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Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

Italy's coffee culture is admired around the world, but it can be hard for the average foreigner to navigate its rules and norms. Here’s what you need to know to get your caffeine fix ‘all’italiana’.

Do you know your macchiato from your corretto?
Do you know your macchiato from your corretto?Photo by tabitha turner on Unsplash

Italians have been consuming coffee since the 16th century, when Venetians started importing the beans from abroad.

But it was in the 20th century that coffee really took off in Italy, with the introduction of the espresso machine to the country in around 1901 and Alfonso Bialetti’s invention of the iconic stovetop moka coffee pot in 1933.

Since then, Italy has built up a coffee culture that is admired and imitated across the world; but this rich tradition comes with a set of rules and norms that can sometimes trip up those who are new to the scene.

Here’s what you need to know about drinking coffee in Italy like an Italian.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

A cocoa-dusted cappuccino.

A cocoa-dusted cappuccino. Photo by Laureen Missaire on Unsplash

Italian coffee habits

Coffee is commonly drunk at least three times a day in Italy: at breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner.

Milk coffees like a cappuccino or caffè latte are strictly breakfast drinks to go along with your cornetto or brioche pastry. An Italian who orders one of these drinks after about 10 or 11am would get a very strange look – though foreigners can just about get away with it.

That’s because milk coffees are so heavy they’re seen as almost a meal in their own right. It’s a firmly-held belief amongst most Italians that drinking a cappuccino after you’ve had an actual meal will completely ruin your ability to properly digest it.

READ ALSO: How do Italians eat spaghetti? The Local answers Google’s questions

At any other time of day, people drink only espresso-style coffees. Because you’re drinking no more than a shot’s worth, it’s to be consumed after rather than alongside your meal, to counteract the soporific effects of a full stomach and give you a little energy kick.

In the evening, and sometimes after lunch, coffee is often drunk with a small amount of alcohol to stop you getting too alert; either added to the coffee itself or brought in its own shot glass. 

As much as Italy has a thriving coffee bar scene, a good quantity of coffee-drinking is done at home with a moka caffettiera

Italian moka caffettiere coffee pots.

Italian moka caffettiere coffee pots. Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

This method involves pouring room-temperature water into a little pot that forms the base of the coffee maker; scooping some coffee grounds into a metal cap filled with tiny holes that sits directly on top; sealing the device by screwing on the top part of the caffetteria, which has an empty chamber for the coffee to run into; and turning on the stove.

When the water boils it’s slowly forced up through the coffee grounds and into the top half of the pot, giving you a concentrated coffee not far off an espresso.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

Some like to heap their coffee grounds in a little mound, while others swear by spreading them flat with the back of a spoon, sometimes poking little holes in with a toothpick.

But everyone agrees on a couple of things: you shouldn’t press the grounds in too tight, as this will prevent the water from percolating through; and you should absolutely not wash your coffee maker with soap: the built-up coffee residue is key to the flavour. 

Types of coffee

Cappuccino: a cappuccino.

Cappuccino scuro: a ‘dark’ cappuccino, i.e. one with less milk than your average cappuccino. A little extra hot water is added in its place.

Caffè latte: What anglophones think of as a latte – but use the full name here unless you want a glass of milk.

Caffè espresso: espresso… but just say caffè. Get used to the idea that for Italians, a coffee is an espresso.

Caffè macchiato: an espresso ‘marked’ with a splash of warmed milk.

An Italian caffe macchiato with a spoonful of sugar on top.

An Italian caffe macchiato with a spoonful of sugar on top. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Caffè ristretto: an espresso with some of the water held back, to give you a shorter shot.

Caffè lungo: an espresso with a little extra water added, to give you a longer shot.

Caffè corretto: an espresso ‘corrected’ with the addition of a shot of grappa or other alcohol.

Marocchino: a layered shot of espresso, cocoa powder, and foamed milk, sometimes with the addition of chocolate syrup. Served in a little shot glass so you can admire the pretty layers. 

Caffè americano: an americano.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy

How do I order a coffee?

In many cafes in big cities in particular, you’ll be expected to first pay at the till, then bring your receipt to the person behind the bar and order from them. Watch to see what others are doing, or if the cafe’s quiet, ask a staff member (with hand gestures if necessary) where you should go.

To order an espresso, ask for a caffè; to order a caffè macchiato, use the full name. Bear in mind that in many cases, the anglicised versions of Italian drink names are simply adjectives in Italian and don’t mean much by themselves. Caffè latte is milk coffee; remove the caffè and you are just asking for milk, which is what you’ll get.

Note the accent in the ‘è‘ at the end of caffè, which tells you that the emphasis should be on the second syllable. It’s pronounced ‘caff-EH’.

A foamy caffe latte with a biscuit.

A foamy caffe latte with a biscuit.Photo by Kelvin Han on Unsplash

Italian coffee is a one size-fits-all situation: if you order a cappuccino, you’ll get a cappuccino, without being asked what size you want. The only exception is if you’re at an airport or large train station, but even there, your options will be small, medium, or large; ask for a venti and the barista will have no idea what you’re on about.

While in the past takeaway coffee was almost unheard of, these days it’s a well established concept, and bars in even small towns and villages will more likely than not stock takeaway cups.

Many Italians drink their coffee al banco, or at the bar, especially if they’re grabbing a quick post-lunch caffè.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

If you see a list of drinks and corresponding prices hanging up near the till, bear in mind that those are likely to be the prices for drinking at the bar; sitting down at a table will cost you extra. In especially touristy places, it’s worth double checking the price of a sit-down coffee before ordering.

Coffee is considered a basic human need in Italy that everyone should have met – hence the tradition of the caffè sospeso, started in Naples. Homeless people will often ask you for a euro for a coffee, knowing that this, of all requests, is the one most likely to touch a stranger’s heart.

For that reason, you shouldn’t expect to pay much for coffee; around €1 for an espresso and between €1 and €1.50 for a cappuccino is standard, though it’s not uncommon to see prices as high as €3.50 if you’re sitting down in a city’s main piazza right in front the Duomo.

People enjoying coffee in the sun in a piazza outside Rome.

People enjoying coffee in the sun in a piazza outside Rome. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Regional variants

As with everything in Italy, each region – sometimes, each city or small town – has its own way of doing things. Here are a few variations on standard Italian coffee you can expect to find in some regions.

Bicerin (Piedmont): a layered drink of hot espresso and drinking chocolate topped with heavy cream, dating back to the 18th century, from the Piemontese capital of Turin. Bicerin in Piemontese means ‘small glass’, which is what the drink is served in.

Espressino (Puglia): a drink that is equal parts of espresso and milk, with some cocoa powder or Nutella on the bottom of the cup and a dusting of cocoa on top of the drink. Not dissimilar to a marocchino.

Caffè padovano (Padua, Veneto): cream, milk and mint syrup are whipped together and poured over hot espresso in a cappuccino cup, then sprinkled with cocoa powder, in this Padovan classic.

Caffè alla valdostana (Val d’Aosta): coffee, sugar, orange and lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon, grappa and Genepì, a local juniper-based liqueur, are mixed together in a walnut or oak wood lidded ‘friendship bowl’ with multiple spouts; the bowl is passed around the table clockwise and everyone takes a sip. 

Caffè leccese (Lecce, Puglia): a drink of ice, espresso, and almond milk. This variant came into being many years ago in the city of Lecce. Back then Italians had a way of storing ice in their own home, so would go to the cafe for a refreshing drink. Shards of ice would be hacked from a big block right before going in the cup.

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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.