Caffè: It’s not just a drink. It’s a way of life.
Philosophizing aside, a shot of intense Italian coffee, called un caffè, is a daily ritual for Italians. It will become so for you, too, the moment you set foot in Italy. And a stovetop moka to help nurture this new daily habit will be the most attractive and useful souvenir you take home.
What is the Italian caffè?
It’s not a simple question.
Italian caffè is neither American coffee nor, always, an espresso—but sometimes it is. Technically, an espresso is made with an espresso machine at a café, whereas an Italian caffè is made with an aluminum stovetop moka, the Italian household equivalent of a coffee machine. The difference between the two is in the pressure at which the hot water is pushed through the fine coffee grounds: around 9 atmospheric bars of pressure for espresso (producing the prized orange-brown crema on top) versus 1.5 bars for a caffè from a moka. Italians seem to prefer the homebrewed caffè, but both are appreciated.
Be aware that in Italy, if you order a “caffè americano,” you won’t get a steaming mug of full-bodied, well-roasted drip coffee. It will be espresso with hot water added to it after it has brewed.
Also, you will never order an espresso in Italy, only un caffè. Although the word “espresso” is Italian and originates in Italy, it’s not used—ever—so strike it from your vocabulary along with its awful cousin ex-presso.
How to order at the Italian bar
In Italy, the café is called a bar. And in fact, an Italian bar includes shelves lined with myriad glass bottles of alcohol, especially of amaro, the popular and intensely flavored after-dinner class of herbal liquors. Right below the bottles are shiny chrome espresso machines.
You won’t always find a menu of drinks. Unlike Starbucks, there aren’t a thousand variations on elaborate concoctions, each with three sizes. Any Italian knows the basic list of choices, and will expect to pay about €1 for a single caffè to €1.50 for a cappuccino. With prices like that, see how easy it is to order several throughout the day?
You usually pay first, then bring the receipt to the bar and call out your order to the barista, who will tear your receipt once the order is filled. Not to get too complicated, but in other cases you order your caffè first and then tell the cashier what you had afterwards. When in doubt, go to the cashier first.
The quintessential Italian caffè break is a quick stop: stand at the bar to down your drink, which you can do without burning your tongue because it is never brewed to boiling. Sitting is for meeting up with a friend or taking a leisurely break to read the newspaper. Be aware that in touristy spots or especially nice bars, sitting will cost an extra several euro. Sometimes, with the picturesque piazza in front and travel-weary feet stretched out, it’s absolutely worth it.
3 rules on Italian caffè etiquette
- Ask for, “Un caffè, per favore.” “One caffè, please.” Remember, never ask for an espresso—yes, technically that is what you’ll be ordering, but the word is never used. Ban it from your vocabulary!
- Do not drink caffè-based beverages with a meal. The one exception is a cappuccino and pastry for breakfast. An after-dinner caffè is commonly taken, though.
- The old cappuccino rule holds true, I’m afraid: drink cappuccinos only in the morning. However, it works wonders on a chilly day as an afternoon “snack,” and honestly, no one is going to point and stare. If you want to follow Italian custom but crave a cappuccino at 4 pm, here’s a hint: try a caffè macchiato, which is a single shot of espresso with a dollop of steamed milk on top—a mini-cappuccino!
Types of “coffee” to order at the Italian bar
As noted above, the menu probably won’t be readily visible. Know your options beforehand.
- Caffè: The classic option at a bar. Choose caffè lungo or ristretto for more or less water when brewing it.
- Caffè macchiato: A caffè with a dollop of steamed milk to top it off
- Cappuccino: Cappuccinos in Italy are creamy, silky, frothy, and just right.
- Caffè doppio: Double-shot; not a common choice, because the intensity can be overwhelming.
- Caffè latte: If you order just “lattè,” you’ll get a tall glass of warm milk. The milk in caffè latte is not frothed, and it’s served in a cappuccino cup, making a flat cappuccino—hence, more milk in the same-sized cup
- Latte macchiato: This is a tall glass of frothed milk with just half a shot of espresso; perfect for people who want only a light caffè flavor in the morning. This guy explains the differences perfectly (albeit in Italian).
- Cioccolato caldo: Hot chocolate in Italy is rich, creamy, and heavenly. More common during the cold months.
- Caffè corretto: Would you like a shot of grappa to “correct” that caffè? Brandy and other liquors are used, too.
- Orzo: For those who cannot handle or don’t want the caffeine, brewed barley has become a common option at almost any bar (you can also try to order a “decaffeinato”)
- Marocchino, mocacchino, espressino: Depending on what city you’re visiting, this treat can take on various forms and names—but they’re all in the same family: An upside-down cappuccino with a smear of Nutella on the glass; cacao dusted in the bottom, frothed milk topped with caffè, and another sprinkle of cacao; and so on.
- Caffè shakerato: Perfect in the summer—a shot of caffè is shaken with ice and sugar for a refreshing drink.
- Caffè americano: Unless you see the drip coffee machine at the bar (in the bigger cities, you might!), then this is a shot of caffè with extra hot water to “allungare” the drink, or make it longer and water it down.