Italian Coffee Culture: Drink as the Italians Do!
Learn the secrets behind Italian Coffee and what exactly to order without a menu.
I always see tourists frustrated to near tears in busy cafes. They can’t understand why no one is serving them and why the barista isn’t responding to their panicked gesturing. Don’t be them! I’m going to spell out the unspoken rules and systems of Italian coffee culture so you can fit right in. You’ll also find out what the basic menu is in every Italian cafe. Head’s up: you rarely see an actual menu so you’ll want to know this. To top it off, I’ll share some of my favorite unique Italian coffee drinks that only locals know about. Grab a cup of cappuccino and let’s dive in!
5 Things To Know about Italian Coffee Culture
Coffee is a historic ritual in Italy that has become so ingrained in the culture that it’d be hard to imagine Italy without it. DID YOU KNOW? Coffee started out in pharmacies as a drug available only to the wealthy before Italy’s oldest cafe, Florian, opened in 1720 in Venice. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the invention of the steam-driven machine brought Italians their beloved espresso.
1. First thing’s first—know where to find coffee!
As strange as it might sound, a cafe or coffee shop is called a bar in Italy. They usually serve coffee as well as alcohol, but in either case it’s called a bar!
2. In most bars, you have to pay for your drink first, and then give the barista your receipt.
That’s why no one will serve you if you just walk up to the bar and tell them what you want. It can get confusing, but it’s an effective way to make sure everyone pays for their order. This is certainly the case in busy cities, but in smaller towns you don’t always have to pay first.
3. If you have a sweet tooth like me, you’ll want to look for a Pasticceria instead of a bar.
Bars usually have a small selection of croissants but if you want quality pastries and desserts, the Pasticceria (bakery) is the place to go!
4. The tradition of Caffè Sospeso, or “suspended coffee”, started in Naples.
It’s an anonymous act of generosity that keeps the good vibes going! When you order a Caffè Sospeso, you’ll be paying two coffees but the other coffee will be paid forward to another patron who comes asking if the bar has a Caffè Sospeso available. The tradition was fading out but has been revived in recent years. Give it a try!
5. A small glass of sparkling or flat water is usually served with each coffee.
Unfortunately, it usually comes in a single-use plastic cup and lord knows how many of those get thrown away in Italy each day. Ask for “un bicchiere d’acqua in vetro”, water in glass.
If you’re interested in visiting Italy and visiting the best cafes in Tuscany, read my City Guide: Florence.
Navigating an Italian Coffee Menu
The coffee menu usually isn’t displayed so knowing what’s served at every ‘bar’ shows some level of preparedness. If you want to do as the locals do, drink your coffee standing up at the bar. In actuality, Italian coffee only takes 2-3 sips to drink. It’s an in-and-out routine for locals who will have a quick chat with their local barista before running out the shop. I still enjoy the pleasure of sitting for a long coffee and people watching, but you’ll often pay a bit more to sit.
HEADS UP: If you order your beloved Latte, you’ll get a cup of warm milk. And why is that? Well, because “latte” is the Italian word for “milk”!
Caffè: a single shot of espresso
Doppio: a double shot of espresso
Ristretto: a “short,” concentrated cup of espresso made with half the usual amount of water
Lungo: a “long” cup of espresso made with slightly more water than a typical shot of espresso
Americano: A diluted shot of espresso most similar to American drip coffee.
Macchiato: Italian for “stained” or “marked”, this is espresso with a touch of steamed milk.
Cappuccino: a shot of espresso with steamed milk
Corretto: a shot of espresso with a small amount of liquor like grappa, sambuca, or cognac.
PRO-TIP: Dairy-free? Sensitive to caffeine? Most bars now have soy milk. To order a decaf cappuccino made with soy milk, ask for “un cappuccino decaffeinato con latte di soia”.
Specialty Italian Coffee Drinks You Might Not Know
Espressino (also called Marocchino): Think of it as a tiny cappuccino with a dusting of cocoa on top, always served in a glass so that you can see the layers of milk, coffee, and cocoa. Some bars will smear the inside of the glass with Nutella first!
Caffè al Ginseng / Ginseng: This is considered a healthier energy boost because of ginseng’s ability to calm the central nervous system and stimulate mental activity. It takes on a rich, nutty flavor that is surprisingly delicious. It usually comes with lots of sugar already in it, so ask for it “senza zucchero” then add your own. If you’re avoiding caffeine, be careful! “Un ginseng” in southern Italy comes without coffee, while other areas will automatically assume you meant caffè al ginseng, or espresso with ginseng.
Caffe d’Orzo: No caffeine in this one either. It’s made from barley and has a nutty flavor. Interesting but I personally prefer the Ginseng.
Espressino Freddo, AKA Crema di Caffè: This one is SO delicious! It’s made by creaming sugar, ice, and espresso together so it becomes cold and frothy. Then it’s stirred into panna, which is like whipped cream. It’s almost like coffee flavored soft-serve ice cream, but somehow even better!
PRO-TIP: To take it to the next level (and I highly recommend that you do), the barista will coat the inside of your glass with your choice of chocolate, nutella, or caramel–but the local favorite in Puglia is Borghetti (a coffee liquor).
Caffe Shakerato: Espresso and sugar syrup shaken in a cocktail shaker until very frothy and served in a martini glass. Great for hot summer days!
Granita di Caffè: Granita is a shaved ice treat from Sicily. They’re especially good because rather than blending fruit with ice, they use the juice of the fruit so that it’s super flavorful. Granita comes in tons of flavors, including nut flavors and coffee! Do as the locals do and eat it with a brioche for breakfast.
Short on time? Check out Creative Edge Travel’s coffee chat featuring all the content on this blog post!
WHY KNOWING THE LOCAL WAY OF LIFE MATTERS
We travel to experience a new culture, a new way of life. Right? If you’re carrying your same habits from home over to Italy and you’re stuck on certain comforts being exactly the same as you have them at home, your experience is going to be a lot less meaningful than if you’re opening up to the local culture and letting the locals around you lead the way. Every trip has a trail of beautiful surprises hidden along the way, and it’s up to you to take the time to find them. It helps so much to have the guidance of an Italy expert who can give you the heads up so you don’t miss out. To discover the authentic side of Italy, book a trip with Creative Edge Travel and follow Sierra on Facebook and Instagram.
Sierra Busch grew up in the mountains of north Georgia in the United States. Her favorite workouts happen in salsa clubs, she’s addicted to gelato, and she’s never truly happy unless the mountains are less than an hour away. She studied Fine Art and Business before moving to New York City to follow her artistic passions. Shortly after, she transitioned into the travel industry, working for top boutique agencies in NYC and Europe before founding Creative Edge Travel in 2017. She loves helping others experience Italy’s far-flung places, fading traditions, and phenomenal nature through genuine connection with locals. Sierra has more than a decade of solo travel experience, from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana to the jaw-dropping mountains of Albania and the tiniest villages of Italy. Through her work, she aims to help the world become a place that respects and protects the wisdom held within the roots of its cultures. Her interest in sustainable tourism, cultural conservation, and genuine connection form the base of every travel experience she creates. You can find her painting and cooking on the weekends or heading out for the nearest adventure!
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👉 What Italian coffee are you looking to try on your next trip? Any regional specialties we missed? Strike up a conversation in the comments below.
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I remember being so confused when we stepped into a bar for coffee in Italy! We eventually figured it out by people watching: pay at the back of the front room first, waiting to jump into bar space when someone left, give barista your ticket, stand there and enjoy.
I felt bad though cause it was so crowded I felt like it would been courteous to take our drinks and step aside for the next person to get their order in. But like Sierra mentioned, it’s a small cup so it didn’t take too long.
Haha exactly! I felt the same way when walking into my first cafe too but I really love the efficiency. Being from the east coast, we tend to do things fast paced too so it was nice to just get my ritual espresso and cornetto in the morning before rushing off to classes when I studied abroad in Italy. Thank you for sharing!
I really liked the Ginsing, it’s good that someone was able to explain it.
Interesting article Sierra! Italy is the spiritual home of coffee. Will definitely try the specialty recipes you’ve shared! Try cinnamon and a hint of caramel in cold brew coffee. It’s out of this world!