How to Order Coffee in Italy
There is a generous degree of debate regarding who has the best coffee in Italy. Neapolitans will unfailingly boast that ours is the best coffee in the world. I agree with that assessment. But I am also biased. As a rule, the coffee of the South is earthier and more full bodied. As you move up the boot, coffee brands change. In Naples Kimbo is King. In Rome you find a lot of Lavazza. Trieste is home to Illy. The brand you use at home says a lot about your allegiances so never give a Neapolitan a gift of Illy coffee. This will be unapologetically offensive. I did this once so I should know. After learning that I was supposed to take coffee and sugar to a dead relative’s family to commemorate a death-o-versary, I took Illy, thinking it posh. Let’s just say I made them all forget the somber occasion of the day.
When Neapolitans travel, the first thing they pack is often a moka pot, Kimbo coffee and if they are really, really, crazy, Neapolitan tap water. They bring tap water because we remain steadfastly convinced that you can only make proper coffee with the calcified waters of the Serino Aqueduct that (used to) supply the faucets of Naples.
Also in the South, coffee/ espresso often comes with a glass of water. In the North, not so much. Yesterday I embarrassed myself by drinking a glass of water another woman had asked the barista for after finishing her caffè. When the barista plonked the water down in front of me, I automatically drank it- assuming it was mine. He looked at me with the hatred most people reserve for invasive household rodents, or southern Italians.
In spite of all this caffeinated parochialism, there are certain rules one universally adheres to when ordering coffee in Italy whether you are in Bolzano, Bologna, Parma or Palermo. First, remember that what we call a ‘bar’ in Italy is what you would generally call a ‘café’ anywhere else in the world. Bars in Italy are a neighborhood meeting point and in small towns might be the only source of gossip- which doubles as breaking news (Did you hear Filomena’s daughter is getting married in December?---- Oh pity, she must be pregnant!). There are no high top stools as in American bars. Though all bars serve alcohol in Italy- the real focus is coffee, which most workers consume at a nationally ubiquitous 10:30AM pausa caffè (coffee break) and again after lunch. Nearly every office I have ever worked in Italy, actually posts directions for your timekeeping as related to this nationally mandated pausa coffe. God forbid you get paid for the five minutes it takes to consume an eXpressO.
To know what and how to order, consult the list below. Start by saying, Vorrei un……………
If you want a basic espresso, simply order a caffe. Also in the South, baristas often automatically sugar your coffee. If you want with no sugar order ‘amaro’ or bitter. We call it an espresso because you drink it on the go or express. Just remember there is no ‘x’ in espresso.
A regular espresso that is pulled longer to just slightly dilute the full caffeinated impact.
A more extreme version of the lungo, this is espresso with hot water. It is called an Americano because American coffee is weak. If you are spotted as a foreign tourist and order a caffè, the barista will almost always verify if you want it Americano style or not. Don’t take it personally, there are enough crazy visitors who accidentally order espresso when they really want their big gulp coffee, that baristas have just learned to always verify what’s what first.
The opposite of a lungo- this is more highly compacted espresso with less water. It is basically a thimble full of lighter fluid.
Macchiato means stained in Italian. In this case, a little shot of espresso is stained with a spoonful of milk vs. the more generous milk in a cappuccino. Ignore everything Starbucks taught you about macchiatos as they relate to caramel syrup. Maybe also just ignore caramel syrup as it relates to coffee.
The cappuccino is named for the mocha colored hood of the capuchin monk order. Now it is more readily associated with the caffeinated beverage. This is a shot of espresso served with a cup of warm milk. Don’t order a latte in Italy unless you just want milk- which is what latte actually means. Order a capuccino chiaro or clear, if you want less espresso. Order it scuro or dark, if you want more. If you plan to order one of these after lunch, be prepared to hear every Italian in your vicinity make retching noises. I will be one of them.
Caffè con Panna
This is a macchiato or cappuccino with whipped cream instead of simply milk. Originally a petite indulgence, this seems to have inspired iced beverages of the domed plastic cup variety in America.
An espresso with whipped hazelnut sugar, this was born at the Vero Bar del Professore in Naples. Now you can find it everywhere. If you are craving something with a sweet kick but don’t want to be spotted drinking some Starbucks inspired abomination, order this! Your dignity will thank you later.
A cappuccino or macchiato sprinkled with cocoa powder. No comment on the fact that it is sort of racist in its reference to Moroccans.
A shot of espresso with booze in it—usually anise, Sambuca, grappa(!) or Baileys. I am surprised by how often I notice people ordering this in the morning. And I guess if it is that kind of day, to each his own…..It literally means corrected coffee so if your day needs correcting order away!
Perhaps the best caffè of all is the suspended coffee. This Neapolitan tradition emerged in working class neighborhoods as an act of chairty- anonymously paying for the coffee of the next bar patron in need. To order a suspended coffee is to understand the compassion of the neighborhood bar. Now tell me Naples is not the best city in the world!
This is barley (toasted orzo) coffee—so actually not coffee at all. I never drink this shit as it is disgusting and it reminds me of my nasty old mother-in-law. The only benefit of this beverage is that you can serve it to a child and trick him or her into thinking it is big people coffee.
Caffè al Ginseng
Also gross. It is frothed milk, instant coffee and ginseng. Now you can find it in almost all bars in Italy. I will never understand why people order this shit, except maybe in order to take one.
Really??? Ma vaffan…………….
Skim milk, which you can order with anything, but don’t blame the barista if he gives you a look of huffy derision.
Iced version. You can order any version of coffee iced. BUT……. Really the only dignified way of doing this is to order an iced espresso in summer in a glass espresso cup with a metal handle. If you are looking for unicorno glitter gloop or pumpkin spice puke, there may be a deportation order in your future. And I might be the one to blow the whistle.
You know the kind of people that sport plastic domed cups of ‘coffee’ confections--- well if you want to look like one of them order a shakerato in Italy.
Some final tips:
1) If you want to stand up and drink you coffee on the go, you pay one price. If you sit down and have a server, you usually pay about double. Sometimes they bring you a little cookie with your coffee if you sit. You are really paying for the privilege of parking your ass in a chair. Do this in a famous piazza like San Marco and your coffee will cost more than a bottle of Dom.
2) If you plan on standing up and drinking your coffee at the bar- you need to pay first at the cassa (cashier) and then take your receipt with you to show to the barista at the counter. To see this ritual in action, watch Marriage Italian Style.
3) You should specify if you want your coffee in a tazza fredda (cold) or calda (hot). In some coffee bars in the South, they serve coffee in scorching hot cups that you have to wait to drink out of and it sort of takes the express out the espresso moment.
4) Your coffee will come with a cup of water in the South (from below Rome) and in the North you have to ask for a cup of water. Northern baristas will then act like you have asked to be served a goose that lays golden eggs and an envelope consisting of 100 million euros in unmarked bills as they grunt and pour you a glass of fizzy water. In the South, only a cretin drinks his espresso without water.
5) After you have finished you coffee, say grazie and arrivaderci. Whether or not you leave a tip is your choice—generally a small tip of 20 cents in a nice bar is appropriate. If your barista is Tuscan (named Aldo in the Piazza of Colle Val D’Els!a) and mean to you for asking for water—DO NOT TIP HIM!