. However, if you want to take your time and indulge in a bit of people watching (like I do!) whilst sipping your Macchiato you’ll be charged accordingly – around €6.
When to drink your Cappuccino
You’ll get a few odd looks from the locals if you order a Cappuccino or milky coffee post 11 a.m. or after a meal. A milky drink on a full stomach is most definitely frowned upon. So if you must order a Cappuccino post dinner at least have the decency to look embarrassed!
Now that you have the low down on some of Italy’s coffee customs it’s time to inspire you with some Italian coffee creations. Guaranteed to perk up your day…
Un Caffé – An Espresso
You can take your Espresso (never eXpresso) short (Ristretto) or long (Lungo) depending whether you like your Espresso with more or less hot water – it’s not as diluted as an Americano and more authentic. If you need a proper caffeine hit go for a Caffé Doppio (Corsivo) which is simply a double shot espresso.
This is a long black coffee, espresso topped up with hot water, and my choice for an after dinner coffee – a neat espresso would keep me awake – the same amount of caffeine, I know, but it’s all in the mind!
Caffé Freddo or Cappuccino Freddo
This is iced black coffee that has usually already been mixed with sugar and chilled in a bottle in the fridge. If you don’t want it sugared ask for ‘non zuccherato‘. It’s served in a glass (al vetro).
If you don’t fancy a milky coffee but can’t do without a dash of milk then a Macchiato might be your answer. An espresso stained with a tiny froth of milk and served in a demitasse cup.
The Shakerato is a shot of espresso, lightly sweetened and shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. A delicious cloud of foamy froth tops off the glass and a vanilla liqueur is sometimes added. The perfect pick-me-up for a hot summer’s day.
Translates as summer coffee. Basically an espresso topped with con panna (cream) and buckets of foam. Looks pretty but there’s a lot of foam (shiumato) to get through before you hit the espresso.
I love the way the name implies that your Espresso is faulty until it has been ‘corrected’ with a sneaky dash of grappa, brandy or liqueur. I find Tia Maria works well – maybe I should research further on this one.
An espresso with added ginseng extract. A definite pick-me-up…
We all love a Cappuccino – espresso with steamed, frothy milk added so that there is a clean layer of milk foam on top. Served in a larger cup (tazza grande). Coffee art adds to the look with intricate patterns and designs. Add chocolate shavings and you’ve got Cappuccino con Cioccolato. Don’t forget though – not after dinner…
If you order a latte in Italy you’ll get a glass of milk and probably an odd look. In Italian latte means ‘milk’.
Caffè Marocchino aka Espressino or Mocacchino
Served in a glass demitasse – so you can see all those layers of gorgeousness. The inside of the glass is sprinkled with cacao (chocolate powder) followed by a shot of espresso and topped with a generous dollop of milk foam. If there’s not enough cacao a further sprinkling tops off this little gem of a coffee. Wonderful.
I hope I’ve provided a little enlightenment on Italian coffee culture and whetted your appetite with a little coffee inspiration.
What’s your favourite coffee tipple? Come on spill the beans…
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Suzanne Jones is creator, writer and photographer at The Travelbunny. When she’s not indulging her wanderlust you’ll most likely find her enjoying coastal walks in her home county of East Sussex, UK.
Suzanne co-writes Sussex Bloggers which showcases the best of East & West Sussex.