How to Drink Coffee in Italy Like a Local
There are a handful of sounds that immediately transport me back to my first trip to Italy. The crescendoing clang of a railroad crossing bell, reminding me of countless nights spent chugging through every last kilometer of my student rail pass. The buzzing of Vespa scooters punctuated by ringing church bells that captures the heady juxtaposition of the modern and ancient that is Rome. And, of course, the “FOOMP FOOMP click click buzz gurgle clink” that any Italian—or anyone who has spent time in Italy—immediately recognizes as the sound of a caffè espresso coming to life.
Coffee is an integral part of Italian culture, so much so that the “rite of traditional Italian espresso coffee” is now a candidate for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to the Istituto Espresso Italiano, Italy is fueled by more than 9 million servings of espresso a day, and popping into a bar (café) to toss back a toy-sized cup of thick, foamy espresso is one of the few quick pleasures available in this country known for its leisurely la dolce vita pace. “Having a coffee in Italy is about so much more than it just tasting good,” explains Sophie Minchilli, Italian food expert and author of The Sweetness of Doing Nothing. “It’s part of everyday life, completely ingrained in our culture and family.”
A brief history of coffee in Italy
In 1570, the first sacks of coffee beans from the Ottoman Empire were unloaded in the bustling port of Venice, kicking off a vibrant coffee trade that would bolster the Venetian economy for centuries. Coffee houses soon began popping up in cities across the peninsula, with coffee served Turkish style, which takes at least five minutes to prepare.
As demand for coffee grew, so did the need for a faster brewing method. In 1901, Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera introduced the first machine that produced individual cups of coffee by forcing pressurized steam through coffee grinds. The thicker, more concentrated beverage was immediately dubbed the “espresso,” both because it was prepared expressly in less than 30 seconds and because the steam was expressed through the coffee.
Over the subsequent decades, the espresso machine was improved and expanded. Pressurized water substituted steam, giving the final product a less burnt taste. Pressurization increased from two to 10 bars, producing the foamy top layer (known as the crema) that is the hallmark of the modern espresso. And more advanced machines were developed that automatically regulate the pressure and water temperature, guaranteeing a reliably delicious cup of espresso every time.
Italian coffee culture
The pace of Italy’s coffee culture has sped up over the centuries to match that of the post-industrial world. Once, coffee was slowly savored by artists and intellectuals in the elegant salon-style coffee houses that marked Italy’s wealthier northern cities. By the 20th century, however, the advent of the espresso machine paired with the modern workday meant that a pausa caffè quickly became just that: a short break for Italians of all social classes to unceremoniously down a bracing shot of espresso while standing at the bar.
Don’t let the break-neck speed with which Italians inhale their coffee fool you, however. Most consume about four cups of espresso a day and are casual coffee connoisseurs, quietly choosy about its quality. A bar that doesn’t respect the “five M’s”: miscela (coffee bean blend), macchina (espresso machine), macinino (coffee bean grinder), manutenzione (machine maintenance), and mano (the skill of the barista) will quickly find itself abandoned for a nearby alternative.
How to order coffee in Italy
For Italians, there is only one true coffee: espresso (not “expresso”). That means that you don’t need to specify that you want an espresso when ordering at a coffee bar—simply asking for “un caffè, per favore” (a coffee, please) will get you your caffeine kick. That said, a foreign accent may trigger the question, “Un caffè americano?”. Wrinkle your nose and reply, “No, un espresso!” to immediately win over your barista.
Other common espresso variations, appropriate for any time of day:
- Caffè ristretto: an even more concentrated espresso for a turbo-boosted pick-me-up.
- Caffè lungo: a slightly less potent espresso made by letting the brew stream out of the machine for a bit longer.
- Caffè doppio: a double shot of espresso. (Tip: a true doppio is two cups of espresso brewed separately and then poured into one cup together. Some bars take a shortcut and simply let the brew stream out of the machine until two portions fill the same cup. What you end up with is a caffè lungo that often has a bitter aftertaste. To be safe, order an espresso, down it, then order a second.)
- Caffè macchiato: an espresso topped with a dollop of frothed milk.
- Caffè decaffeinato: Italy does have decaffeinated coffee, which is often referred to as “caffè Hag” after the brand name of the largest decaf coffee maker in Italy.
- Caffè corretto: a “corrected” espresso served with a splash of liquor (sambuca, grappa, whiskey, or cognac are the most common) after a meal.
Because their main ingredient is milk, these coffee drinks are considered strictly breakfast beverages in Italy, appropriate only in the morning:
- Latte macchiato: a large glass cup of steamed milk with a shot of espresso. (Tip: latte means milk in Italian—if you order a “latte”, you will get a glass of plain white milk. Don’t skip the macchiato part!)
- Caffè latte: less milk and more espresso than a latte macchiato.
- Cappuccino: a small cup of steamed milk with a shot of espresso and topped with a layer of thick foam.
Where to find the best coffee in Italy
The population of Italy is around 60 million, and if you ask Italians where to find the best espresso, you will likely get 60 million different answers. Coffee bars are ubiquitous in Italy, and virtually every street corner, main square, and tiny lane is home to at least one, each with its loyal clientele. “When I’m leading food tours in Rome,” says Minchilli, “one of the questions I get asked the most is ‘Where can we have the best coffee in Rome?’. The truth is, I never know what to say because I have been going to the same three coffee bars my entire life, and the people who work there have seen me grow up. I could never switch bars because it would be like stabbing a family member in the back.”
If you’re not lucky enough to have a lifelong favorite, however, try these landmark coffee houses that are considered the flagships of Italy’s coffee culture:
Caffè Florian - Venice: This lavish coffee house set on St. Mark’s Square was opened on 29th December 1720 and is believed to be the oldest in Italy. Sip your espresso in the frescoed indoor dining rooms or at an outdoor table to soak up the same Venetian atmosphere once enjoyed by Lord Byron, Goethe, and Rousseau.
Zucca in Galleria (Caffè Miani) – Milan: Verdi, Toscanini, and Puccini would gather here for a drink after a performance at the nearby La Scala Opera House. Inaugurated in 1867, this art nouveau bar is a Milanese landmark. Sidle up to the beautiful inlaid wood bar to throw back an espresso like a local, or take a longer break to admire the original chandeliers and mosaics.
Caffé Gilli - Florence: The most storied café in Florence recently caused a stir by updating its beloved art nouveau interiors, but locals still insist that this 300-year-old coffee house serves the best espresso in the city. Often crowded with tourists in the summer, it remains a favorite gathering place for Florentines.
Tazza d’Oro and Sant’Eustachio - Rome: Rome has two rival soccer teams and two rival cafés, and Romans have been known to come to blows over the merits (and shortcomings) of both. These two beloved coffee shops sit just a 5-minute stroll apart and were opened within a few years of each other; they both roast their own beans and the quality of their espresso is—dare I say it?—equally outstanding. Tazza d’Oro is also famous for its icy caffè granita topped with rich whipped cream, while Sant’Eustachio has retained an authentic neighborhood bar vibe despite its fame.
Caffé Gambrinus – Naples: Fiercely protective of its coffee culture, Naples has launched a separate bid for UNESCO recognition of “the culture of Neapolitan espresso coffee.” Nowhere is this passion more palpable than inside this belle èpoque downtown caffè. Down your Neapolitan espresso and then leave an extra euro for “il caffè sospeso” (a “suspended coffee”, or a prepaid espresso for someone in need), one of the city’s many coffee-centered local traditions.
Italian coffee etiquette
If you want to blend in and enjoy your espresso with that enviable Italian sprezzatura, or effortless nonchalance, here are a few tips:
Know the difference between bar and table service. Most bars in Italy offer both servizio al banco (service at the bar) and servizio al tavolo (table service).
For bar service, pay in advance at the cash register and then take the receipt to the bar to show the barista when you order. Consume your espresso and then move on, especially at busy times of day when bar space is limited.
For table service, take a seat and wait for the staff to take your order. You can linger as long as you’d like and pay when you are ready to leave. Keep in mind that prices for table service are higher than bar service and the difference can be enormous at famous cafés in tourist hotspots like Venice. Check before you sit down!
Don’t expect takeaway coffee. Espresso in Italy is consumed exclusively at the bar (either al banco or al tavolo), with very few exceptions. You can request a coffee to go, but many bars—especially old school, small-town bars—simply do not stock disposable cups. Instead, do as the Italians do and give yourself an extra minute or two to drink your coffee standing at the bar before continuing on with your day.
Watch the clock. Cappuccino and other milk-heavy coffee drinks are breakfast fare in Italy, so ordering one in the afternoon or evening will peg you as a tourist from a mile away. If you crave that cappuccino experience in the afternoon but don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, try a caffè marocchino—think a mini-cappuccino spiked with chocolate that is perfectly acceptable from morning to after dinner.