top of page

How to order coffee in Italy

Imagine yourself sitting at a picturesque Italian cafe, nestled between historic buildings along a charming cobblestone street; the only thing left to know is how to order the perfect coffee now that you're in Italy! If this is your dream then you need to read this. Here is everything you need to know in order to avoid committing coffee faux pas, impress locals, AND get the coffee drink you want.


Italy-order-coffee
The perfect Italian coffee is waiting for you!

Italian coffee drinking rules


Italians love to make rules about eating and drinking, so of course there are rules about coffee! On my first trip to Italy, I remember trying to order a cappuccino after lunch and being told it was “not possible”. Not that they didn't serve cappuccino, just that I wasn't allowed to order it after lunch. I admit I was a little shocked and slightly annoyed; how could they not allow me to have the most iconic coffee drink in the world? Fast forward about ten years, three of which I lived in Sicily, after making a lot of mistakes, drinking a LOT of coffee, and learning from my new Italian friends, I now understand the unwritten rules of drinking coffee in Italy.


Let’s start off with some basic tips to remember.


1. When it comes to Italian coffee, size matters. It's all about the volume of liquid in your cup, and the coffee:water:milk ratio.


2. Time of day determines which coffee drinks are acceptable.


3. The amount and type of food you may or may not be eating with your coffee affects the proper coffee pairing.


Where to get coffee in Italy


Although you can order coffee at almost any restaurant in Italy, cafes dedicated to coffee are usually called “bars”. Coffee bars typically have counter service, along with tables inside and/or outside. You can almost always walk up to the counter to order and drink your coffee. If you want to sit down at a table and you see servers walking around, you usually need to sit down at the table first and place your order with the server.


When doing this, catch the eye of a server and ask if you can sit, or just point to a table with a questioning look on your face. The answer will always be "of course", but it's still nice to ask. If you want to sit down at table and you don’t see any servers, start at the counter first, place your order, then ask if you can sit. I know it may sound silly, but in my experience, Italian people appreciate small pleasantries and the art of asking permission. If all else fails, use your powers of observation and watch what everyone else is doing before making a move.


Italy-order-coffee-outdoor-cafe
Ask for permission before sitting down at Italian cafes!

Another important thing to know is that in general, people in Italy don’t take coffee “to-go”. I mean, the standard espresso is TINY, and it would be silly to get a miniature to-go cup for something that is literally one ounce of liquid. Also, big, fancy coffees are hard to find in Italy...unless you’re at a Starbucks. But why go all the way to Italy just to get coffee at Starbucks?? That being said, if you are set on getting your coffee to-go and are ok with the disapproving looks sure to come your way, most bars have small paper or plastic cups they can give you if you ask for your coffee to be “take-away”. The Italian phrase is “porta via”, but “take-away” is a very common phrase in Italy.


What type of coffee can I order in Italy, and when am I allowed to drink it?


It's important to know most places that serve coffee in Italy don’t have a menu. There are only a few basic coffee drinks and everyone just knows what they are. But not to worry, here’s your chance to learn how to order Italian coffee like a local!


1. Espresso

Let's start with espresso, also simply called caffè. An espresso is very strong coffee brewed with just a little water, served in the tiniest cup imaginable. If you dare, you can drink it straight, or you can add sugar to it. They usually give you a pack of sugar on your saucer, or have them available at the bar. Look for a packet labeled "zucchero".


Italy-order-coffee-espresso
To order a classic Italian coffee, just say “un caffè” or “un espresso”

Drinking an espresso is always allowed, as there is never a bad time for an espresso! One of my favorite Italian sayings is “Chi dice no ad un’ espresso?” (Who says no to an espresso?) An espresso can be enjoyed with a pastry for breakfast, by itself at any time of the day, or after a meal to help with digestion. Don't be surprised if you get a tiny cup of water with your espresso. You're supposed to drink the water before the espresso to cleanse your palate, so you can taste the flavor of the coffee.


To order this pure shot of adrenaline, just say “un caffè” or “un espresso”. If you want to add “please” to the end of your order, say “per favore”, making sure you pronounce the “e” in “favore” like a long “a” sound (fah-vor-A). For ordering more than one espresso, change the ending to “i”. One espresso, two or more espressi. If you're feeling especially brave or need an extra jolt of caffeine, you can order an espresso doppio (double espresso). In my experience, most Italians don’t order this. If they want two coffees, they’ll drink the first one, then go back and order another.


Whatever you do, don’t try to slam an espresso. Just because it’s called an espresso “shot”, doesn’t mean you need to throw it back. You have to show respect to the coffee! If drinking espresso scares you, or you’re an amateur Italian coffee drinker, there are a few variations of the espresso you might want to try first.

2. Espresso Lungo

An espresso lungo (Italian for long), is also served in a tiny cup; however, they let more water filter through the coffee. This makes the volume of coffee a little bigger, but also a little less strong. Again, sugar is allowed.


3. Espresso Macchiato

An espresso macchiato, or caffè macchiato, is an espresso with a little steamed milk poured over the top. Macchiato is the Italian word for “stained”, so you are basically ordering a coffee stained with milk.


Italy-order-coffee-espresso-macchiato
“Chi dice no ad un’ espresso?”
4. Cappuccino

What exactly is a cappuccino, the iconic drink that brings so much joy to people around the world? A cappuccino starts out with a shot of espresso in a "big" mug. Steamed milk is poured over the top, usually in a design like a heart or flower. Cocoa or cinnamon is sometimes sprinkled over the top in lieu of the design.


Italy-order-coffee-cappuccino
Which is your favorite cappuccino design?
Italy-order-coffee-cappuccino-heart
Italy-order-coffee-cappuccino-design-swirl

The cappuccino has some surprisingly complicated rules. This tasty cup of liquid heaven is most often enjoyed with breakfast. By “breakfast”, I mean a pastry. Italians do not usually eat big meals for breakfast, just coffee and a pastry. As I previously mentioned, there is also a time limit for drinking a cappuccino. The standard rule is before noon, with an exception being made for social occasions not associated with a meal. For example, I can meet a friend for a cappuccino at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, as long as we are not eating lunch.


Italy-order-coffee-cappuccino-pastry
Breakfast, anyone?

Referring back to the tips listed above, a cappuccino is not acceptable with lunch because a) the volume of liquid is too much to drink with a full meal, and b) coffee is not a good pairing for foods eaten AT lunch because the flavors will clash. If you want coffee with lunch, wait until after your meal and order one of the three acceptable forms of espresso. The espresso macchiato is the most similar to a cappuccino, as it is in basic terms, a miniature version.


Italy-order-coffee-cappuccino-design-flower
Due cappuccini, per favore!

As with the word espresso, cappuccino is singular. Change the ending to “i” when ordering more than one. This makes the plural form of the word cappuccini.


5. Caffè Americano

A caffè Americano is technically allowed at any time of the day, but is preferred before noon due to its size. Refer back to the cappuccino rule. How is a caffè Americano different than a regular Italian caffè, you ask? The first important difference is that there is more water filtered through the coffee, to create a “watered down” result. Sometimes this is done by making an espresso and then pouring extra hot water over the top. The second main difference is the size of the cup. Instead of a tiny espresso cup, the caffè Americano is served in a “big” coffee mug.


Let me clarify by saying this is an Italian-sized version of an American coffee. We’re not talking about a coffee big enough to attach an IV line to. Instead of drinking a gigantic cup (or cups) of coffee only in the morning, many Italians drink multiple smaller cups of caffè throughout the day.


6. Latte

The most important thing you need to know about the word latte is that it is NOT A COFFEE drink in Italy. “Latte” is the Italian word for milk, so if you order a latte you will most likely get a glass of milk. That being said, the person behind the counter may take pity on you and ask if you really want milk, but it’s better to ask for what you actually want on the front end!


Italy-order-coffee-latte-macchiato
A latte macchiato is my go-to Italian coffee order!

Instead, order a latte macchiato. Do you remember what “macchiato” means? Ordering this will get you a glass of steamed milk “stained” with coffee. This drink is like a cross between the big brother of a caffe macchiato and the less fancy cousin of a cappuccino. It has the same ingredients of coffee and milk, and there is still one shot of espresso; however, it has two basic differences. The latte macchiato has a higher milk to coffee ratio, and it’s usually served in a tall glass instead of a “coffee” cup.


7. Caffè Freddo

"Freddo" is the Italian word for "cold", making caffè freddo a "cold coffee". This is generally only served during warm weather, and is prepared one of two ways. It could be a shot of espresso shaken up with ice and sugar until it gets a bit frothy. Alternatively, it could be a container of espresso, previously brewed and sweetened, that is kept cold in a refrigerator behind the bar. It might be served in a typical tiny espresso cup, or in a short glass topped with cold milk and/or whipped cream. Either way, it’s deliciously refreshing, especially on a hot summer day!


Italy-order-coffee-caffe-freddo
A caffè freddo is perfect on a hot summer day!
8. Caffè Crema (Crema di Caffè)

A caffè crema, or crema di caffè, is a frozen, blended coffee drink. It’s what would happen if a Wendy’s Frosty and a Starbucks Frappaccino had a baby. Yes, it’s tiny. This creamy and delicious miniature coffee “slushy” is truly a gift from the coffee gods. Most often found at highway service stations and small coffee bars, you can tell whether they serve it because you’ll see the little machine churning away on the counter or behind the bar.


Italy-order-coffee-crema-di-caffe
Creamy frozen coffee treat?
Italy-order-coffee-crema-di-caffe
Yes please!

Crema di caffè, as I said, is small, and usually served in a small cup or glass. Don’t be fooled by its small size, these little frozen baby coffees pack a punch! As far as I know, there are no rules for drinking a crema di caffè. If you see the machine and it has something inside, order it!


9. Affogato al Caffè

Speaking of having coffee for dessert, if you’ve never had an affogato al caffè you’re missing out! Usually referred to just by the name affogato, Italian for “drowning”, this combines two of Italy’s greatest inventions, coffee and gelato. An affogato is a cup of gelato with espresso poured over the top (thus the name, because the gelato is "drowning" in coffee). If you thought it couldn’t get any better, wait, there’s more. You sometimes have the option of pouring liqueur over the top! I think that deserves a mic drop, and is a perfect way to end this list of classic Italian coffee drinks.


Italy-order-coffee-granita-dessert-sicily
A Sicilian version of an affogato is made with granita.
Italy-order-coffee-gelato-dessert-affogato
Gelato drowning in coffee and topped with a macaron!
 

Italian Coffee Cheat Sheet


Acceptable any time of day

  • Espresso = strong coffee, tiny cup

  • Espresso lungo = strong coffee with a little extra water, tiny cup

  • Espresso macchiato = strong coffee, tiny cup, with a little steamed milk

Only in the morning

  • Cappuccino = shot of espresso with steamed milk, "big" cup, fancy design

  • Caffe Americano = straight black coffee, watered down, "big" cup, no milk

  • Latte Machiatto = steamed milk with shot of espresso, tall glass, no design

Dessert

  • Caffè freddo = cold, strong coffee, short or tall glass, whipped cream optional

  • Crema di caffè = blended coffee "slushy", tiny cup or short glass

  • Affogato = gelato with espresso poured over, glass bowl or cup, liquor optional

 

Italy-how-to-order-coffee
Can you identify the two Italian coffee drinks here?

Hopefully this increased your coffee intelligence and made you want to take a trip to Bella Italia! The only question is, which coffee will you try first when you arrive?

 

If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a comment!


Check out some of the other articles on my European Destinations page or read about my adventures in Sicily below!


Recent Posts

See All

Comments


logo-variation-02.png
bottom of page