10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Coffee Culture in Italy

Before I Came to Italy

Italian coffee is deemed one of the best in the world and boy do they wear that badge with honor. Right up there next to pizza and pasta, coffee is one of the things Italy is most renowned for and has become a point of reference for coffee excellence in the world.

But what many people don’t realize before visiting Italy for the first time is the extensive culture that surrounds coffee in Italy. And by people, I mean me. I totally mean me. With typical coffee shop giants like Starbucks as my only frame of reference for coffee, I made MANYYY of the typical “mistakes that tourists make when it comes to coffee in Italy – the “coffee culture” shocks were so real.

So here are 10 things I wish I’d known about coffee culture in Italy BEFORE I came to Italy, so you can go into the land of espresso way more prepared than I was.

1. Coffee = Espresso and Espresso = Caffè

Starting off strong with the main thing to remember when ordering a coffee in Italy for the first time: if you see “Caffè” (coffee) anywhere on a menu, it means Espresso, not American coffee. If you’re longing for an American coffee, ask for a “Caffè Americano”, which is espresso with just hot water added.

Going off of that, the word “Espresso” isn’t super commonly used when ordering coffee – instead, it’s more common to simply ask for “un caffè” (a coffee).

2. “Bars” are a place to get coffee

The first time I came to Italy, I kept wondering why there were so many bars everywhere and why in the world they all were so busy at 10am. I knew the drinking culture in Italy was relaxed but was it really THAT relaxed?!

Don’t fret – bars in Italy are not the same as “bars” elsewhere in the world. While you CAN get alcohol at a bar, their main purpose throughout the day is for coffee. Around Aperitivo time though, you can expect to find people enjoying an Aperol Spritz and light bites at a bar before typically closing around 9pm.

3. Lattes Don’t Exist

This one is always the funniest to mention due to the sheer amount of people that have told me their stories of ordering a latte in Italy and in return receiving a nice, cold glass of milk.

“Latte” means “milk” in Italian, so if you ask for a “Latte”, you will literally get a glass of milk. Sometimes I feel like bars in Italy know that if a foreigner asks for a “latte” they don’t mean this, but yet they get a kick out of it so they do it anyway. Regardless, if you love milk in your coffee and want something similar, trying ordering a “Caffe Latte” – an espresso with milk.

4. Coffees are small and quick

Something that I find a lot of tourists to be surprised about is how small the coffees are in Italy. “But surely that’s not enough!”. Wrong 😉

Traditional coffee in Italy is just the pure espresso, instead of adding water to it to soften it. As a result, the portions are smaller because the coffee is stronger, and drinking your coffee from start to finish usually takes less than 5 minutes, especially when it’s the morning and people are rushing to school or work.

5. Stand at the Bar and Drink

Like I mentioned above, coffees are meant to be small and quick affair in Italy. Typically Italians stand right there at the bar, drink their coffee quickly, and then they’re on their way – the whole affair takes less than 5 minutes. Because of this, while to-go coffees have become more common due to COVID, taking a coffee to-go is still not a common thing to do. It doesn’t quite make sense to take a coffee to-go when in reality it’ll only take you 3 or 4 sips to finish it in the first place.

Something to be aware of however is that at many cafes or bars located in bigger city centers, there’s a drastic price difference depending on if you choose to sit down at a table where there’s table service – an espresso that costs 1€ at the bar can easily cost you 5€ sitting down.

The idea of sitting outside a little Italian café and people-watching while sipping your coffee can be alluring, but just be aware if someone is bringing the coffee to you it’s likely going to be more expensive.

6. “Creamer” does not exist

I hate to break it to you, but you won’t find your favorite French Vanilla creamer here in Italy (can you tell what I used to drink my coffee with before moving to Italy?). In fact, it’s rare to find any sort of cream to add to your coffee here, even in a grocery store. Italians typically only use milk if they want to soften the taste of the coffee.

As for plant-based milks, while it isn’t impossible to find them in bars that are located in the bigger, more touristy cities, they are still rare for a bar in Italy to have. I’ve commonly found almond or soy milk to be the most common milk-alternative bars will have. Best advice – just ask your barista if they have any they can offer you.

7. Cappuccinos only before 11am

This one is common knowledge in Italy, and typically how Italians can spot tourists right away: its customary to only order cappuccino before 11am in the morning, and to never ever EVER drink cappuccino with lunch or dinner.

The reasoning behind it is that because cappuccinos contain a lot of milk, they’re too “heavy” to be drank after morning time. Of course, you can do and drink whatever you want at whatever time of day you want, but just be prepared that ordering one outside of the Italian accepted time frame may lead to some confused looks. However, if you’re someone who loves milk in your coffee and really can’t do espresso, try ordering a “Caffe Macchiato” – it still has milk in it, but less than a cappuccino so it’s acceptable to drink at any time of the day.

If I’m being honest though…I still drink cappuccinos in the afternoon sometimes. I really love cappuccinos. Like a lot.

8. Coffee is Cheap!

When I first came to Italy, I was expecting the coffee to be comparable to the price of a cup of coffee in NYC where I’m from – boy was I wrong. A regular espresso typically costs between 0.80€-1.10€ – I think the highest I’ve seen an espresso go for is 1.70€, and that was because we were having a coffee in a world-renowned bar smack-dab in the middle of a city center. Even more complex, “fancy” drinks (as I like to call them) like cappuccinos and macchiatos don’t typically cost more than 2€.

9. Iced Coffee doesn’t exist

I know. I was sad about this one too. Because Italian coffee is traditionally small and quick, large American-style iced coffees just don’t exist here. However, while you won’t find typical “American” iced coffee here, if you’re in the mood for a cold coffee try ordering a “Caffe Shakerato”, which is a very creamy, cold drink typically served in a martini glass. In the south (and sometimes the north) of Italy, “Caffe Freddo” is also incredibly popular to find in bars, which is essentially a coffee slushie. Yum.

10. When in Doubt? Just Ask!

If there’s anything I’ve learned since living in Italy, it’s that Italians are kind, good people. While you should definitely try to immerse yourself in Italian culture as much as you can, if you were hoping to have something specific – just ask. You may need to describe what the drink is, and it may not be EXACTLY like what you’re used to, but in my experience Italian bars are happy to try and make the drink you’d like if they’re able to. Just maybe not like the “Pink Drink” from Starbucks. Maybe you don’t ask an Italian barista to make that 😉

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