Braving The Italian Coffee Bar

Dinner Disasters

To the coffee drinkers who are thinking of traveling to Italy, this one’s for you.

Italians love their pasta, their pizza, their cheese and their vino, but it’s that dark, strong, syrupy, repulsive-to-many-non-Europeans stuff called caffè that actually runs through their veins and puts the spring in their step each morning. (Notice how it’s called plain and simple caffè and not espresso. Now notice how it’s spelled espresso, not expresso. And no, not even in English is it written or should it be said expresso. Remember that, per favore!)

I hate to break it to you, but in my experience, I’ve found “American” coffee (filter/drip coffee) to be practically non-existant in il bel paese. And you want a cup to go? Forgetaboutit! Walking and drinking coffee do not go hand in hand in Italy. In fact, the two are pretty much mutually exclusive. Standing and drinking coffee, sure, that’s standard practice. But once you set your legs in motion you’d better have already knocked back your espresso or savoured the last sip of your cappuccino because you’re committing a big cultural faux pas.

Why do you think Starbucks hasn’t yet moved into the Italian market? They’re in Japan, the UK, India even! What about France and Spain – two other coffee-loving European countries? They’ve warmly opened their places and plazas to Starbucks. Take a look here:

Canadian girl walks all over Paris in the heat searching for Frappuccino

Canadian girl walks all over Paris in the heat searching for Frappuccino

[Ok, so I was at Starbucks in Paris, but I was there for a frosty Frappuccino, not coffee, per se]

The rest of Europe may be littered with to-go cups bearing the Starbucks logo, but Italy seems to have remained Starbucks’ final frontier. Funnily enough, Starbucks creator Howard Schulz dreamed up the concept of Starbucks while sampling coffee in the northern Italian city of Milano. Why then, doesn’t Starbucks have it’s place in the piazza? Because coffee, like food in Italy, has its own culture, its own customs and rituals, and Italians aren’t about to rock the boat on that.

Here are a few tips that will help you order a coffee in Italy:

First go to a bar or a caffetteria (not to be confused with a cafeteria, which would be a mensa) and decide which kind of coffee you’d like.

Caffè – espresso coffee. Referred to as caffè, never espresso and served in a thimble sized cup, often only half full. The coffee of Italians. Add all the zucchero (sugar) you want, but if you need some milk you’ll have to ask for…

 Caffè Macchiato or simply Macchiato – literally “stained coffee”, meaning a normal dose of caffè with two drops of milk in it to lighten it up a bit. Still served in a thimble.

Doppio – literally meaning “double”. With this one you get two standard doses of caffè, same cup.

Caffè Americano – one or two shots of caffè diluted with hot water. The largest cup of this you’re going to get is about the size of a teacup belonging to your Granny’s china set. There’s nary a coffee mug to be found under an espresso machine in Italy. My dear restaurant manager friend is always reluctant to make an Americano for me, even when I beg. “Ti fa male! It’s bad for you!” he chides as he stingily pours a few more drops of water into my teacup of espresso. So be warned, this one may mark you as a tourist, and an unhealthy one at that!

Caffè lungo – literally a “long coffee”, with just a touch of water added to the regular caffè. Still served in a thimble, but it’ll be full. Not nearly as watered-down as the Americano, and much more acceptable to Italians.

Caffè orzo – barley coffee, served the same as a regular caffè but made of, well, barley. This one is best for stomachs that can’t quite handle the strength of a regular Italian caffè.

Caffè corretto – literally “correct coffee”, which is a regular caffè with a shot of liquor in it.

Cappuccinocaffè with a “little hood” of frothed milk. For more explanation on this delightful drink, click here.


Caffèlatte –  served in a tall, usually glass glass. This is basically warm or steamed milk with a bit of caffè in it. [For all you Starbucks sippers out there, ordering a simple latte at the counter will get you a nice cold glass of milk and nothing else.]

Caffè stretto/ristretto – literally “tightened coffee”, it’s got even less water than your regular shot, further reinforcing the taste.

Caffè shakerato – If James Bond drank coffee, this would be his drink. The shakerato coffee is a regular caffè shaken with ice, using a martini shaker until slightly frothy, served often in a martini glass. Beautiful on those hot Italian summer afternoons.

Decaffinato – decaf.

Zucchero – sugar.

Dolcificante – sweetener.

Zucchero di canna – cane sugar or brown sugar.

Although it may seem strange to some, some Italians prefer to drink their coffee freddo (cold) and either leave it out to cool or put it in the fridge. You may also be asked at times if you’d like latte freddo (cold milk) or latte caldo (warm milk) to accompany your coffee, if you’ve asked for milk in the first place.

Also, even if you don’t speak Italian fluently, always remember to try to be polite when ordering coffee, or anything, for that matter. As you see in the picture below, a “per favore” and a “buongiorno” are not only nice, but they also help to stretch your hard-earned Euros:

Buon caffè!