Thanks to Starbucks, Americans have been drinking Caffè Latte since 1984. But our coffee drinking practices do not translate well into the – er, snobbish – Italian coffee culture.
Featured photo: Coffee and beans, photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash. Reference: (b-6).
Italian Coffee Culture
According to Howard Schultz, during his travels in Italy in 1983, the coffee bars of Milan inspired him to experiment with coffeehouses in the USA. A year later, Starbucks’ Caffè Latte was born, and America’s coffee culture was never the same again. Today, ubiquitous Starbucks coffee shops keep the caffeine flowing in our veins to keep us awake, energized, and engaged.
When Americans began to travel in large numbers to Italy, many met with consternation a very different, sophisticated – and sometimes snobbish – Italian coffee culture. While other European cultures are more forgiving, Italians are very particular about coffee-making techniques, as well as how and when the beverage is served.
Unfortunately, we’ve abbreviated Caffè Latte to just Latte. Consequently, we have heard of many anecdotes where someone wanted coffee and got a glass of warm milk instead (“latte” is Italian for milk). Then there’s the incident of a diner being admonished for ordering a cappuccino after his lunch meal. Or a waiter shaking his head while a tourist orders iced coffee.
Without going into technicalities, here ‘s a cheatsheet of basic coffee drinks you can easily order with confidence at Italian coffee bars:
Hot Caffè, Black
- If you order caffè [kaf-FE], you will get a one-ounce shot of pure, strong espresso in a tiny demitasse cup. This is the default coffee in Italy. It’s the breakfast beverage, and is also drank at all times of the day. At home, Italians prepare caffè via a Bialetti espresso maker (or moka pot) on top of a stove. If you want sugar in your coffee, ask for “Lo zucchero per favore” [lo ZUK-ke-ro per fa-vo-reh]. If you like milk in your coffee, see the next section.
- If a one-ounce drink of coffee is too little for you, order a doppio [DOP-pio] – a two-ounce shot of espresso.
- If you really want to wake up, order a purer, more concentrated caffè, the ristretto [ris-TRET-to], which is the first 75% extraction of espresso.
- If you want a slightly milder espresso, get a caffè lungo[kaf-FE LOONG-go] coffee that’s processed longer since an ounce more water is drawn through the same amount of coffee beans used in one espresso.
- Want it more diluted like brewed coffee in the US? Then order caffè Americano which is about half a cup of hot water added to a shot of espresso.
Caffè With a Little or a Lot of Milk
If you are a regular Starbucks consumer, don’t make the mistake of ordering latte in Italy, or you’ll get a glass of pure milk! If you like milk in your coffee, specify:
- Caffè macchiato [kaf-FE mak-ki-YA-to] – espresso “marked” with just a tiny bit of frothy milk. Warning – this is NOT the same as Starbuck’s Caramel Macchiato.
- Cappuccino [kap-pu-CHIN-o] – usually equal amounts of espresso, hot milk and froth. Often, it’s served in a clear glass cup to display the resulting layers of liquid.
- Caffè latte[kaf-FE LAT-teh] – a lot of hot milk with a shot of espresso as in Starbucks’ “latte”. Italians rarely order this concoction.
- Macchiato latte [mak-ki-YA-to LAT-teh] – a glass of milk that is “marked” with espresso. Usually, a tall glass of milk is served beside a demitasse containing a shot of espresso – you would then pour your preferred amount of espresso into the glass of milk. While I was in Ravenna, some Swiss friends introduced me to this beverage and I loved it! I learned that this is how Italian children are gradually introduced to coffee drinking.
Is it summer and too hot for coffee? Then order caffè freddo [kaf-FE fred-do] – espresso that’s been chilled in the fridge. Or caffè shakerato [kaf-FE sha-ke-RA-to] – an espresso into which ice is added, but no more than 4-5 pieces. It is then sweetened and shaken till the ice disappears before it is served to the customer.
Caffè Drinking Tips for Travelers
- If you want your coffee cheap, order and drink it at the bar – do not sit down at a table as this will add 30-50% to your bill.
- There is no such thing as coffee “to-go” – you must savor the coffee while at the bar. I have never seen a paper cup, big or small, in an Italian coffee bar.
- As I mentioned earlier, Italians frown upon consuming milk-infused coffees after lunch. (Well, but I do this all the time -my love for cappuccino beats the risk of being identified as a tourist!)
- Don’t ask for or expect solid ice in your cold coffee – Italians just won’t do it.
For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.
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