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Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

Italy's coffee culture is admired around the world, but it can be hard for the average foreigner to navigate its rules and norms. Here’s what you need to know to get your caffeine fix ‘all’italiana’.

Do you know your macchiato from your corretto?
Do you know your macchiato from your corretto?Photo by tabitha turner on Unsplash

Italians have been consuming coffee since the 16th century, when Venetians started importing the beans from abroad.

But it was in the 20th century that coffee really took off in Italy, with the introduction of the espresso machine to the country in around 1901 and Alfonso Bialetti’s invention of the iconic stovetop moka coffee pot in 1933.

Since then, Italy has built up a coffee culture that is admired and imitated across the world; but this rich tradition comes with a set of rules and norms that can sometimes trip up those who are new to the scene.

Here’s what you need to know about drinking coffee in Italy like an Italian.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

A cocoa-dusted cappuccino.

A cocoa-dusted cappuccino. Photo by Laureen Missaire on Unsplash

Italian coffee habits

Coffee is commonly drunk at least three times a day in Italy: at breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner.

Milk coffees like a cappuccino or caffè latte are strictly breakfast drinks to go along with your cornetto or brioche pastry. An Italian who orders one of these drinks after about 10 or 11am would get a very strange look – though foreigners can just about get away with it.

That’s because milk coffees are so heavy they’re seen as almost a meal in their own right. It’s a firmly-held belief amongst most Italians that drinking a cappuccino after you’ve had an actual meal will completely ruin your ability to properly digest it.

READ ALSO: How do Italians eat spaghetti? The Local answers Google’s questions

At any other time of day, people drink only espresso-style coffees. Because you’re drinking no more than a shot’s worth, it’s to be consumed after rather than alongside your meal, to counteract the soporific effects of a full stomach and give you a little energy kick.

In the evening, and sometimes after lunch, coffee is often drunk with a small amount of alcohol to stop you getting too alert; either added to the coffee itself or brought in its own shot glass. 

As much as Italy has a thriving coffee bar scene, a good quantity of coffee-drinking is done at home with a moka caffettiera

Italian moka caffettiere coffee pots.

Italian moka caffettiere coffee pots. Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

This method involves pouring room-temperature water into a little pot that forms the base of the coffee maker; scooping some coffee grounds into a metal cap filled with tiny holes that sits directly on top; sealing the device by screwing on the top part of the caffetteria, which has an empty chamber for the coffee to run into; and turning on the stove.

When the water boils it’s slowly forced up through the coffee grounds and into the top half of the pot, giving you a concentrated coffee not far off an espresso.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

Some like to heap their coffee grounds in a little mound, while others swear by spreading them flat with the back of a spoon, sometimes poking little holes in with a toothpick.

But everyone agrees on a couple of things: you shouldn’t press the grounds in too tight, as this will prevent the water from percolating through; and you should absolutely not wash your coffee maker with soap: the built-up coffee residue is key to the flavour. 

Types of coffee

Cappuccino: a cappuccino.

Cappuccino scuro: a ‘dark’ cappuccino, i.e. one with less milk than your average cappuccino. A little extra hot water is added in its place.

Caffè latte: What anglophones think of as a latte – but use the full name here unless you want a glass of milk.

Caffè espresso: espresso… but just say caffè. Get used to the idea that for Italians, a coffee is an espresso.

Caffè macchiato: an espresso ‘marked’ with a splash of warmed milk.

An Italian caffe macchiato with a spoonful of sugar on top.

An Italian caffe macchiato with a spoonful of sugar on top. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Caffè ristretto: an espresso with some of the water held back, to give you a shorter shot.

Caffè lungo: an espresso with a little extra water added, to give you a longer shot.

Caffè corretto: an espresso ‘corrected’ with the addition of a shot of grappa or other alcohol.

Marocchino: a layered shot of espresso, cocoa powder, and foamed milk, sometimes with the addition of chocolate syrup. Served in a little shot glass so you can admire the pretty layers. 

Caffè americano: an americano.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy

How do I order a coffee?

In many cafes in big cities in particular, you’ll be expected to first pay at the till, then bring your receipt to the person behind the bar and order from them. Watch to see what others are doing, or if the cafe’s quiet, ask a staff member (with hand gestures if necessary) where you should go.

To order an espresso, ask for a caffè; to order a caffè macchiato, use the full name. Bear in mind that in many cases, the anglicised versions of Italian drink names are simply adjectives in Italian and don’t mean much by themselves. Caffè latte is milk coffee; remove the caffè and you are just asking for milk, which is what you’ll get.

Note the accent in the ‘è‘ at the end of caffè, which tells you that the emphasis should be on the second syllable. It’s pronounced ‘caff-EH’.

A foamy caffe latte with a biscuit.

A foamy caffe latte with a biscuit.Photo by Kelvin Han on Unsplash

Italian coffee is a one size-fits-all situation: if you order a cappuccino, you’ll get a cappuccino, without being asked what size you want. The only exception is if you’re at an airport or large train station, but even there, your options will be small, medium, or large; ask for a venti and the barista will have no idea what you’re on about.

While in the past takeaway coffee was almost unheard of, these days it’s a well established concept, and bars in even small towns and villages will more likely than not stock takeaway cups.

Many Italians drink their coffee al banco, or at the bar, especially if they’re grabbing a quick post-lunch caffè.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

If you see a list of drinks and corresponding prices hanging up near the till, bear in mind that those are likely to be the prices for drinking at the bar; sitting down at a table will cost you extra. In especially touristy places, it’s worth double checking the price of a sit-down coffee before ordering.

Coffee is considered a basic human need in Italy that everyone should have met – hence the tradition of the caffè sospeso, started in Naples. Homeless people will often ask you for a euro for a coffee, knowing that this, of all requests, is the one most likely to touch a stranger’s heart.

For that reason, you shouldn’t expect to pay much for coffee; around €1 for an espresso and between €1 and €1.50 for a cappuccino is standard, though it’s not uncommon to see prices as high as €3.50 if you’re sitting down in a city’s main piazza right in front the Duomo.

People enjoying coffee in the sun in a piazza outside Rome.

People enjoying coffee in the sun in a piazza outside Rome. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Regional variants

As with everything in Italy, each region – sometimes, each city or small town – has its own way of doing things. Here are a few variations on standard Italian coffee you can expect to find in some regions.

Bicerin (Piedmont): a layered drink of hot espresso and drinking chocolate topped with heavy cream, dating back to the 18th century, from the Piemontese capital of Turin. Bicerin in Piemontese means ‘small glass’, which is what the drink is served in.

Espressino (Puglia): a drink that is equal parts of espresso and milk, with some cocoa powder or Nutella on the bottom of the cup and a dusting of cocoa on top of the drink. Not dissimilar to a marocchino.

Caffè padovano (Padua, Veneto): cream, milk and mint syrup are whipped together and poured over hot espresso in a cappuccino cup, then sprinkled with cocoa powder, in this Padovan classic.

Caffè alla valdostana (Val d’Aosta): coffee, sugar, orange and lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon, grappa and Genepì, a local juniper-based liqueur, are mixed together in a walnut or oak wood lidded ‘friendship bowl’ with multiple spouts; the bowl is passed around the table clockwise and everyone takes a sip. 

Caffè leccese (Lecce, Puglia): a drink of ice, espresso, and almond milk. This variant came into being many years ago in the city of Lecce. Back then Italians had a way of storing ice in their own home, so would go to the cafe for a refreshing drink. Shards of ice would be hacked from a big block right before going in the cup.

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Italian pastries: Is it a cornetto, croissant or brioche?

The classic Italian breakfast is loved across the country - but what should you call the pastry you order with your cappuccino? Here's why the name seems to change depending on where you are, and what the difference actually is.

Italian pastries: Is it a cornetto, croissant or brioche?

There are plenty of differences between Italy’s northern and southern regions, and one you might have noticed is that the daily breakfast pastry served (and quickly devoured) along with a frothy cappuccino at the local bar-pasticceria might have a different name depending on where you go.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

Most people will probably know it as a cornetto, which is something many visitors to Italy mistake for a croissant.

Google translates cornetto as croissant most of the time, which doesn’t help matters. And Italians themselves might even call it a croissant (pronounced ‘crassant’) if ordering at a fancier type of pasticceria, when they’re feeling a bit fancy themselves. 

Meanwhile, some bars and bakeries advertise a brioche. But can it be a brioche if it’s shaped like a cornetto? Is there always a difference, or just sometimes? And does it really matter what you call it?

Let’s have a look at what’s going on.

North vs south

Generally speaking, a cornetto is called a cornetto in the centre and south of Italy, while the exact same pastry is usually referred to as a brioche in northern regions.

In fact, some northern Italians may tell you they’ve never heard anyone order a cornetto.

According to popular Italian food blog Dissapore“In Italy it is called brioche in the north and cornetto in the centre-south: a cultural heritage that has little to do with the actual characteristics of these sweets.”

“Italy seems to be the undisputed homeland of the binomial ‘cappuccino and cornetto/brioche,’” it notes.

Alessandro Pirollo, a writer at Italy’s esteemed food magazine La Cucina Italiana, goes a step further by saying: “calling [a cornetto] a brioche is just an improper use of the term, widespread in northern Italy.”

“True brioche is different from a cornetto, but be warned: neither one is a croissant,” he writes.

Shape, texture and ingredients

Each pastry has a long and disputed history, and their ingredients differ.

“The croissant really contains a handful of ingredients: flour, water, very little sugar, very little yeast, sometimes egg yolk but only to brush the surface before putting it in the oven,” explains Dissapore.

“The brioche and cornetto have more in common from this point of view: the same ingredients but different methods, as the brioche is leavened and the croissant is layered with layered butter. They both contain flour, a lot of butter, a lot of sugar, yeast, eggs and milk.”

For the brioche, notes Dissapore, “lard may also be used instead of butter”.

To muddy the waters further, in many parts of the south cornetti are also made using lard (strutto) instead of butter. (In fact, quite a few southern Italian pastries are made using lard, including more traditional versions of the pasticciotto and sfogliatella.)

The texture and shape of the pastry is probably the easiest way to tell them apart.

The brioche is soft and airy with a rounded shape, often topped with a ball of dough. In Sicily this is called a brioche col tuppo and it’s often served either filled with or soaked in granita or gelato.

A cornetto and a croissant may be fairly similar in appearance, at least to the untrained eye, but the cornetto is usually straighter while a croissant is curled.

Cornetti are also crunchier, less sweet, and can be eaten plain, though you’ll often find them served already filled with chocolate, cream, or jam.

READ ALSO: French dilemmas: Is it a pain au chocolat or a chocolatine?

Usually, at least in France, croissants are not filled with cream or chocolate. And because a croissant, unlike a cornetto, is made without eggs, this “allows the aroma of butter to prevail, obtaining the unmistakable taste of the croissant and its flakier, lighter texture,” points out La Cucina Italiana.

Cornetti for sale in Naples. Photo by Nicole Arango Lang on Unsplash

There are countless articles and blog posts written in Italian on the cornetto vs brioche vs croissant debate, which suggests that there’s widespread confusion about the differences even among Italians themselves.

The north-south debate over what to call the standard Italian breakfast pastry is also frequently the subject of jokes on Italian social media.

Whatever you call it, another important north-south difference is that in the south, hot cornetti, invariably made using lard, are not only eaten for breakfast but also served up to hungry customers as a late-night snack – meaning it’s not unusual to see long queues outside of bakeries at 1am on summer nights everywhere from Bari to Rome.

Meanwhile in the north of Italy, breakfast is the only time you’ll see anyone eating a cornetto. Or should that be brioche?