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How to Order Coffee in Italy Without Looking Like a Clueless Foreigner

To be fair, you'll probably still look like a foreigner, but maybe not clueless.

Caffè Florian in Venice where Lord Byron and Goethe used to get their joe on.

There are seven different types of Italian coffee, more or less, and knowing what (and how) to order is a big part of navigating the waters in this country.

Earlier this week in “The Fine Art of Sitting Outside in Perfect Weather and Drinking Coffee,” I illustrated some key differences between American coffee culture versus the one enjoyed in Italy. For starters, coffee is consumed in America as a legal drug, one meant to keep your eyes open during interminable Zoom meetings or those two-hour conversations with Aunt Judy who monologues so endlessly, you’re tempted to put the phone down, walk away, and come back later after a nap. In Italy, coffee is drunk for its effect, yes, but also its ritual, pleasure, and opportunity to socialize. That’s why I want you to be able to walk inside any bar in any city or village in Italy and feel perfectly at home. One important distinction: in the United States, a bar is a place where alcohol is served. In Italy, a bar serves alcohol, yes, but it also serves coffee, sandwiches, and snacks. At some bars, you can top up your phone, purchase bus or train tickets, or even play the lottery. It pays to be flexible. Everywhere you go, you are an ambassador for your country. The impression you leave on the locals is one they layer into a confusing jumble of similar impressions of “Americans,” which is why good manners are essential. Don’t ask for a coffee menu or scan the walls for one. You kind of have to know what you want before you walk in. Without further ado, let’s talk coffee. Cappuccino (KAP-poo-cheen-o)

Clearly, the coffee drink most beloved by us here at Cappuccino is this one, and it is a substantially built beverage: ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk and ⅓ foam. Good digestion is a national obsession here, which is why Italians rarely drink cappuccino after 11AM. Not me. I will shamelessly order a cappuccino at any time of the day or night because they’re that tasty. And no, I’ve never had trouble digesting. The milk acts as a nice buffer, coating the stomach so it can handle the espresso. Marocchino (mah-ro-KEE-no)

There’s nothing you can get at a Starbucks that begins to compare to the perfection of the marocchino. Imagine, if you will, an unholy congress of foam, espresso, and cacao powder in a glass mug that’s been cunningly dusted with cocoa powder. Sometimes hot chocolate is mixed in with the espresso and the fluffy layer of foam poured on top. On a cold winter’s morning, this is a beverage you want sitting in front of you while you read the Corriere della Sera or La Repubblica and complain about the government. Complaining is important. It’s what makes you a real Italian. Caffè latte (kaf-FAY-LAHt-tay)

Here’s another coffee drink that most Italians order before 11AM but not after, and it’s not entirely dissimilar to a cappuccino, although in this girl’s considered opinion, half as tasty. Same ingredients, different denominations. A caffè latte consists of 1/3 espresso, 2/3 heated milk, with a small island of foam floating on top. Me, I gotta have the foam, which is why I prefer a cappuccino. Sometimes after I’m finished drinking one, I’ll scoop out the foam with a spoon and eat it. Can’t leave that foam. It’s not right. Shakerato (shay-kuh-RAH-to)

This is the coffee drink you order during Italy’s long hot summer months. It’s an iced coffee with a velvety foam cap that will make your toes curl. Why? Think: chilled espresso poured over ice and shaken like a James Bond martini with a generous hit of sugar. Hello, tasty goodness. Caffè (kahf-FAY)

This is need-to-know information here, so be sure to remember it. If you walk into an Italian bar and order “un caffè,” they won’t bring you a big cup of American brewed coffee. They will bring you a tiny cup of espresso. There’s no such thing as a cup of brewed coffee in Italy. Also, there’s no such thing as big. Coffees come in one size: Italian. Caffè corretto (kahf-FAY cor-RET-to)

Now we’re getting into “Mommy’s special drink” territory since corretto means a shot of espresso with a shot of liquor. Most Italians choose cognac, grappa, or sambucca, but no one is going to give you the stink eye if you order a different kind of alcohol. If it’s stink eye you’re looking for, feel free to drink coffee in France. Macchiato (ma-kee-YAH-to)

The macchiato is to a cappuccino what Skipper is to Barbie: a smaller version of itself. There’s espresso, yes, but only a bare minimum of hot milk and very little foam. I feel cheated when I have a macchiato. Why settle for a macchiato when it’s so easy to ask for what you really want, which is a cappuccino or a shakerato? And there you go—everything you need to know about ordering coffee in Italy. I’ll be honest. Italian coffee has ruined me for anything else. When I go back to the States, I’m always in a horrible dither trying to find a decent cup, sometimes driving twenty miles out of my way to have one. It changes you, Italy does. You’ll never be Italian, but you’re not 100% American anymore either. But nothing will keep me from drinking—and appreciating—Italian coffee.

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