Even if you’re decked head to toe in Gucci and are sauntering around Venice, Florence or Rome with all the panache of an Italian superstar, there’s still a very simple way to tell whether you’re a local or not: how you order coffee.
Believe it or not, there is a huge (and unhelpfully unspoken!) protocol for ordering coffee in Italy. Of course, many of you won’t actually give a stuff and you’ll boldly step forward and order whatever the hell you like. Mocha-choca-frappa-latte, please.
However, if you do care about being judged by the Italians for your poor coffee choices – and trust me, even the friendliest Italians will judge you (it’s in their DNA, they can’t help it) – here’s my guide to ordering coffee in Italy.
Want to grasp how entrenched the Italian coffee culture is in Italy? Starbucks didn’t open in Italy, in Milan, until around 2017. And there’s some debate about whether the brand will succeed there.
The Types of Coffee in Italy
Let’s start with the types of coffee in Italy. I don’t know about where you live but in England the list of coffee kinds is starting to get out of control. A menu for wine I accept, but for a shot of caffeine? I’m not so sure. Yes, choice is good but any coffee list that splits across two full-sized wall boards seems excessive, even for this 5-cups-a-day kind of girl.
That’s where I think Italy does things well. There’s a very small choice of coffees to choose from. They are:
This is a single espresso that comes in a thimble-sized cup…ok, it might be a bit bigger than that, but it’s definitely tiny enough that it could fit inside a decent-sized dolls’ house. There will be sugar and a tiny spoon to hand if you need it and if you’re really lucky, you’ll procure a small biscuit. Because, who doesn’t need a hit of sugar to rev up their caffeine?
A word on ordering “espresso” – the word ‘espresso’ isn’t used by Italians to order their coffee – it’s something the baristas use to describe how to make the coffee. So, stick to caffè or you might find yourself on the wrong side of the bar, complete with an apron and a pay cheque.
A word on double caffè – If you want a double (doppio) caffè, just wait a minute and order a second coffee. Locals don’t tend to double-up in one cup.
As above, but a caffè lungo is served with a bit more water, which is what I tend to prefer because it loosens the intensity of the espresso and it means I get to sip it a bit longer. Still, don’t expect a mug of coffee when you order it (or, indeed any coffee in Italy).
If you enjoy the thick density of a short espresso, give the ristretto a go. In this case, you’re practically dispensing with the use of water and ordering something close to pure coffee. Drink this sparingly, especially if you’re due to sit in a confined space like a car all day.
You probably know what a cappuccino is but for those who don’t, it’s a combination of espresso and whole/full-fat milk that has been steamed into a froth. Although it’s a longer drink compared to any of the above, don’t expect anything near the pint-sized versions you might be able to get at home. And don’t even think about swapping out the milk type – if you want a diet version, just order a caffè (more hints and tips for pernickety patrons below).
A caffè latte actually has two variants in Italy:
- caffè macchiato – this one is mainly espresso with a shot of milk
- latte macchiato – this is the reverse, mainly milk with a splosh of espresso
And that is the end of the list.
Let me repeat: that’s all, folks.
Sure, it’s a far cry from the stack of options you’ll find in most mass coffee shops, but it’s what the Italians drink and it’s pretty much all they drink when it comes to coffee. If you discover some other variant, it’s most likely been put on the menu to test whether you’re a tourist.
What Coffee to Drink When
You might well think that, equipped with the Italian coffee list, you’re ready to go forth and order, but you’re only half way there because what to drink is only part of the equation. If you really want to know the local rules for coffee ordering in Italy, you also need to understand when to drink it.
I was somewhat devastated when I found out that ordering a cappuccino after lunch was the fashion equivalent of wearing socks and sandals (apologies if I’m the one breaking that fashion faux pas to you – seriously, your friends never mentioned it?).
It’s not so much that I enjoy a cappuccino after a big meal – outside Italy, I consume cappuccino never. It was more the fact that I knew the word and it was easy to order. However, it was this small piece of information that inspired me to find out more about Italy’s coffee etiquette.
Fathoming which coffee goes with which time of the day can seem like an intimidating process but I’ve adopted a general rule that keeps things simple – if it contains milk, don’t order it after breakfast.
Not so difficult after all.
But what if you REALLY, REALLY want a cappuccino after lunch? First, make sure you’re not wearing socks and sandals when you order (Italy might implode if you throw two no-nos at it in one go). Then, explain your mis-step to the waiter in the same way you might if you were ordering a coke during happy hour at a mojito bar (though keep in mind you’re going to have to come up with something more convincing than the fact that you’re driving or pregnant, or both).
How to order coffee in a cafe
And then there’s the actual ordering process. Many people find this bit the most challenging part of all (particularly if you’re in a bar packed with local men and you’re the lone, foreign, five-foot tall woman, just sayin’).
The first thing to understand is that Italian’s still drink their coffee in old-skool-style bars rather than the 21st-century sleek coffee shops most of us are used to. You’ll know when you’ve found one – the bar will be lined with people standing, sipping thimbles of coffee.
The problem for new-comers (translation: ‘tourists’) is that if you stand patiently like you might in a Starbucks, you’ll likely never get served. Never. Ever. Ever.
Instead, you need to approach the ordering process as though it’s 12am in your favourite bar and they’ve just called last orders – get stuck into the rabble, raise a hand if you need to get attention, wait to lock eye contact with the server and confidently speak/shout/scream your order.
How to pay for your coffee
I know how to pay for a coffee, you might think. Well, let me disabuse you of that notion.
It’s long baffled me how the Italians have ended up with the convoluted payment system they have for pretty much everything. And it doesn’t help when it comes to ordering coffee.
In most Italian bars when you order your coffee you’re given a small slip of paper, which serves as your bill. Once you’re finished, you pay the bar person or the cashier, if there is one.
However, in some circumstances, just to intimidate and confuse foreigners more, you might have to pay in advance. In that case you need to order your drink from the cashier, pay the cashier and then take your slip from the cashier to the bar. If all coffee prices are the same (not that you will necessarily know this), you’ll probably also have to tell the server what drink you’ve ordered. Fortunately, this reverse payment process is usually more typical in places like airport bars.
But how on earth are you supposed to know which way to do it – bar or cashier first? I usually stand back for a minute, watch a local order and closely follow suit. What you don’t want to do (trust me) is get stuck into the rabble, order your drink and then be told (probably in Italian with an accompanying pointing finger) that you need to go and pay first.
The good news is that paying for stuff in Italy isn’t always as…efficient…as you might expect, so there’s every chance that there will be a queue of people waiting to pay if you do need to go to the cashier first.
How to Drink Your Coffee
And finally, coffee in hand, payment system figured out, it’s time to sit down and sip your drink, right?
The reality is that for Italians, coffee is a quick drink that is taken stood at the bar (unless you’re in a restaurant and already seated). For most visitors (myself included), this is frustrating because ordering coffee is often a moment to take the weight off, grab a quick rest from the sightseeing and do a bit more map checking.
While it may be possible to find a seat in some cafes in Italy, especially in the more touristy areas, it’s not the local way. Plus, when you’ve only ordered a gulp’s worth of coffee, you’re not going to be able to justify doing much sitting anyway.
My recommendation: if you want a longer break, find a bar and have a ‘proper’ drink, even if is midday – it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, right?
What about all those froths, flavours and funny milks?
In Italy there is an easy rule when it comes to swapping out milks, adding froths and flavoured sugar shots – don’t do it.
If you need a hit of sugar in your coffee, use exactly that – sugar. Hazelnut, vanilla and other such artificial flavours are the preserve of Starbucks et al. And yes, I know some people are intolerant – not impatient, actually intolerant – of some milks. Solution in Italy – plain caffè. Treat it as an opportunity to take a break from pretending that soy milk’s ‘not too bad’.
What about spiking your coffee?
You may or may not be pleased to know that the one time it’s acceptable to doctor your coffee is with the addition of booze. Oh, Italy, how I love thee.
If you’re up for that, you’ll order a caffè corretto (translated – coffee ‘corrected’) but as you might have come to expect, there are still strict rules in this department…step away from the whiskey.
The two main accepted alcoholic beverages to dose your drink are a slug of brandy or grapper (why grappa? why?). Two words of warning. Firstly, the shot comes as a full-size shot in its own glass on the side which you then usually dunk it into your coffee. Secondly, caffè corretto is often drunk as hair of the dog. Top ‘o the mornin’ to ya.
Tip from a local: try caffe’ corretto con crema whiskey (with Baileys) – that’s on my list for my next trip!
So, just to recap, in case you were confused (0r bemused) – it is considered unacceptable to consume a milky drink after lunch, but it’s perfectly fine to throw back a shot of grappa for breakfast. Got it? Great.
Tipping for coffee
I’m levelling my gaze at the people of North America when I say the following words: it’s not common to tip for coffee in Italy. I know that concept will make you squirm to the point of discomfort but the reality is that it’s for you to bend to the Italian way, not for you to impose your own cultural standards.
But what if you drink coffee in a restaurant after a meal… or you’re drinking it somewhere fancy… or you’re in a tourist bar and the waiting staff are giving you the beady eye of hope… or the person who served you was so exceptionally friendly, they wrote down a book or places they recommend you go…and they’re going to come visit you for ThanksGiving…
I’m not going to change your mind, am I? If you absolutely must, 10 to 20 cents at a bar is more than enough (but keep in mind it might actually be offensive to tip, especially if the person serving you is the owner or their family). For a restaurant, 10% is a good guide for the entire bill.
But, before you slap down your European dough, do your research first – because if you thought ordering coffee was a complicated thing, you’ll come to realise it’s actually a doddle when you compare it to figuring out how the tipping system works!
But that’s another story for another time…
Want Italian coffee at home?
Head over to the Illy website – you can expect an authentic cup from the company that invented the modern espresso machine. And if you’re thinking of investing in a machine, do your research first – you can read reviews on this site about the best home espresso maker.
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