Espresso yourself: How to drink coffee like a local in Italy
There’s a lot to thank the Italians for when it comes to coffee – from introducing it to Europe from the Middle East in the 1600s to inventing ways of making the perfect cup. Nowadays, the average Italian has 7-8 coffees a day, so it’s safe to say life here wouldn’t be the same without it.
Coffee culture in Italy
You’re never far from a caffeine hit in Italy. And instead of generic chain shops – which are still rare here – you can look forward to top-notch coffees in lots of authentic cafés and bars. Here’s what you need to know to enjoy a cup the Italian way, from how to order to the best way to drink it.
When to drink it
Milky coffees are traditionally a breakfast drink in Italy, as avoiding milk later in the day is said to be better for your digestion. You might hear this custom being called the ‘11am cappuccino rule’, but if these kinds of coffees are your go-to, you can still order them whatever the time is.
After breakfast, it’s a case of little and often when it comes to drinking coffee during the day. You won’t find Italians lounging around in a café for hours – a coffee break is ‘una pausa’ (literally ‘a pause’), where you knock back an espresso in a few gulps before heading on your way. To keep your energy levels perked up when you’re out exploring, do as the locals do and stop off for a quick pit stop and drink at the counter.
Top tips for ordering
1. Takeaway drinks aren’t the norm in Italy, and places won’t usually have disposable cups unless you’re in a train station. So, enjoy a well-earned pause and soak up the atmosphere instead.
2. Each type of coffee will usually only come in one size, but you can ask for an extra shot of espresso if you fancy a stronger drink.
3. Love a latte? Remember to order a ‘café latte’, or you might end up with a glass of milk instead.
4. Lots of Italians simply drink standing at the counter, but if you’d prefer to sit back and relax, you can pay a little extra for a seat at a table.
5. It’s not unusual to pay upfront in busy places – usually around €1 for a simple espresso. Once you’ve got the receipt, take it over to the barista to get your coffee.
How to drink it
You’ll usually get a glass of water with your order, and you’re supposed to drink this first. The water helps to cleanse your palate, so when you do sip your coffee, you can taste the flavours more easily.
If you fancy making Italian coffee when you get home, you could buy yourself a moka pot. A must-have for every household in Italy, these metal, stove-top coffee pots force steaming water through ground coffee, so you can enjoy an espresso-style brew in your own kitchen.
What’s on the menu?
This is a straight espresso. You’ll get a small cup of strong coffee served on a saucer with a spoon – sometimes it comes with a glass of water and a small chocolate too. Order a doppio if you fancy a double espresso.
The traditional cappuccino is made with equal amounts of coffee, milk and foam – and for absolute perfection, the layer of foam should be exactly 2cm thick. It comes in a slightly larger cup than a caffè and is sometimes served with a dusting of chocolate or cinnamon.
The americano is said to have been invented by US soldiers during WWII, who wanted to recreate the filter coffee they drank back home. It’s made in a mug with a shot of espresso topped up with boiling water, and you can ask for latte caldo (hot milk) or latte freddo (cold milk) on the side.
Literally ‘coffee milk’ – a single shot of espresso is topped up with hot milk and served in a glass. It’s a popular breakfast drink for Italians, who make it at home using a moka pot and a pan of heated milk.
Macchiato means ‘stained’ or ‘spotted’, so this is an espresso that comes topped or ‘stained’ with a little foamed milk and served in a small glass.
A tall glass of hot, steamed milk and foam with an espresso shot added at the end. There should be distinct layers of coffee, foam and then milk, so remember to stir before you drink it, or you’ll get all the coffee first.
Espresso served over ice in a glass – the perfect pick-me-up on a hot day. The fresh coffee needs to be cooled and drunk quickly, so it doesn’t become too bitter. And for a sweet treat, you can order a caffè freddo alla vaniglia to get a shot of vanilla syrup added to the mix.
Traditionally drunk to round off a meal, this is an espresso with a splash of strong spirit – grappa, sambuca or cognac are all popular choices. The alcohol is usually added by the barista, but in some places, it might come as a separate shot so you can decide how much alcohol you want to put in yourself.
Granita di caffè
Not your usual Italian coffee, this espresso-flavoured ice slushy originally came from Sicily. It’s sweetened with sugar, so it makes a good dessert. Or you can do as the Sicilians do and have one for breakfast with a brioche bun.
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