The dapper barista steamed the milk with precision, poured the creamy froth over the shot of robust espresso in a rhythmic swaying motion, then slid the cappuccino onto the bar with a slight nod. As I sipped the luscious intensity, I tasted Italy.
The day officially began. The taste lingered with both me and Aaron throughout the day, so we returned to Il Gianfornaio in Testaccio that afternoon for another cappuccino.
His colleague clearly had less patience in serving tourists, probably annoyed by anyone who would take milk past morning—the very un-Italian mark of a foreigner. We were clearly ignorant of the digestive rules of Italian coffee drinking. It was good but didn’t have the same exalting effect.
The next morning we were happy to see our original barista behind the bar. Recognizing us, this distinguished professional gave us a friendly smile and greeting. Next to him was his less-than-eager colleague, but at least this time the guy didn’t turn his nose up at us as we ordered our coffee and pastries. Perhaps he recognized our appreciation for their skill and passion, or maybe he just felt less bloated than the previous day.
When we returned that afternoon, we instead ordered an acceptable macchiato, a single shot of bold espresso with just a dollop of steamed milk. The smooth, full-bodied taste drawn from this tiny cup had perfectly balanced acidity without bitterness.
By our final day, the two men greeted us like regulars, with a touch of humor even, already anticipating our morning cappuccino order. The colleague even responded to my unsophisticated Italian. We thanked them both, admiring their artistry, knowing we’d miss their sense of perfection in their craft.
Caffè, Coffee in Italy
Taking our cue in the caffè by observing locals who start the day at around nine or ten standing at the bar with a newspaper—our boys instead checking football (soccer) stats on their phones—Aaron and I each ordered a cappuccino1 and an assortment of pastries.
An Italian day starts with coffee. The daily ritual begins in il caffè or il bar, terms used somewhat interchangeably. Both locales serve coffee and alcohol, but the cafe is typically open earlier in the day, serving breakfast pastries or sandwiches, while the bar focuses on cocktails and wine with savory snacks, like an aperitivo before dinner.
La colazione, breakfast, is a light affair, typically consisting of a cappuccino (espresso with frothed milk) or a shot of espresso with a cornetto (croissant). After lunch, we’d stop for a midday macchiato1. Most Italians take their coffee standing at the bar. It costs double to sit down at a table (even more in a touristy piazza, but is still usually less than you’d pay at Starbucks in the US).
Speaking of which, you won’t find a Starbucks in Rome (for now anyway). Italian coffee culture is very particular. Italians are coffee aficionados who uphold a higher standard for quality and expect more reasonable prices. They are purists who like it bold and don’t tolerate bad coffee—not snobby, just no-nonsense—nor would they ever supersize their espresso or lace it with sugary syrups.
Italians have high standards for quality and expect reasonable prices.
Ordering Coffee in Italy
First, remember that Italy is home to espresso. Italian coffee is a tradition, a ritual. The first Italian coffeehouse opened in Venice in the 17th century, quickly spreading throughout Italy, after trade had introduced it from the Middle East in the 16th century.
It all starts with great beans. Master roasters ensure the beans are darkly roasted to a rich brown, but not burned, and should have little to no oil. Beans are very finely ground just before brewing to maintain optimal freshness, then brewed under high pressure to produce a beverage with a deep body.
Each coffee is served in its own precise ceramic or glass cup. Don’t expect a small, medium, large, or supersized paper cup of diluted drip. Italians don’t take coffee to go. They may sit down to read or catch up with friends, but usually, they prefer to stand at the bar for a quick drink before rushing off to work, while chatting with the barista, or while reading a paper.
Italians would only drink a cappuccino at breakfast since warmed milk in coffee is considered too heavy to have past about 11am. In the afternoon, they’ll have a macchiato, and later drink an espresso (caffè) before and/or after dinner.
- Espresso: basic pressurized Italian coffee—a single 25 ml shot in a tiny cup—often served with a small glass of water. The high pressure creates a thin crema, creamy consistency, on top. Get one by simply asking for “Un caffè per favore.” Good any time of the day and an “acceptable” after-dinner coffee, as is a decafinato, decaf espresso. Order it “con zucchero” (“with sugar”) to sweeten.
- Caffè lungo is a long pull of espresso (weaker)
- Caffè ristretto (corto / forte) is a short “reduced” pull of espresso (stronger)
- Doppio espresso is a double espresso
- Caffè con panna is espresso with a dollop of whipped cream
- Cappuccino: espresso in a small cup (150 ml) with a 4:1 ratio “cap” of frothed milk poured over it to create perfect dark swirling patterns in the soft foam top. These are perfect to sit down and enjoy with a friend. Ask for two, “Vorrei due cappuccini per favore.” (“May I have two cappuccinos please.”) Only order this at breakfast if you want to stay true to your Italian experience.
- Caffè macchiato: espresso in a tiny cup with a splash of frothed milk and foam (espresso “stained” with milk). A good afternoon pick-me-up.
- Lattè macchiato: frothed milk topped with espresso (milk “stained” with espresso).
- Caffè latte: espresso with an 8:1 ratio of hot milk poured over it. Keep in mind that if you order “un latte” in Italy, you’ll get a glass of milk, but a caffè latte is the equivalent of the Starbucks version of a “latte.”
- Caffè americano: espresso with water (often served in a separate pot to tourists who want watery coffee so they can dilute it to their individual preference).
- Caffè corretto: espresso with a shot of grappa (typically) or cognac; traditionally, the shot is added to residual espresso after drinking un caffè.
- Caffè freddo or Shakerato: a shot of espresso shaken with ice until foamy and poured into a goblet or martini glass, perfect for a hot day.
Remember to greet your barista in Italian first: “Buongiorno. Buonasera signore.” (“Hello/Good morning. Good evening sir.”) It is not only courteous but shows your respect for the Italian language and culture.
Some bars will have you pay first and give your receipt to the barista; in others, you order first. Take a cue by watching others. Or ask, “Pago/Paghiamo2 prima?” (“Do I/we pay first?”)
Then impress them with your appreciation before you go, “Grazie4, buona giornata.” (“Thank you, have a good day.”) or “Grazie mille.” (“Thank you very much.”—literally, a thousand thanks).
Making Italian coffee at home.
Italians often brew their own coffee at home using an old-school, stovetop Mocha caffetteria, circa 1960. The steel pot of this traditional, steam-infusion espresso maker forces boiling water from its lower chamber up through the grounds into the upper pot. We now have three sizes at home.
Though it’s not the same as high-pressure espresso brewed by a professional, it still makes a full-bodied brew—of course, depending on the quality of your beans. Italian espresso typically uses the Arabica coffee bean variety roasted to a very specific high standard.
Great coffee starts with great beans, roasted to dark perfection.
Italian Language Notes
Notes for English speakers:
Though Standard Italian is the official language of Italy, there are thirty-four historical living languages and dialects throughout the country, such as Romanesco in Rome. Vowel sounds are consistent: ‘a’ [ah], ‘e’ [ay], ‘i’ [ee], ‘o’ [oh], ‘u’ [oo].
1 Though regional sounds may vary, in Standard Italian, a ‘c’ before an ‘e’ or ‘i’ says [ch], while a ‘c’ before an ‘a’, ‘o’, or ‘u’ says [k], as in cacio [kah’-chyō] and guanciale [gwan-chya’-lay]. For ‘c’ to make a [k] sound before an ‘e’ or ‘i’, an ‘h’ is added as in chitarra [key-tar’-rah] and porchetta [por-kayt’-tah]. A double consonant creates a slightly extended sound.
2 Similarly, a ‘g’ before an ‘e’ or ‘i’ says [j], as in giudea [jew-day’-ah], while ‘gh’ before an ‘e’ or ‘i’, or ‘g’ before an ‘a’, ‘o’, or ‘u’ says [g], as in ghetto [gayt’-toe].
3 And an ‘sc’ before an ‘e’ or ‘i’ says [sh], as in prosciutto [pro-shoot’-toe], while ‘sch’ before an ‘e’ or ‘i’, or ‘sc’ before an ‘a’, ‘o’, or ‘u’ says [sk], as in bruschetta [brew-skayt’-tah]
4 ‘z’ makes a [ts] sound, as in calzone [kal-tso’-nay]; double ‘zz’ slightly extends the sound, as in pizza [peet’-tsah].
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