First published November 2012, updated for International Coffee Day, October 1st 2017
All you need to know about how to drink coffee in Italy like a local.
You might think the coffee bean is simple. Think again! An oval brown shaped bean originally discovered in Africa and the Middle East and harvested for hundreds of years, one can never underestimate the complexity of ordering a coffee wherever you might be in the world!
Even at your commercial coffee chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee you’re faced with a thousand and one options from decaf, latte, soy (latte di soia) to skim milk (latte scremato), vanilla and frappaccinos. Italian coffee culture is no different. In fact, it’s considered an art here in Italy!
While un caffe (known in the western world as a short black or an espresso) is the classic choice for most Italians on any occasion, there are a range of types to choose from. So it would seem that one thing’s for sure – no matter where you are ordering a simple coffee there are many things you need to know!
So here it is – what you need to know about coffee in Rome and your step-by-step guide on how to order coffee like an Italian. Grab a notepad and pen. After reading this Italian coffee guide, you’ll be sooo Italian that you’ll scoff at the very idea of being offered a percolated coffee!
Grab a coffee… Cafe vs Bar
Let’s get things clear straight off the bat… a bar is the Italian name given to what we know across the world as a cafe. If you’re not a local you might be a little overwhelmed on first entering a bar because all eyes will be on you. So effectively every move, every look, every word, needs to be carefully thought out so to succeed in this very basic transaction which is undertaken by an Italian every day!
In Italy, the bar is where it all happens.
5 minutes flat!
You walk in to the coffee shop and make your way to the register, you order and pay, take your receipt to the bench, tell the barista what you want, drink it whilst catching up on the latest social gossip and then you’re out the door…. all within a 5 minute time span!
So you enter a bar. The first thing you need to do is find the cassa (the register). Then join the queue (yeah right! Is there really a queue system in Italy??) and order what you want.
Un Caffe = Espresso (Short black)
Un Caffe macchiato = Espresso with a little drop of milk on top
Un Cappuccino = Cappuccino
Un Caffe Americano = Long black coffee with milk (Flat white)
Un Caffe Latte (or Latte macchiato) = Latte
Oh and you should also know these terms for milk:
Latte = Milk
Latte Caldo = Hot milk
Latte Freddo = Cold milk
Take your receipt and make your way to the banco (the bench). Find a spot. It may be empty, it may be full but rest assured spaces free up very quickly – but be Italian in nature and squeeze your way in.
So you’ve now managed to find yourself a little spot, you think to yourself “This is ok! No one’s got any idea that I’m not Italian… but now let’s just get that coffee! Then… it hits you.. a) is the bar manned? b) if so, have they acknowledged you? c) if not, what do you do next? Facing the ‘barista’ coffee maker (whether they are looking towards you or not), just say it… just get it out of the way and say it… that’s right, give your coffee order like you’ve been going there since 1973.
And don’t forget to add a “grazie” at the end.
The saucer is placed in front of you like a symbol that your place in this world has been noted and your duly owed coffee is coming right up. The teaspoon is also placed on the saucer and then just with one glance away and then back at the bar, the coffee is in front of you. “Hmmm where’s the sugar?” you ask yourself. That’s right, here’s your next obstacle, and ensure you get the pronunciation right or you could be ordering ‘sugar of a joint’ instead of brown sugar! Ask for zucchero (white sugar) or zucchero di canna (brown sugar).
For those hardcore cream fans why not go the full Italian experience and top your coffee with some cream but don’t give away your non-Italian identity by asking for bread, pane. Cream is panna.
As a bonus for ordering your coffee, you almost always get a complimentary glass of water so in case the barrista does ask, be prepared. Apparently in the south of Italy they drink the water first then the coffee, here in Rome however they more so drink it after the coffee but ultimately it’s a personal decision. I know I like the lasting taste of coffee on my tongue so why wash it away so quickly? Water terms that you should become familiar with include:
Acqua = Water
Acqua natural (or liscia) = Still water
Acqua frizzante = Sparkling water
Acqua da’rubinetto = Tap water
Drink your coffee – don’t sip it! It should be drunk in no more than 3 swigs. That’s right. This is not your normal sit down-sip your coffee for half an hour-type experience. Coffee drinking in Italy is literally seen as a pick-me-up, a quick break, a quick hit.
So you’ve done so well to get this far to pull off being an Italian, so don’t slip up now. Drink it…. but then… do you lick or just place the spoon back on the saucer once you’ve used it? Some Romans say that’s it’s seen as very bad manners to lick it but I think sometimes some of the best foamy part is on the spoon and Italian or not I am going to lick that spoon!
So there you have it! But let’s get down to some serious business.
Italian coffee terms and drinks
Those in need of a stronger kick start to the day here’s your answer:
Caffe corretto = Espresso with liquor (usually grappa, sambuca or brandy)
Caffe Shakerato = Blended espresso with ice, vanilla liquor or Bailey’s Irish cream
Need something to cool you down on a hot summer day:
Caffe freddo = Cold espresso
Caffe latte freddo = Cold latte
Cappuccino freddo = Cold cappuccino
Number 1 Tip for Ordering Coffee in Italy
Just when you think ‘OK phew, it’s out there, I’ve fooled them’ the barista says back at you “Latte caldo?” and you think to yourself “What the?” They’re asking you “Do you want hot milk (with your coffee)?” And if you are getting milk, check your watch and make sure it’s not after midday. Milk consumption on a full stomach is almost outlawed here as Italians firmly believe that the milk interferes with the digestion of food. Avoid the death stare and order a caffe.
And there you have it – our step-by-step guide to Italian coffee…. easy right? We guarantee you won’t go wrong by following our tips. And if you’re looking for a bar to test yourself, here are our tips for the best coffee shops in Rome:
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