When traveling in Italy, or dining in Italian restaurants, unsuspecting Americans can easily become confused or be misunderstood by well-intentioned waiters or baristas (yes, barista is an Italian term we’ve co-opted) when they order what they think is a simple cup of coffee. Since August is Coffee Month, we wanted to show you how to enjoy coffee in style, as the Italians do.[relaed]
For our guide, we chose the folks at one of our favorite, authentic Italian dining spots in the Washington, D.C. area, Carluccio’s — located in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. They have brought a little taste of Italy to our nation’s capital and shared the not-so-secret rules and traditions tied to ordering and drinking il caffè like a local.
In Italy, non si vive di solo pane, one does not live by bread alone, or coffee, and Italians take their coffee very seriously. Whether it be equipment and tools used to prepare coffee to the types of beans, roasting methods, ways to order coffee in a bar or café, or how and when it’s served, there are customs that go back decades and even centuries.
One phrase you should learn and memorize is, “Prendiamo un caffè?” This means, “Fancy a coffee?” Daytime, or nighttime, caffè, which always refers to espresso, is on the menu—but not first thing in the morning (we cover that later). Although waiters and baristas use the term, it’s only when presenting your caffè as in, “un espresso per la signora," an espresso for the lady.
Un caffè, unless specified differently, is always served in a single shot in a tiny porcelain tazzina cup with a porcelain saucer. And if properly served, the cup will have been warmed before the caffè was poured, the cup will sit atop a saucer, and will arrive on a tray with water (to cleanse your palate before or after your caffè), sometimes with a slice of lemon, but never with sugar; sugar just isn’t added to espresso.
Moka and Cappuccino Starts the Day
Unlike Americans who love a jolt of caffeine first thing in the a.m., Italians prefer to greet the day gently with a traditional cup of moka, which is a slightly lighter style of coffee. Moka is made with a blend of Arabica beans blended with a small amount of Robusta beans and brewed quickly at waking. Many Italians prefer their moka prepared with a macchinetta or moka pot, and this iconic silver, aluminum pot is still popular for morning coffee because it makes rich, creamy coffee in just minutes. It was designed and manufactured by the Bialetti company in 1933 and is now found in kitchens around the globe.
Americans adore cappuccino, which is an espresso topped with steamed, frothy milk in a large tazza, or porcelain cup, but it’s not as widely served in Italy. Ordering a cappuccino after 12 p.m. is one sure way let everyone know you are a tourist in Italy because Italians only drink cappuccino in the morning.
Un Caffè Carries the Day
On their way to work, often at 10 a.m. for a break, or even after lunch, you can find Italians standing, or sitting, at bars, small places that specialize in il caffè, while sipping caffè that has been poured into a tiny warm cup to preserve the crema and flavor. You also won’t have to worry about being scalded by your caffè in Italy as often happens here because it’s customary to serve caffè warm so you can enjoy the aromas and flavors.
Larger does not mean better in Italy so if you must have your caffè in quantity, you can order un caffè doppio, or a double, but this just isn’t done in Italy. Italians prefer to order exceptional coffee in small doses and savor each delicious drop, as in un caffè macchiato. In Italian, macchiare means to stain. This espresso is served in a demitasse porcelain cup with a tiny bit of frothed hot milk but no foam and it’s popular everywhere in the afternoon.
Post Supper Pleasantry
Don’t bother looking for caramel-, chocolate-, or vanilla-laced coffee. Italians don’t flavor their coffee and they don’t serve it with dessert. Italians finish their meal with caffè and from time to time enjoy a caffè corretto, literally a corrected espresso after supper. Flavored with a bit of Grappa, Amaretto, Sambuca, or other lovely liqueur after supper — the spirits in the liqueur make coffee a wonderful digestivo.
When traveling in Italy, you may see familiar coffee terms you recognize from coffeehouses in the United States. To prevent confusion, here are some terms you may want to learn:
Un caffè latte — similar to a cappuccino, but weaker, with more milk
Un latte — cold or hot milk
Un latte macchiato — hot or cold milk with a drop of coffee
Un marocchino — a macchiato with a dusting of cocoa powder or finely shaved chocolate
Un Genovese — a miniature cappuccino served in a tazzina
We have sophisticated Renaissance diners to thank for the concept of dining as un divertimento, and from that came the enjoyment of well-made caffè, la ringrazio molto Italia!