Confession time. When it came to a coffee, I used to be a complete Philistine.
Ordering a cappuccino after dinner was second nature to me. I’d peer into a cup of espresso and think “Where’s the rest?’”
My caffeinated road to Damascus led to Rome, where my Italian friends soon put me straight.
You see, here’s the thing. Learning how to order coffee in Italy is like navigating a cultural minefield. Trust me; Italians will judge you on how you order your coffee.
“I don’t care,” you may say. “I’ll drink my caffé latte at 7 pm thank you very much.”
And that’s fine.
But if you don’t want to be marked out as a tourist, here are my tips for how to order coffee in Italy like a local.
Just so you know, coffee “to go” isn’t an option in Italy.
Video: Coffee Culture in Italy
The art of ordering coffee in Italy
Step 1: Find a bar
Let’s clear up a potential source of confusion first. In Italy, coffee is not served in a café but in a bar.
Reflecting their importance in Italian culture, bars are liberally sprinkled throughout Italian cities, towns and villages. Trust me; you will have no problem finding one.
Step 2: Know your Italian coffee menu
Now that you’ve found a bar, before you approach the barista you will need to decide which type of coffee to order.
If you ask for “un caffè (oon caf-EH) per favore” you will get an espresso in return.
Personally, I loathe the American style drip coffee. But if that’s your preferred caffeinated drink, then you’re out of luck. It just isn’t on the menu in Italy.
The closest to a drip coffee in Italy is a caffè Americano or caffè lungo which is a shot of espresso topped up with hot water.
I usually opt for an espresso or a caffè lungo.
Let’s take a closer look at these and other types of coffee that might be available in an Italian bar.
Typical coffee menu in Italy
The default short, very strong, single espresso, served in a small cup with sugar to hand if you need it. The existence of crema, foam made by the oils in the coffee beans, on its surface is a good indicator of its quality.
Confusingly, this not a long coffee as you might expect, but has around double the water of a regular espresso.
Although shorter and stronger than American drip coffee, this more dilute than a caffè lungo.
In some bars, I have been given an espresso in a larger cup, and hot water in a small jug for me to dilute the coffee to the desired strength.
Familiar to most people, this is a combination of espresso and full-fat milk that has been steamed into a froth.
Although a cappuccino will be a longer drink compared with a caffè, caffè lungo or caffè Americano don’t expect anything approaching the vat-sized measures that you get at home.
A caffè latte as such it doesn’t really exist in Italy. Whatever you do don’t ask for a latte, as this translates as milk and you are likely to be handed a glass of the white stuff.
Instead, ask for one of these two Italian variants of caffè latte:
- Caffè macchiato – This is an espresso which is stained (macchiato) with milk
- Latte macchiato – The reverse of caffè macchiato, this is warm milk stained a shot of espresso.
As macchiato is an adjective in Italian you need to be specific. If you just ask for a macchiato, the barista will not know if you wish to order a caffè macchiato or a latte macchiato.
Is an espresso not strong enough for you?
Then try a ristretto, also known as caffè corto. Short of sucking on a coffee bean, this is the closest that you will get to ordering pure coffee.
You’ll be bouncing off the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon.
And that’s your list of choices people.
“But what about my flat white?” you cry. Sorry, it’s not available in Italian bars.
Step 3: Order your coffee at the bar
Now that you’ve chosen your caffeinated nectar, you need to know how to order coffee in Italy.
I can understand if you find this a little daunting, particularly if you’re jostling for space in a bar packed with locals and haven’t yet honed your Italian language skills.
But just follow these tips for ordering coffee and you’ll be fine. I promise.
A heads-up first. Italians rarely linger over a coffee.
Instead, they line the bar, chug down their coffee in two or three sips, and then they’re on their way. An espresso is a quick caffeine refuel.
Although it is not immediately obvious, in some busy Italian bars you pay first at the cash register (cassa). Ask for the coffee that you want and hand over your money in exchange for a receipt. Don’t lose this!
However, in other Italian bars, you order first and pay later. When you have finished your coffee, hand over your receipt and pay the cashier or the barista.
Next, shuffle your way to the counter (bancone). Don’t expect this to be like ordering coffee in your local Starbucks back home. If you stand patiently waiting, you may never get served.
If it’s busy, wait for a gap to open up at the front. Although it may not give the appearance of being so, there is some order. Therefore, don’t push in front of people
When you get to the front of the counter, place your receipt in front of you. Make eye contact and smile at the barista – a cheery “buongiorno” (bwon-JOR-noh) or “buona sera” (BWON-ah SAY-rah), if it’s after lunch, goes a long way – and repeat your order.
You know that your coffee is on its way when the saucer and a spoon is placed on the counter in front of you. When your coffee arrives, drink it as quickly as you can to make room for the next person.
Coffee prices in Italy
In Rome, coffee prices are regulated by the local government and are kept low for the Romans, provided they drink it standing up at the bar. Reckon on paying around €1 for an espresso.
This cost can double or triple if you choose to sit down, especially in very touristy areas. Always check beforehand how much you will pay to drink your coffee sitting down.
I hope these tips on how to order coffee in Italy will be helpful for your next trip to Rome or Rimini, Umbria or Urbino and beyond. Don’t be daunted and remember that practice makes perfect.