Coffee is a serious cultural obsession in Italy. It’s pretty much ritualistic in its appreciation and consumption (as it should be, in my opinion). Here’s the beginner’s guide to understanding how Italy’s unique coffee culture.
Italian coffee inventions
Italians invented the first steam-pressure coffee machine that is now an international phenomenon— the espresso machine was patented in 1884 in Torino and later optimized in 1901 in Milan.
The Bialetti Moka Pot (aka the machinetta) was invented in 1933. If you stay in an AirBnB or someone’s home in Italy, you are very likely to see one of these percolators on the stovetop. They are fun to use and make a sort of knockoff espresso.
Drinking coffee in Italy
Italians surprisingly aren’t big breakfast eaters — the biggest meal of the day is actually lunch. In the morning, Italians usually start their morning with a coffee and a little pastry at the local bar, or what we would consider a café. Coffee is knocked back in shot or tiny cup form standing up at the bar. No to-go cups here and no tipping required unless you sit down.
In these coffee bars, sometimes you pay as you get your coffee and sometimes you pay after you are finished. Watch the other patrons for clues as to how you are expected to pay.
The noisy espresso bars strike me as more similar to the casual atmosphere of American diners (if they didn’t have seating) than something like a Starbucks style cafe.
Coffee is enjoyed several times throughout the day – in the morning (of course), after lunch to aid digestion, and in the afternoon during a coffee break or pausa caffé. It’s a quick affair, with most people only spending a few minutes in the bars.
Tiramisu actually means “pick-me-up” in Italian, so named for the jolt of caffeine you get from the espresso inside the dessert. Real tiramisu never has rum, which would be more of a “put me down”!
Italian coffee orders
A single 3oz shot of espresso in a porcelain cup. Espresso is the default here.
A double shot of espresso
Americana or Lungo
A ‘long’ espresso with double the water, creating the thinner American style we are all probably familiar with.
Espresso that has been “marked” with a splash of milk or milk foam (option of hot or cold milk). Often comes with a small sweet.
Espresso with half steamed milk and topped with foamed milk. Only a breakfast item, as Italians consider this almost a meal item and won’t drink them after 11am. Also called a cappuccio in southern Italy.
A large cup of milk (latte) with a shot of espresso. Make sure to specific a caffe latte, as latte just means milk in Italian!
Espresso shaken with ice cubes with simple syrup in a cocktail glass. Also generally made before 11am.
Granita di caffè
Kind of a coffee slushy. Can come in other flavors than coffee.
A shot of espresso, a layer of foam, and a sprinkle of cacao powder in a glass mug. May be mixed with hot chocolate in parts of Northern Italy.
A “corrected” shot of espresso with a shot of liquor, such as grappa, sambucca, or cognac.
The Italian cortado is a dense drink with half espresso and half warm milk, coming from the word cortar, or to dilute (with milk). Unlike in Latin American cortados, Italian cortados do not have any sort of foam.
A coffee drink served in northern Italy composed of espresso, hot chocolate, and whole milk.
A few extra terms that might come in handy
Boiling. For those who like to scald their tongues with the hottest of coffees.
A dollop of whipped cream
Brand name diet sweetener similar to Sweet’n’Low.
Let me know which kind of Italian coffee drink is your favorite. Or if I left your favorite out – I will add to the list!
Time to brew some coffee!
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