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Order coffee in Italy: a tourist’s guide to Italian coffee culture

Travel in Italy


Let’s start with some terminology: the place where people order coffee in Italy is not called a “cafè” or “coffee shop”, but a “bar”. Bars are virtually everywhere and are always full of people, regardless the time of the day.
When you pop inside and ask for a “coffee” you’ll likely to get an “espresso”, a single shot coffee, to drink in a gulp, standing at the bar. If you want your usual filtered coffee to ask for an “americano”.
But if what you look for is a real italian experience, order italian coffee: one gulp and it will be difficult to love Starbucks as much as you used to.

When to order coffee in Italy: there is more than one reason

Italians don’t drink coffee from jars. It means the don’t prepare a gallon of coffee, leave on the kitchen counter and drink some throughout the day. Italians drink coffee all the time, but what they usually look for is a “single-shot espresso”, burning hot and made on the spot.
That is why you can find a “bar” at every corner, sometimes even three or four on the same “piazza”. Most people will just go in, more than once a day, and ask the bartender for a “caffè”. What they are given is a thick, black shot of pure coffee: they can then add milk or sugar and drink it all in one gulp, standing at the counter. This happens throughout the day. Any reason is good to order a cup of coffee: to wake up in the morning, to survive a tiring working day or to help digestion after a three-course meal . It’s an excuse for meeting friends and something you offer people when they pay you a visit (basically the same English do with tea).
It can also help chill out after a bad day, before heading home after work or university.
Some people won’t drink coffee after dinner, as it may interfer with their sleep. If they still have the urge for the taste of coffee after dinner they can order a decaf, which is also known as “hag”, from the most famous decaf brand in Italy.

How to order coffee in Italy and get exactly what you want

Many tourists enter a bar, sit down and wait for table service. This can often result in them waiting pointlessly for half an hour (and often pay a coffee double its price because of the “table service”). Italians, instead, enter the shop, offer a “ciao” or a “buongiorno” to the owner or bartender and walk directly to the bar. They ask for their coffee of choice, drink it in a gulp and pay directly at the counter. Sometimes signs are stuck on the wall asking customers to go to the cashdesk and pay their bill first. This happens especially in big or crowded venues, to avoid people having coffee and going out without paying.
Now you’re at the bar: it’s very rare to find menus with the options spelled out clearly: you’d better know what you’re ordering in advance, to avoid misunderstandings.

Caffè americano VS caffè espresso: what to ask your bartender

If you want to stick to your usual filtered coffee, just ask for a “caffè americano” or “americano”: what you’ll be served is an espresso with hot water added. Not really how you prepare your coffee in the US, but it is as close a filtered coffee as you can get there.
In case you want to “Do as the Romans do” you have to ask for an “espresso” or simply a “caffè”: you’ll be given a small, hot cup with a gulp of coffee, with a wonderful creamy layer on top. You can ask to add hot or cold milk and have therefore a “caffè macchiato”, while if you want to pour a small amount of liquor (usually cognac or sambuca) to your coffee you will be drinking a “caffè corretto”.
In the last decades many other types of coffee have been added to the menu in italians bars, especially in coffee shop chains or fancy bars, where you can find coffee with different flavors, with crushed ice, cream and chocolate.
If you want to try something different, but still experience an italian tradition, have a taste of “marocchino”. This is a type of coffee created in Alessandria (Piedmont) in the 30s and now loved all over the country. It’s an espresso topped with thick hot cocoa powder and milk froth: still energizing but with more flavor.

Latte, caffè latte e cappuccino: let’s make it clear

Tourists can often be seen drinking a cappuccino after lunch or dinner at a restaurant. This usually results in an Italian passer-by shaking their head like they’ve just witnessed a murder. That’s nothing wrong in doing that, just, if you want to fit in, it’s something you should avoid. Cappuccinos in Italy are mainly ordered for breakfast, alongside with a croissant or a pastry. Sometimes it can be an alternative to espresso or hot chocolate in cold winter afternoon, to sip while chatting with a friend. But it’s nothing more than that. Italians think (with a reason) that dairy products interfer with their digestion, so they avoid drinking milk after a full meal.
Something which often lead to misunderstanding is the term “latte”: a foreigner expects to get latte with coffee and instead get a full glass of milk. That is because “latte” means “milk” in italian. If you want your usual latte you should ask for a “caffè-latte”.

Now you’re ready to order coffee in Italy! And don’t worry, if you feel lost when walking into a bar, someone will surely offer to help, and the servers and owners are usually very friendly and chatty. The main thing is that you take in the atmosphere of “Italian Bar”, breathe in the scent of freshly ground coffee and sweet pastries, and enjoy the taste of real Italian coffee: this is something you’ll never forget.

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