Italians are famed for making the best coffee in the world. Their coffee culture is extremely sophisticated and goes back a long way: they invented the espresso and all its derivatives. But the world of the Italian café can be confusing to the uninitiated. This guide and glossary will help you order a coffee in Italy – and don’t miss the warnings at the end of the article.
Unless you’re already Italian or an espresso aficionado, you probably drink your coffee long, sipped and savored over several minutes sitting at a table, or from a cup as you walk down the street. And when we get into the world of frappuccino and all that other stuff (which, by the way hardly exists here at all), your coffee might come in a 20-oz cup and be full of creams, ice creams, syrups and sugars and can be enjoyed over the course of an hour or two.
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But in Italy a coffee is usually taken like a shot – an amazingly short espresso, incredibly strong, usually with a single sugar and maybe a macchiato (stain) of milk – and is something to be consumed instantly while standing up while on one’s way somewhere else. An ‘express’ drink, in fact.
On any given morning if you go into a ‘bar’ (which in Italy really means café – they do serve alcohol but that’s not their primary purpose and many bars don’t stay open late) you’ll see crowds of people standing at the bancone (bar). They chat excitedly while wolfing down a sweet croissant clutched delicately in a napkin, knock back a short cappuccino, and go on their way, immediately to be replaced by someone else. The whole operation usually takes two or three minutes. This is breakfast for a vast number of the working people of Rome. So popular is it that most bars offer “cappuccino e cornetto” as a special discount deal in the mornings. Many of them will be back to the same bar at lunchtime for a panino or a salad.
In the bar there are unwritten rules galore, and the entire experience can appear offputting for a tourist, and leave you wishing for the certainty of ordering an awful coffee in a Starbucks. But don’t miss out – it’s actually good fun, delicious, and the locals will make allowances for you being a foreigner.
Here’s how to do it.
It’s not obvious, but in most busy places, you have to pay first (though in less busy places the system will be more laid back and you will often not need to pay until you’ve finished consuming everything). Go to the cassa (cash register), say what you want, and hand over the tiny amount of money required.
Coffee prices in Rome are regulated by the city and remain low provided you drink it standing up – more about this at the end of the article! A standard espresso is between 80c and €1 these days, and a cappuccino is between €1 and €1.20. You’ll be given a receipt – hold on to this.
Go to the bancone. If you’re there when it’s crowded you’ll need to be patient. Wait for a gap to open up at the front, but don’t push in front of people who’ve been there longer than you, especially if they’re clutching their receipt too. It doesn’t look like an orderly line, but there is order: people usually silently note who was there before them, and respect that. So just chill, take your time, and you’ll eventually be filtered to the front.
When you get there, put your receipt on the bar in front of you. When you’re acknowledged with a nod of the head, smile at the barista and say hello! “Buongiorno” (bwon-JOR-noh) or if it’s after lunch, “buona sera” (BWON-ah SAY-rah). Repeat what you want to the barista (see “what to order” below).
Your place will be assured when the saucer and a spoon is placed in front of you. Now relax, chat to your neighbors if you can, and watch the incredible skill of the barista at work. When it’s busy they look like octopuses, tapping, winding, pouring, scooping and making several orders all at the same time.
Finally your coffee arrives and is placed on the saucer and it’s time to drink your drink quickly, then politely leave to let someone else take your place at the bar.
What to order
Un caffè (oon caf-EH), “a coffee”, is the default setting and it is always an espresso. This will get you a very short, very strong espresso, and if it’s well made it will have “crema” on it – not dairy cream, but foam made by the oils in the coffee beans which are a guarantee of strength and quality. You will likely finish it in two or three sips.
- Un cappuccino. Asking for the familiar frothy cup gets you what you expect, but note: in the birthplace of the cappuccino it’s seen strictly a breakfast drink, and it’s alien to order it after 10.30am. And particularly not after eating: Italians regard the foam in cappuccino as ‘heavy’, something that should not be consumed before you eat because it will spoil your appetite, and definitely not something to be dumped on top of lunch. Of course nobody’s actually going to refuse you a cappuccino whenever you want it, and I sometimes brave the occasionally shocked expression of the barista to order afternoon cappuccini when I feel like it, but when in Rome…
- Un caffè lungo is not a “long coffee” as we would understand it. It’s a single espresso, but made with about double the water of a regular one. It’s still a very short drink.
- Un caffè doppio. Double espresso, still very short, and eye-wateringly intense. If you want to be bouncing off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, this is the drink to ask for.
- Un caffè americano gives you a single espresso in a bigger cup with hot water – this seems more familiar to the non-Italian, but it is still quite a bit shorter and stronger than American filter coffee. If you’re lucky you get given an espresso in a larger cup, and the hot water comes in a jug for you to administer it yourself. Sometimes the barista doesn’t really know what you’re asking for and may put in too much water, and in rare cases they think you want either bad filter coffee or worse, instant coffee.
- Latte. If you ask for one of these, you’re literally just asking for a glass of milk. If you want a milky coffee you must ask for “un caffè con latte” – a coffee with milk, or un caffè latte.
- Un caffè macchiato is an espresso which is just “macchiato” (stained) with milk, often a flick of cappuccino froth.
- By contrast, un latte macchiato is warm milk stained with coffee (usually a single shot of espresso dropped into a small mug of warm milk). Note: since macchiato is an adjective, if you just ask for a “macchiato” it is not always obvious to the barista whether you mean a caffè macchiato or a latte macchiato! You must be specific.
- Caffè con panna is coffee with cream but again beware – cream is not a standard accompaniment to coffee, so it’s unusual to be offered this, and when you are it is often sweetened whipped cream from a spray can.
- Want a decaf? It’s almost the same word – any of the above can be asked for decaffeinato, but say “day-caff-een-AH-toe”.
- “Flat white”. Forget it, doesn’t exist!
A few things to note:
Normally on the bar there is white and brown sugar, sachets of sweetener, and sometimes a bowl of sweet frothy cream with a spoon in it. This latter substance is called crema but it is not cream! It’s insanely sweet, made with the coffee oil foam (crema) that generated when running off a dozen or so espressos in the morning to get the machine running, which is whipped together with sugar. It is used in place of sugar and is delicious.
Note that panna (cream) in coffee, or artificial creamers, are not generally used in Italy. However it is increasingly common to find soy milk available in bars in Rome.
Very important: prices for coffee are regulated by the local government and kept low for the working people of Rome, but only provided you order and drink your coffee standing up at the bar. If there’s table service, or if you take your drink from the bar to a table, you’ll often be charged extra. This extra charge is to pay the salary of the waiter/waitress as tipping is not normal here. In really touristy areas such as Piazza Navona this can be very problematic, and such bars can sting you to absurd levels when seated (I got charged €4.50 for a €1.20 cappuccino the other day near Termini because I sat down), so always check beforehand how much they charge if you want to take your coffee to a table.