There are many ways to drink il caffé – coffee in Italy. It is the job of a good bar to prepare all of the varieties to the highest standard.
Do you know how many times I’ve been hustled past what appeared to be a perfectly good bar by my Italian boyfriend while he complains ‘fa schifo il loro caffè – Their coffee sucks’. This usually entails walking another 10 meters to the next bar. Yes, bars are numerous in Italy.
Italians are extremely picky when it comes to their coffee. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to an Italian home and coffee is served, the host will question you insistently on the quality of the coffee they have just served you.
Un caffè per piacere – A coffee please
I don’t know the exact formula for what is considered the perfect cup. However from my limited understanding Italians don’t think good coffee should be watery, meaning bland or too bitter either.
If you make it to Italy and are interested in coffee culture, wake up early one morning and go to a popular local bar outside your hotel. Trust me you’ll hear every type of coffee being ordered with confidence. The barista expertly moves back and forth like a little squirrel fulfilling each order and tearing the receipt at the corners.
Some bars will ask you to pay first before you order some won’t. To be on the safe side just pay first at the cash register, unless you wish to be seated at a table. Remember sitting at a table will cost more than standing at the bar.
* At the time this article was written with COVID safety protocols in effect, this situation was constantly changing.
The type of coffee you want will carry a different price. In Rome the simple espresso ranges in price from €0.80 to €1.20 in local bars (standing up). Above €1.20 and it better be the best espresso you’ve ever had in your life. This is the perfect chance to use up any small change you may be carrying.
How to order
Once you pay at the cash register you will receive ‘lo scontrino’ – the receipt. Keep it! You then move over to the barista. He/she may not make eye contact with you. Don’t worry. Jostle yourself into a spot if it’s an especially crowded bar. Now you can order the type of coffee you desire. Place the receipt on the counter and the receipt will be torn on the side. Order with confidence and speak loudly in crowded bars. Baristas will not be too keen to decipher what you’re saying. Drink your coffee and observe the colorful scene around you. Don’t forget to say grazie – thank you after you’ve finished your coffee.
11 ways to drink coffee
This is the classic espresso. There is no need to say caffè espresso. From Calabria to Trentino if you walk into a bar and say ‘Un caffè per favore ’ they will serve you an espresso. It is also called a caffè corto.
Rigorously the height of two fingers, it is expected to be full-bodied and rich. Very few bars I’ve come across serve it with sugar already added.
Sant’Eustachio il Caffè a popular bar in Rome does this.
You can add your own sugar or as I prefer drink it without. This is the coffee served in the little cups.
Contrary to popular belief this has a lower dose of caffeine than other types. Less water reaches the coffee making it slightly denser than the typical espresso. However because of the quick preparation time the concentration of caffeine is not able to build up.
Two shots of espresso put in one cup. However it should not be as dense as ristretto because the amount of water used in preparation has not been reduced.
Caffè al vetro
Some people insist that their coffee has a different taste if served in a glass as opposed to the ceramic/porcelain cups. Caffè al vetro means an espresso or ristretto or sometimes even caffè doppio served in a glass. Some bars I’ve been to, serve coffee directly from glasses but this isn’t the norm.
Try it and let me know, if you think your coffee has a different flavor. Personally I’ve noticed no difference.
Served either hot or cold. ‘Macchiato means spotted or spotty’ .
The hot version is a hot cup of espresso with a drop of warm milk added. Literally a drop or two.
The cold version is still warm espresso but with a drop of cold milk added.
Equal parts coffee to milk and cream. The secret is in the preparation of the milk.
Milk should be heated with steam. This gives the cappuccino its lovable frothy consistency.
On a cultural note Italians do not drink cappuccino after midday and it is certainly not ordered after lunch or dinner. Italians would probably pass out from sheer horror at the thought of someone ordering pasta at dinner and finishing off their meal with a cappuccino.
If you want to seem more like a local and need a caffeine fix it is perfectly acceptable to order espresso, ristretto or doppio throughout the entire day. Milky drinks are reserved for the morning periods.
This is not an American version of coffee. For that you have to order a ‘caffè all’americana’ which is the brewed coffee from the filter.
To make a caffè lungo, more water is allowed to flow into the coffee for a longer period of time. This makes it more diluted in consistency but not in potency.
In fact caffè lungo contains a higher dose of caffeine per serving than the caffè ristretto.
Warm milk served with you guessed it…. a smaller amount of warm coffee. Connoisseurs maintain that 3 layers should be visible through the tumbler. The bottom layer of milk, middle layer of coffee and a dense top layer of milk foam. Again not considered an evening beverage.
In Naples this is typically a caffè ristretto with steamed milk which is foamy or frothy, on top. Throughout Italy the normal espresso may take the place of the caffè ristretto.
It’s a summer coffee drink. It consists of sugar, coffee and ice, mixed together in a cocktail shaker. This drink is usually served in a Martini glass or other long stemmed glassware. I find it a bit too sweet but it’s definitely a must try if you come to Italy during summer.
My absolute favorite and a rare indulgence. This consists of an espresso with a drop or splash of distilled liquor – grappa, sambuca or brandy. My favorite is espresso with sambuca with the little coffee beans on top. If you manage to have a relaxing lunch in one of the beautiful piazzas of Italy try this after your dessert and watch the world go by.
This list is by no means complete. The best thing to do is to book a trip to Italy and see first hand the peculiarities of drinking coffee in the Bel Paese.
Which of these versions have you tried?