Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Coffee in Italy is not just another gastronomic pleasure. It's a ritual. Whether it’s the father putting a moka on the stove in the morning, or dipping a fresh brioche into your cappuccino at the bar, coffee in Italy is one of the few activities that unites every Italian from every region of the peninsula. It's a way to welcome a stranger into your home. It's a way to finish a perfect meal among friends. It's a way to mark the beginning of a perfect morning.
For me, Italian coffee represents everything I love about Italy itself. It's small. It's simple. Unassuming, yet intense. Passionate. It's something you drink deliberately, delicately, neatly, and yet somehow recklessly at the same time. It's a personal moment, a private enjoyment, yet simultaneously communal. I love watching morning commuters line up at the bar, meticulously dole out the perfect amount of sugar into their tiny cups, then stir with two fingers closed around the small silver handle of the small silver spoon, followed by a quick tap before laying it on the saucer. Then, unannounced, the delicate ritual gives way to complete abandon. They suddenly knock their heads back in a sharp gesture, swig down the coffee, all in one single gulp. A nod to the barista, a nod to their companions, and onwards.
1. How to order
If it's a small bar with few clients, you just order directly with the barista and pay after you drink. Simple.
If it's a larger bar or the morning rush, you order and pay at the cash register before going to the bar. The cashier will then hand you a receipt, which you take with you and put down on the counter. Then, when it’s your turn for a coffee, the barista will read your receipt and make whatever is written. Often she’ll take the receipt and tear it once she starts preparing your drink, as way to keep track of what’s already been made and what still needs to get started.
This system of clients covering the bar in tiny pieces of paper and ripping the paper as orders get started truly makes the best of twenty-first century intelligence and never leads to errors or a total shitshow...
As you might expect, the use-your-receipt-to-place-your-own order at the bar is absurdly disorganized, hopelessly inefficient, and needlessly challenging for all parties involved. But somehow, despite all reason and logic, it works. I never truly grasped the meaning of organized chaos before getting a cappuccino on a Saturday morning...it looks like a Slayer mosh pit but somehow everything manages to come out timely and shockingly accurately. And the end product is so ridiculously delicious that the total pandemonium melts into the background and you feel completely at peace with the world -- which basically sums up living in Italy in general.
2. How to drink
If it’s an espresso, enjoy it standing at the bar.
Drinking at the bar costs less than table service, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about sipping your coffee in one delicious shot and continuing about your day. After all, entire conceit of the “espresso” is that it’s, well, espresso, or “express.” It’s maybe the only activity in Italy that’s socially acceptable to do in a hurry.
You will usually get a small glass of sparkling water with your coffee. The purported purpose of this tiny shot glass of water is to take a sip before the coffee, in order to clean your palette and better enjoy the complex flavor profile of the espresso. But you can also drink it afterwards and no one will take offense.
3. What to drink
If you want the classic Italian espresso, order a “caffé normale.” No one orders an "espresso"; In Italy, a caffè implies an espresso, because there is no other form of coffee. So just order a caffè.
However, a caffè normale is only one of endless options for how to drink a little pick-me-up. While there isn’t a big printed menu hanging behind the bar like in the States, every Italian knows the options by heart. Ordering coffee in Italy is just one big trendy “secret menu.”
Here’s a few classic ways you can take your morning cup:
Caffè normale – The standard espresso and what people typically order. I rarely order anything else.
Caffé lungo – A longer espresso. Still in the adorable tiny cups and still espresso, just a bit taller than usual.
Caffé ristretto -Exactly the opposite of a caffè lungo. Even smaller and more concentrated than a normal espresso, I never order this. I mean, c'mon, a normal espresso it already teeny-tiny...why would I want to pay a euro for two drops of coffee? I guess I'm still to American (or cheap) to appreciate a coffee smaller than an espresso...
Caffé americano - An espresso diluted with hot water. Sometimes the water is served separately from the espresso for you to add yourself, which I like because I can dilute the coffee to my liking. Even with all the water added, however, it's still going to be half the size of a small coffee in the USA. But isn't that what we love about Italy? Coming from a country whose motto is "bigger is better," there is something ineffably satisfying about a place that appreciates things small and satisfying.
Caffé latte - Espresso with hot milk. NOTE: In Italian, "latte" is the word for milk. That's what "latte" means. Milk. So if you order “latte,” you will receive exactly that, a glass of plain milk.
So if you want espresso in your hot milk, make sure to specifically ask for a caffé latte.
Cappuccino - Italians only drink caffè latte and cappuccini at breakfast. If you really want to do as the Romans do, or as the Neapolitans do, or the Milanese do, definitely do not order a cappuccino after 11 am.
Macchiato - An espresso with a dollop of milk foam on top. If you want a bit of milk and coffee together after dinner, go for the macchiato, as -- unlike it's big brother, the cappucino -- a tiny macchiato is perfectly acceptable to order after a meal.
Caffè orzo – Quick history lesson: In 1935, Italy tried to bring colonial expansion back in fashion. Mussolini wanted to invade Ethiopia, but the League of Nations (the precursor to the UN) basically said "We don’t do that anymore ... that was so nineteenth century. Well, I mean, we all still have colonies, but, you know, we’re not actively taking new ones, so we still have the moral high ground. Or the small moral stepstool. Point is, European history is just one long series of white people being dicks, but you missed the dick bus."
But Mussolini just ignored the League of Nations and invaded Ethiopia anyway because he was a fascist, and that's what fascists do. Bascially, he informed the League that they were mistaken and the dick bus was still rolling along. "Besides, the 20th century will just be one endless list of human rights atrocities, so no one will even remember this one," he assured them.
(**Okay, it's more than likely that no one actually said any of this, but who knows? It's not like I'm a historian or anything.**)
So Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and the League, as promised, sanctioned Italy. But the Duce played it off like that's what he wanted all along anyway. Italy doesn't need the rest of the world! Italy doesn't need nothing from nobody! Italy has everything it needs right here, on Italian soil! Italy is autarkic!
But you know what doesn't grow in a semi-Mediterranean climate no matter how hard you try? Coffee. And since Italians couldn’t import coffee beans, they had to drink this shitty substitute made out of toasted orzo instead. Because orzo, unlike coffee, grows on Italian soil. But also, orzo, unlike coffee, tastes like cow dung.
But here’s the crazy thing: because this toasted orzo mud is super healthy for you and caffeine free, some Italians just kept drinking it, even after Mussolini was hanged and the trains stopped running on time.
Point is, if you happen to be sensitive to caffeine, go ahead and order a caffè orzo. It tastes just like fascism.
Caffè ginseng – Another non-coffee alternative, this ginseng root extraction is also super healthy for you. As for the taste, if you ever wished that you could drink Chinese medicine, this is your perfect cup of non-Joe to start you morning. But, hey, at least it doesn’t taste like fascism.
Caffé corretto – This my favorite drink to kick off Monday morning. Literally translating to a “correct coffee,” a caffè corretto is an espresso topped off with the alcohol of your choice.
In the north, coffee is often corrected with grappa. In the south, a liquor of anise or a sambuca. In Turin, a classic caffè corretto is with a creamy chocolate-hazelnut liquore called bicherin. In Calabria, they serve caffè corretti with brandy and licorice root.
Just be warned: it is definitely an old man drink, and definitely not a trendy choice in the younger generations. A bartender once told me I was the first person he’s met under seventy years old to order a caffè corretto in the morning.
That being said, the younger generation is obviously not correct. So if you want to be right, start the morning with a strong liquor.
Caffé estivo - An espresso with cold milk foam. Think of it as a summer cappuccino. It’s refreshing and delicious, like sipping a summer cloud. Unfortunately, however, this one is not for the lactose intolerant, as the cold foam only works with full-fat cow milk.
Shakerato – My favorite summer drink. It’s usually shaken in a martini shaker and then served in a martini glass, sometimes with a dusting of cocoa power or cinnamon on top. You can have it “amaro” (without sugar) or “zuccherato” (with sugar). The shaking creates a lovely foam on top without adding any milk. It’s cool and refreshing and feels kind of like drinking a cocktail in the morning. In fact, if you really wanna go pro, order “uno shakerato corretto.” If that doesn’t earn you instant respect, nothing will.
Caffé con ghiaccio – Simply an espresso with ice. This one is a bit of a DIY project: the barista will serve you the espresso as normal, in the little white cup, with a glass of ice on the side.
Pro tip: if you want to add sugar, mix it in the little espresso cup first when the drink is hot, otherwise the sugar won't dissolve.
Crema al caffè – Kind of like a coffee milkshake, this rich, creamy cup of diabetes is perfect for a hot beach day or a liquid dessert.